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Freeze Reactions in Autism: Recognize the Signs

Updated: Jun 7, 2020

In addition to the fight and flight reactions we have already covered, freeze reactions are also common in autism. Other terms to describe this type of reaction may be that the individual shuts down, tunes out, or has a staring spell when overwhelmed.

This would be the case when an autistic individual is physically present but mentally shut down. In mild instances the person may appear to tune out, while in more severe reactions he may seem "locked inside himself" for hours. These might be called "spells" by those around them. Let's consider some examples:

1. Staring

E.g., An autistic young woman was planning to attend a collegiate rodeo competition to watch her favorite athletes compete in the breakaway roping competition. When her parents broke the news that their vehicle wouldn't start, she began rocking forward and backward, murmuring to herself. Soon after, she remained still in the dining room chair but stared at the wall for an hour, not responding to her family.

2. Losing Words

E.g., An ASD gentleman was eating dinner with his wife when she brought up a sore spot between them. Her voice began to elevate, and she repetitively challenged him to explain why he didn't finish something she had needed him to finish. As he remained silent, she became more escalated, trying to push for some kind of engagement and answer from him (i.e., elevating her town to "chase him" down and make him engage). He stopped eating and turned toward her. He shrugged his shoulders a few times and started to say something but never responded meaningfully. It was if his mind had gone completely blank, and he couldn't find words to actually engage with her.

3. Losing Memory

E.g., A 19 year old autistic college student had to give a speech in order to fulfill a required course assignment. The stress of being observed by others was so intense that he completed the assignment but later had no memory of that entire day. It was as if his memory stores had disconnected during the traumatic experience, even though he was able to complete the assignment while "on automatic."

These reactions in the autistic can sometimes be concerning for a medical event, when in fact they are common forms of "disconnecting" during trauma or stress. For the autistic individual, when daily life feels overwhelming, the freeze reaction may occur.

Some individuals "lean toward" flight and freeze, avoiding fight unless there is absolutely no recourse left. For example, sometimes I work with clients who are described as always having been very quiet and nonconfrontational, only to have shown fairly severe recent outbursts. When we really delve through their background, there were many signs of dysregulation in the past, but they were "quiet" episodes. Recently, the individuals had been prevented from using the more quiet "disconnect" strategies and therefore exploded into a fight reaction.

Helping individuals on the spectrum understand their "go-to" reactions can help them "self-monitor" (i.e., notice their own reactions) and learn the most effective strategies.

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Is there a name for this "freezing" behavior? I believe a clinician told me a term for it once.

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