Burnout? Shutdown? Selectively mute? These three terms get used quite a bit in the autistic community, but we can get confused on when to use which and what each term means on its own.
There is considerable overlap between burnouts, shutdowns, and selective mutism. These terms are often used for when an autistic people have fled inward. We may have “gone cold,” “grown unresponsive,” or “disappeared.” Each experience is unique and may require particular care.
1) Burnout. This experience occurs when an autistic person has gone far, far too long without having their needs met. We may have masked our traits, repressed stims, over-socialized, or run ourselves ragged at work or school. After months or years of these overwhelming efforts, we may crumble. Burnout usually includes a loss of executive functioning skills, as well as depression & anxiety. We may feel confined to our beds, unable to cook, work, or bathe. This state can last for days, months, or years, depending on the accessibility of supports.
2) Shutdown. Often referred to as an internalized meltdown, shutdowns can feel like a fistfight but on the inside. Imagine the devastation of a meltdown. Now, think of how that might feel if left unexpressed. Sometimes, when autistic people are overloaded, we escape within ourselves. The intensity of unspoken emotions can cause a nearly catatonic state. That may look like sleeping for long hours (when we’re actually awake) or going selectively mute in a social situation. It may take hours for autistic people to return from a shutdown, and when we do, we may be exhausted.
3) Selective mutism. First, selective mutism isn’t a choice. Autistic people don’t select when to go mute. The mutism selects times to show up! While selective mutism may come up during burnouts & shutdowns, it can also occur on its own. Basically, an autistic person will be unable to speak, or speaking will become painful. If forced to talk, we may melt or shutdown. Even so, we may have needs to be met that we can’t vocalize, which requires those around us to be receptive to nonspeaking communication.