The other day I had an incident that resulted in autistic shutdown. You know how your computer sometimes needs turning off and on again? That. In fact my computer has had sympathy pains today while I've been dealing with shutdown. Not now Macintosh! Blergh.
What is shutdown?
Autistic shutdown affects people in different ways. For me there's usually a series of events that lead into it. Argument. Tension. Stress. Deadline. The need to make a decision about a trivial matter which is somehow now a life or death decision and I have little information but "I need an answer now Peter!" I need to run away but I can't. So I remain in the situation and that makes it worse for all involved. I become more insular, more stuck and others get more annoyed. Rinse and repeat. For me there's an inability to see the way out of a situation that causes me to stop.
In TV drama terms it could be 2 friends having a heated discussion over paying for something and there's a clock ticking down before something else needs to be done. Normal people would argue. Someone would snap. They'd both walk away frustrated and angry. "You choose! I don't care." ... "You do it. I don't care!" Generally on TV you don't see one person stop or glitch because they cannot process anything anymore. You might see a meltdown on TV more than a shutdown because it's more dramatic to watch.
I generally go non-verbal and I'm reduced to basic functionality. Cognitive abilities are offline. I can't make decisions. I can't think clearly. It's possible I could do the dishes but I couldn't build something from Ikea. I'm going through the motions. I'm on autopilot. After a few hours I'll be able to manage yes / no answers to things. A day or two, yeah a day or two, later and I'm my old self.
What does this look like to others? It looks like I'm a moody man child basically. From a Neuro-typical perspective I'm being an arse and not shrugging it off. People generally don't like it if I have autistic shutdown. Of course most of mine have been pre-diagnosis so it's understandable that people would see me as being a bit of an arse.
These events can be traumatic. I remember most of them in great detail. My brain throws them up every now and then to obsess over. Stupid brain. Why can't I remember all those hours spent playing Commodore 64 games instead?
I do wonder if they are a form of bottleneck caused by an inability to deal with a moment? Something happens that causes sensory overload and I shutdown. Am I still in that moment? So the only way to resolve it is by going back to it and working through it with those involved? Is that a viable solution? Doubtful.
How to cope?
Think of it like getting caught in the rain. You can prep for it if you know it is coming. Sometimes you get caught in the rain and you have to deal with that. Sometimes I'll shutdown in response to a situation that shouldn't be complex but is for me. I guess it comes back to acceptance. This is a part of my life. I need to give my self a moment to breathe and accept that it's something that will pass. Of course it's horrible at the time and of course it's impossible to emotionally accept what my brain is trying to tell me is a logical reaction to external forces. It will pass though.
It's not depression so normal anti-depression techniques don't work. I'm not hearing my brain tell me bad thoughts or that I'm a worthless useless person who couldn't take a good photo to save my life. My fun music playlist isn't working because that's designed to put me in a good mood. This isn't a mood issue. It is hard to put into words but I know it is not depression. I tried a Headspace app edition session for stress. It tells me what I know already. Breathe. Acknowledge thoughts. Breathe. Let the thoughts have their moment and then sit them down over there so you can get back to breathing. It doesn't help.
Writing can help. Sometimes. It's taken me most of the day to write 700 words but I'm feeling better for organising some thoughts. As a photographer I don't feel like there's anything I can do with my camera to help. At least it hasn't yet. Maybe if I could be instantly transported to a wonderful forrest in early morning light with some mist or a mountain in the clouds. But I can't and I can't function well enough to get there. So I write a little and it helps... a little.
An environment conductive to recovery is also important. If you have a safe space you can go to do so. If I was having a migraine I would curl up in bed, curtains drawn, lights off and I would try to sleep through it. That is a physical health issue that has medicine to help. Shutdown is a mental health issue that for me has no medicine to help but needs the same level of respect to resolve it. So make sure you have a safe space you can go to. You may feel the need to reduce sensory input or stim with your favourite stim toys. I don't have a weighted blanket but I hear good things about them.
I use noise cancelling headphones and sometimes set the same song on repeat. It's almost like the familiar patterns are comforting in a way. I don't want an album to listen to. I want a pattern of music to block the world out.
Do remember that you shouldn't feel ashamed, guilty or responsible for this. You wouldn't if you got a migraine.
Take the time you need. It will pass.
- Ask an Autistic #20 - What are Autistic Shutdowns?
- Meltdown and shutdown in people with autism
- Coming out of recovering from an autistic shutdown
- How To Cope When Overwhelmed | Autism Shutdowns, Meltdowns, Burnouts Guide
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