Autism Spectrum

Autistic Meltdowns and Shutdowns: My Experience

autistic meltdowns and shutdowns article image blue river

NOTE: Due to only recently learning about my autism, I wasn’t aware of the terminology used. I’m still learning (and becoming comfortable) with the terms describing my experiences and how exactly they apply to me.

In my previous post “Saying No Is Hard” I mentioned that I told a friend that I wouldn’t be joining her for a weekend she had planned, due to life being overwhelming for me at the moment. I’m glad that I made that decision because I was heading for a meltdown. Those meltdowns still came of course due to other life stressors, but I think they would have been made worse had I overextended myself even further.

For the past two weeks I’ve had a lot more responsibility and worries. I’ve had to be more interactive with the world, as I call it, and that comes with more than the usual amounts of sensory and social stimuli. I’ve become better at shielding myself and avoiding situations and places that overwhelm me, but have had to deal with these more lately and just push through.

On that last point, Max Sparrow from Unstrange Mind has this to say about pushing through:

This is why I warn so often against shaming Autistics for not “pushing the envelope” the way you think they ought to instead of the way that protects them from damage. Of course it’s healthy to step out of one’s comfort zone from time to time. What you need to remember is that the entire world is outside of an Autistic’s comfort zone. We live our whole lives outside that zone. Please recognize and honor that. I just can’t say that enough: we are trying and the obstacles can be as massive for us as they are invisible to you.

Over these few weeks, everything had been building and building. Day by day. Hour by hour. Adding to this was a recent event that opened up wounds from my past. It was there, subconsciously at first, but came to my awareness during my appointment with my psychiatrist on Thursday. I don’t remember much from our session, as I sometimes dissociate when I reach a certain state of overwhelm either from sensory input, stress, or emotions. I’m not completely sure, but I think that the dissociation may also sometimes be part of a meltdown. My psychiatrist is one of those rare, gentle men. Before I got into his office, he had put off the bright lights that hurt my eyes, and shut off the air conditioning, as he knows the sound bothers me. His office is dark then with a gentle lamp light and lots of plants, so a pleasant environment. The first time I was there though I had a difficult time, as that office used to be the one where I sometimes had my appointments with my OT (Occupational Therapist). It looked completely different. This bothered me and played on my mind for days afterward. But I’m fine with it now, and much prefer it this way. I can remember a meltdown I had in that office with my OT.

My meltdowns usually show up as intense frustration, irritability, anger outbursts, and tearfulness. There’s so much energy and adrenaline rushing through my body. I feel like my head is going to explode. It’s excruciating. Pacing back and forth, jumping up and down, and shaking my hands (or closing and opening them into fists) happens when I’m particularly close to a meltdown. If that doesn’t help enough, or another trigger happens during those moments, I snap. It feels as though there’s a super hot grenade inside me and that final straw pulls the pin, resulting in an explosion of anger, hitting walls, throwing things or just bursting into tears and crying. As much as I wish I could control myself at this point, I can’t. I’m unable to rationalize. The only way to prevent a complete meltdown, is to regulate myself by getting away from the situation if possible and stim (also known as self-stimulation, and something I do if I can’t get away either). During a meltdown, I find myself hitting my head with my fists, screaming (silently), or collapsing onto the floor unable to stop crying.

Due to many negative reactions to my meltdowns when I was younger and no support, I’ve learned to protect myself, and “postpone” them to a time when I’m alone (this isn’t always possible however). This always leads to a much bigger and longer lasting meltdown. And these can then actually lead into shutdowns.

Whereas a meltdown is an outward manifestation of the chaos going on inside my head and body, a shutdown isn’t as obvious, as it’s more of an internal reaction. After my session on Thursday, I don’t remember the drive back home. But I remember walking into my room, relieved that the lady I live (and friend) with wasn’t home, and a heavy exhaustion weighing me down. I closed the curtains, got under my weighted blanket with my stuffed toy and lay in the dark with my favourite blanket (that reminds me of my previous therapist) over my head and eyes to block out any remaining light. I don’t know how long I lay there. My friend has an adorable miniature poodle who I love dearly, and she came to lie next me. Usually I talk to her and stroke her, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t form words or even think. During these moments its as though my brain just can’t handle anything more and shuts down any function that’s not required for immediate survival. It’s like being locked in a state of nothingness. Usually, no matter how exhausted I am, my thoughts are still humming as I fall asleep. But in the state of a shutdown the thoughts seem muted almost to a point of non-existence. It can sometimes feel similar to a dissociative episode. Different in some ways, the same in others.

When I’m dissociating I can still talk and think, albeit slower and not as effectively. But when I’m shutdown, I can’t speak. I can’t form words, I can’t even think any words, if that makes sense? If anyone has any experiences or knowledge on the difference between an autistic shutdown and dissociation, or whether they’re effectively the same thing, please share them with me in the comments. Maybe it’s just another form of dissociation? I think due to my trauma history, I can’t really seperate the two as they function as the same thing in a way? I’m still figuring this stuff out. I sometimes dissociate to the point where I “lose” hours or even days with hardly any memory of the time spent in that state.

I don’t know how long I lay there on Thursday. But I think I might have fallen asleep at some point. My friend came home in the early evening, and I knew I should go say hi, but I felt like I didn’t have the energy to speak. I realized that I felt depressed, and went onto the Facebook autistic women’s group I’m part of in order to find out whether others also felt this depression after intense overload. I explained how I was feeling and the lead up, and was surprised when they said that it sounds more like I’m experiencing an autistic shutdown. So the next day I did what I always do when faced with new information (I usually do this immediately, but due to how I was feeling, I didn’t have the brain capacity right then), and started researching “autistic shutdown”. It made so much more sense than “depression” and felt like a much better fit.

Eventually I got up and went to say a quick hi to my friend. I told her I’m going to go watch a movie and she probably wouldn’t see me much more that night. She seems to know me pretty well by now so didn’t ask any questions, which I’m grateful for, as I still wasn’t able to access more brain power than what was necessary. I felt unsteady on my feet, so just sat up in bed watching my favourite movie, and zoning in and out. I went to sleep quite early and slept through, which was just what I needed.

It’s been a few days, and I’m still taking it slow and easy. I’m learning my limits and at the moment I feel like I still can’t handle too much.

In conclusion, both meltdowns and shutdowns are intense reactions to stress, extreme emotions, sensory overload, etc. I’m exhausted after a meltdown, whereas a shutdown gives my brain and body time to recuperate. Having said that, shutdowns aren’t always pleasant. They can be just as disruptive as a meltdown but just in different ways. I came across this video on autistic shutdowns, and thought I’d share it here.

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