You precious little (or big) person with autism takes off to their safe space, that you lovingly created for them, in the middle of a discussion. They turn off entirely. They will not look in your direction or speak to you. They might hear you, but you have no way of knowing. This goes on for minutes or hours. They finally emerge, and ask for a hug. Or not to be touched. And maybe, now, they continue the conversation. You tread lightly, not wanting to set off whatever caused the silence.
We hear the phrase, "silent treatment" often. It is a misnomer when discussing those with processing difficulties. What we tag as "silent treatment" is truly their need to process in silence. They are not attacking us by refusing to speak. They are taking the time they need to assess the words and feelings expressed. People with autism usually need more time to process feelings. It is a misconception that they don't understand them. In my experience, those with autism understand and express emotion more deeply than those without. Those of us without just don't take the time to watch it. Will has always been intense with his feelings, but has to be coaxed into understanding others'. Leigh, my husband, has always picked up on others' feelings, but doesn't express his own very well, or often. When I tell him my feelings, he has to think and process. His support doesn't come out immediately.
I learned the hard way that attempting to push either Will or Leigh into talking to me was a horrible idea. Will shut down longer. Leigh shut down longer. I learned this far faster with Will than with Leigh. In fact, I still struggle when Leigh shuts down. Even if he tells me he needs time, I still think he should be ready sooner than he is. This is an area I still need to work on. I need to recognize that Leigh isn't ignoring me intentionally. He is processing and figuring out his feelings and needs, and I need to graciously allow the time for him to do so. When he is ready to talk, we always have productive conversations that lead to resolution. When the situation is tense, though, he struggles to achieve that easily.
We are starting therapy soon. Mostly for Leigh, but I am sure our marriage and my own mental health will be helped as well. We need to learn more about how to talk with each other even after 18 years!