What are the differences between an autistic shutdown, autistic burnout and a common (but less defined, and rarely discussed) dynamic in neurodiverse marriage – the autistic shut out?
What is an autistic shutdown?
An autistic shutdown in is a short-term reaction to overwhelm. Perhaps the autistic individual has masked for an extended period of time, been exposed to sensory overload, or experienced highly stressful circumstances (conflict, an exhaustive social engagement, aversive obligations, a high-demand work environment, relational difficulties, emotional deluge from shame or anxiety, etc.). It might be merely one factor or several stressors that culminate in an autistic shutdown. To cope, an ASD individual might retreat into sleep, withdraw from sensory stimulation (require reduced light and noise), seek out proprioceptive input (a weighted blanket with ‘deep pressure’ to joints and body), or be non-communicative. The duration of an autistic shutdown is brief – an ASD individual might be back to baseline functioning within hours, or possibly a few days at most.
Autistic burnout is a long-term state of exhaustion, with significantly impacted daily functioning, loss of skills (cognition, speech, self-control, executive functioning), and heightened sensitivity to sensory stimulation. The ASD individual’s nervous system is overloaded, and their body and mind must reset (due to the cumulative effect of all the same reasons that lead to autistic shutdown). Autistic burnout can last for weeks or months. ASD individuals experiencing burnout often need a leave of absence from work or school in order to recover from the collective stressors of daily life in a neurotypical world. They struggle with basic self-care, exist in a constant state of fatigue, and rarely leave their bed. Their capacity for non-essential communication is severely limited, and stimming more often than usual may occur in hopes of self-soothing.
A third type of autistic withdrawal exists, and is frequently seen in neurodiverse marriages. Many times, neurotypical wives will misattribute autistic shutdown to their ASD spouse. In coaching, I will hear how about shutdowns that “last for months.” Yet their spouse is still successfully working, communicating with children and colleagues, practicing typical self-care (showering at their usual rate of frequency, eating regularly, etc.), engaging in their special interest, and capable of productivity – especially if it serves their own interest. There is no loss of cognitive skills. But, when it comes to communicating with his wife, cooperating with requests or routine expectations (especially those that benefit her directly), or spending time together – the ASD spouse is is absent, resistant, unwilling and uninterested.
What does an autistic shut out look like in a neurodiverse marriage?
I refer to long-term withdrawal in neurodiverse marriages as an “autistic shut out.” What might initially begin as a legitimate autistic shutdown (usually after marital conflict, or overwhelm from the expectations of family life and marriage), devolves into an intentional withholding of cooperation, communication and problem-solving. This is not to say there there is a total absence of overwhelm when he thinks about re-engaging, but other factors are present which remove his behavior from wholly being an issue of lacking capacity.
Essentially, an autistic shut out is long-term, sustained stonewalling. It is an intentional act of withholding communication and indulging in a posture of avoidance, neglect or punishment. The ASD spouse and his neurotypical wife may be at an impasse in one way or another, whether through conflict, disagreement, or a difference in expectations. It might even be that the neurotypical wife has no idea what precipitated the withdrawal. (Often, she eventually learns that there is a longstanding resentment on his part.)
Characteristics of an ASD shut out from an autistic husband in a ND marriage:
- An antecedent: this can be one incident or a buildup of circumstances (typically, a disagreement or conflict with spouse, and/or anger and resentment toward family or marriage-related expectations)
- Possibly an initial autistic shutdown (as described above), but a resuming of baseline functioning (with the exception of spousal interaction)
- Sustained evasion of communication, cooperation or problem-solving
- Attitude consisting of one or more of the following toward her: 1) detachment and disinterest 2) contempt and resentment 3) believing himself to be victimized by his wife 4) showing zero urgency to resolve the conflict or bend his position
- Rigid inflexibility in his belief of being “right”
- Resistant and/or withholding of perspective-taking, despite the wife repeatedly attempting to explain herself and her viewpoint
- Oppositional and defiant toward communication attempts
- Excessively demand avoidant to the requests of wife
- Silence directed toward spouse, but not others
- Purposely indulging his special interest to the neglect of family life
- Ignoring his regular duties around the home or in regard to parenting
- Partaking in extra rest or relaxation, especially if it’s apparent his wife is bothered
- Seemingly content with the air of tension in the home, even as it stretches on for weeks or months
- Might put on a show of being extra kind toward everyone but his neurotypical wife
- May treat her as an object – avoiding eye contact, silently stepping around her, etc.
When a disagreement precipitates the autistic shut out, the neurotypical wife may naturally express her hurt or anger. If she is quiet in response to her hurt, then he may mirror her (though being quiet after conflict could be his natural inclination as well). Later, he may blame her for his sustained stonewalling by claiming “she started the silent treatment” – even if she has tried many times to communicate with him after the initial period of quiet. If she reacts to their disagreement with tears, a raised voice or other emotionalism, he may later blame her reaction as a means to justify his silence and stonewalling. She was “too crazy,” “too out of control.” Either way, from his perspective – usually she is to blame for his autistic shut out.
How does an autistic shut out impact the neurotypical wife?
It’s difficult for those not in a neurodiverse marriage to conceptualize what it is like to be stonewalled and withheld from for days or even months on end. To have her most intimate relationship be one of silence. Already existing in a baseline of daily emotional deprivation from her spouse’s mind-blindness, and possibly alexithymia, the neurotypical wife now has to contend with his purposeful neglect. His inability to connect with her intuitively is painful on a regular basis, but realizing that he is contentedly withholding from her – as a means to control, avoid and/or punish – is often a devastating emotional blow to the neurotypical wife. She may be conditioned to believe that his tendency to emotionally disengage is due to lack of capability, and struggle to accept that this stonewalling and inflexibility is not solely due to autistic confusion. Eventually, she may come to discover that he prefers to be in control more than he prefers to experience harmony with his wife. Maintaining a sense of control is empowering to him, soothes his anxiety and – withholding from her is often a dopamine hit of pleasure to his brain. He’s found a way to avoid difficult conversations that involve puzzling emotions, excuse his lack of involvement in family life (leaving more time for a special interest or relaxation), and punish his adversary in a passive aggressive manner. All while feeling quite justified due to his black and white, inflexible reasoning.
Additionally, autistic shut outs impact the neurotypical wife by setting off a frenzy of desperation to understand his behavior, especially if it’s one of the first occurrences. She takes on the tremendous emotional labor of trying to pin down exactly what went wrong and how it could have been handled differently, in addition to attempting repeated efforts at reconciling. Yet he resists, further confusing her and possibly sending her into despair. Wives will ask me – but how can they not want to resolve the conflict? Because the standoff creates his ideal environment! No emotional interaction until he decides to resume conversation – which is possibly being withheld until she gives up what she needs (thereby solving any need to compromise); suspension of his relationship obligations; more time for his special interest; avoidance of his participation in family life or chores with what he considers a legitimate excuse.
I am often asked – where is the line in marriage between merely autistic behavior, and abuse? Is an autistic shut out considered abusive? Is it neglectful? It’s my belief that autistic behavior becomes abusive when the ASD partner willfully persists in doing what he’s been made aware is harmful to his wife. Not just hurtful, but harmful. He is married to a neurotypical woman, and a neurotypical wife cannot thrive in a relationship where basic communication and tenderness is withheld. And neurodiverse or not, any relationship that has a vindictive pattern of intentionally punishing or harming the other person emotionally or otherwise is toxic. The NT wife naturally makes many, many accommodations for her ASD spouse. While he may find his autistic manner to be acceptable and justified, the reality is that marriage involves two people. Morally and ethically, intentional harm toward someone else is unacceptable – and should be even more so when directed toward a life partner.
Lastly, we have to consider what character and integrity issues are at play when a spouse’s requests for communication, cooperation, emotional regulation and problem-solving are routinely ignored. An autistic spouse must cultivate willingness. A willingness to practice flexibility in his thinking and behavior, even if it does not come naturally. A willingness to stay accountable to the commitment he entered into with his wife at the time of marriage.