Autistic Meltdowns and Shutdowns

I had an emotionally tough day yesterday. I felt more depressed than usual and on the brink of a meltdown all day. Although not unique to autistic people, it’s very common for autistic people to frequently experience shutdowns and meltdowns. Although the terms shutdown and meltdown are similar and the precipitating events or causes leading up to either one may be the same, the terms are not interchangeable. It’s impossible to make correct blanket statements about what a shutdown necessarily looks like versus a meltdown because the presentation of either one can look differently among any given handful of autistic people (and probably neurotypical people as well, though I’m not as aware of these emotional conditions being as common in neurotypical adults specifically (perhaps children)).

For me personally, a meltdown typically manifests as a demonstrative outward emotional release. It might involving crying, yelling, and agitated body movements like flailing arms, throwing things, or kicking. Although my ego doesn’t like being compared to an out-of-control toddler, a meltdown can be envisioned like an adult version of a young child’s temper tantrum. There are usually tears and emotional pain, often instigated by feeling like I was bullied or made fun of, treated disrespectfully and unfairly, or simply so overwrought with a difficult emotion that I lack the bandwidth to handle at that moment (suddenly terrified, frustrated beyond control, or so sad I can’t bear it). The outburst is usually like a nuclear explosion: rapid, releasing massive amounts of energy, and quickly fizzling out into nothingness.

Prior to eighteen months ago, meltdowns were more common for me. I was so emotionally taxed at all times that any additional stressor could tip the precarious balance and cause me to boil over in anger or blubber into a mess of tears and sadness. I was chronically operating at the edge of my emotional capacity and often illiterate at deciphering the gauges and compasses giving what would be useful location information about my emotional whereabouts on a personal psychological map. In the past year or two, I’ve become much more proficient at identifying my feelings and implementing strategies to reroute in a more productive “safe zone.” This helps me avoid feeling blindsided by some outburst. I get a little bit of a warning that I’m treading in an area of emotional exhaustion or heading for emotional collapse. I can try and diffuse the tension, mollify the anger, or soothe the hurt or despair and I’ve matured in this regard and in my ability to expand my bandwidth to tolerate significant swings or heavily burdensome emotions a bit more gracefully now. It has not been easy to grow this way and I still have work to do; however, I think my last true meltdown was nearly a year ago, so that’s about rare enough to feel decent at my emotional control and resilience.

Shutdowns, in contrast, look like a quiet retreat into myself. I often find myself unintentionally mute, my ability to speak backed into a corner by the mental bully of being so overwhelmed. I usually feel small, weak, powerless, and afraid. I want to be wrapped tightly in a pillowy soft blanket and carried away to a safe, sensory-depriving space (like a dark, quiet bedroom with an eye mask and a weighted blanket). Shutdowns happen much more frequently for me, upwards of once a week, particularly if I’m in a lot of sensory-stimulating environments, overtired, or expected to engage in stressful and overwhelming situations too often (such as medical appointments under fluorescent lighting with horrible antiseptic smells, or parties with lots of new faces and boisterous chatter). I’ll shrink back into myself, and become unable to express my thoughts, needs, or feelings and unable to execute the functions my inner volitional will is screaming for me to do (leave the room, smile, get some fresh air, have a drink, introduce myself, shake hands, etc.). It can be bewildering to other people I guess, because I transform from a fully vocal, capable adult to a silent shell of my former self. For me, it feels scary because I don’t feel able to vouch for myself, and I’m simultaneously so distraught by whatever instigated the shutdown. I haven’t developed an effective anti-shutdown guard yet.

Yesterday, it wasn’t necessarily a meltdown or shutdown that overtook me. I was just so depressed. I teetered on the cusp of tears all day, and crumbled into shakes of quiet crying several times. I guess it was a slightly more functioning level of a shutdown. I was able to carry along for part of the day in that state, but eventually became mute and listless. There was no obvious reason to feel more depressed than usual, but I became increasingly pliant to get swallowed into an unworkable sadness as the day progressed and I fatigued. I tried hard to hold my ground and stay as positive and focused on good things as long as possible, but my resolve was exhausted by midday. I took the afternoon off work, tucked myself under my favorite blanket, and tried to do some distracting internet research on alternative health. I wasn’t feeling well, but this is less of the absolute causation for depression than it used to be, though a correlation still exists there sometimes.

I’m relieved to have rid myself today of that terribly low feeling. I’m dreading my appointment with the doctor this afternoon, mostly because it’s so late in the day that I anticipate he’ll be way behind schedule so the wait will be epic and I’ll be there so long, and also because I’m not optimistic about a helpful outcome. I’ve tried several western medicine gastroenterologists in the last ten years with minimal success, so it’s unlikely that today’s practitioner will have some sort of secret sauce elixir that cures me. However, I’ll certainly strap on my good attitude and hope for the best. I’ve been waiting since December to see this guy so I might as well try my best to get something useful out of it.

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