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Shutdowns, Meltdowns & Crashes

One of the experiences of being on the autistic spectrum of neurodivergence is what I call a 'nervous system crash'. This is a very familiar concept given that it can be very visible, especially if it manifests as a meltdown (as opposed to a shutdown). For the purposes of this piece I will just be referring to a "crash" as a shorthand.

A crash needs to be distinguished from 'autistic burn-out', for lack of a better word, which refers to a more prolonged period, similar yet very different from 'burn-out' in general. But more about this elsewhere. A crash is relatively short-term and, as much as I dislike computer-based metaphors, can probably be compared to your device crashing. This usually happens because there is a period of intense activity (or demand), which means the system resources are overloaded. It stops being able to respond to or process new information, and it needs to be reset before you can proceed.

As strange as it may seem, I never realised that this is what was happening. Sure enough, I felt it, but I never connected the experience with what was happening in and to my nervous system. I noticed a few patterns. The first pattern is how, whenever my wife and I travelled, or went to the mall, I would become very irritable and we would very frequently end up having an argument. In particular, I realised that most of our arguments took place when we were either at the mall, on our way to a social event, or when travelling. Needless to say, that often ended up tainting those same experiences very negatively for us as a couple and added future stress because we were both probably anticipating conflict around these events.

Let's distinguish between meltdowns and shutdowns. Broadly speaking, for me, a meltdown is when the crash manifests behaviourally and relationally. I become increasingly agitated and end up being rude and/or picking a fight with my wife. This is not intentional, and I am not aware that this is happening. But on reflection there is an increase of emotional intensity and discomfort, which may be physical as well, and may be connected with being tired. At the time I will become increasingly irritable and my sensitivity will increase, meaning that I am much more likely to take offense, pick a fight and/or become triggered by something she does or says. This can then quickly escalate into an argument with a lot of anger. And of importance here is that, a few hours later, I can see that this did not make sense, that I overreacted, and that I could have dealt with the situation differently. I feel this is important to say. These arguments, although they may seem like it at the time, are fuelled much less by an actual relationship issue, and much more by the emotional intensity I am experiencing, which is situational and a reflection of what is happening to my nervous system.

I am also aware, reflecting on the above, that even though I am having a meltdown, there are limits to which my behaviour will escalate. I am saying that because if this is seen from the outside, it may just seem like a husband and wife having a bit of a row. I am saying this because if I see a child throwing a complete tantrum in the shopping mall, I can relate to it but can equally keep things together enough that it does not escalate to that. That is why I said meltdowns are a more familiar manifestation of what is happening in the internal world of children on the spectrum, since it may be so much more visible and public.

But what is happening in the meltdown? Why is my internal world pushing me to the emotions and behaviour that I have described? I believe one aspect relates to control. Not the control of the other person, but actually controlling the internal experience. This may seem counter-intuitive, because how much control is there is losing my sh*t? Anger. When I become angry my emotions and behaviour become focussed - it is what anger does. My behaviour, interactions and emotions align. And this only makes sense if you consider what is actually happening before the anger. Flooding, diffusion, confusion.

In all of the scenarios there is change and unpredictability, there is the anticipation of a social event and the need to perform to some extent, there is demand, pressure and anxiety in the anticipation. All of the scenarios involve some sort of transition, and of uncertainty, of movement. All the scenarios involve an increase in sensory input and demand. Anger serves a function to provide a focus, creating a sort of focus that counters the diffusion and redirects into a specific direction. What I am suggesting is that anger is in itself a coping mechanism, not necessarily very useful or pleasant relationally, but as a way of freeing up the ability to process and to keep going, of preventing a shutdown.

Which brings me to shot downs. Over the years I have experienced these and tried to explain them as anxiety, low blood sugar, and so forth. Not to say that all of that can contribute and also play a role, or may even be the main driver. But whenever I am on my own, especially in a mall or similar highly stimulating environment, I easily become flooded. If feels like I am no longer able to think or decide. I literally become confused. And typically I would try to exit the situation as soon as possible and sit down somewhere. This does not happen all the time, and I am sure there are numerous factors that play a role. Being rested, having enough physical energy, not generally being too stressed, and many more are important protective factors. When I am generally having a lot on my plate, in one way or another, the likelihood, intensity and frequency of crashes correspondingly increase.

Whereas with a melt down the energy is redirected as anger and towards someone, during a shut down I enter a state of confused paralysis. In this state I become disorientated, feel like I have tunnel vision, and become completely unable to perform something as basic as getting items on a grocery list. I become almost completely unable to think and decide, and even struggle to clearly communicate. It is a horrible feeling. It is not a single emotion, but a deep visceral experience that affects my emotions, thinking, behaviour and even sensory experience. It includes an inability to take initiative and a doubting of myself which is debilitating.

Following a crash, whether a melt down or shut down, I need to retreat. I need to get away from the situation and be in an environment that makes no or little sensory, relational or emotional demands. My wife knows that when guests leave after a visit, when we return from being to the mall, and any other high-demand situations I need to go into my room or office and 'reset'. Depending on the intensity of what has happened it may take me 30 to 60 minutes and then I will emerge again and engage, although my 'endurance' would be reduced until the next day. Similarly, on the days where I have to attend a lot of meetings or have a lot of clients, I usually need a prolonged period of resetting to recover from the demand, even in there was no crash.

I am fortunate. I know that the above may seem very difficult, which it is, yet I am very aware that for other neurodivergents the intensity of the above may be much more than it is for me. The world can feel too much, and it is a constant burden to know I cannot do what others can do to the same extent. Yet I am fortunate because I also know it could be worse.


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