Coming To Terms With Autism

When I wrote about trying to standardize some terminology when discussing my autism with my therapist (or, now, ex-therapist), I left out one experience because I couldn’t remember the word, and if I’d sat around wracking my brain for it I never would have written anything at all.

Before, I discussed overwhelm, shutdown, breakdown, meltdown, and burnout. What I’d forgotten was the word “overload”.

Overload, for me, is a unique state in which I am conscious of the growing cognitive and/or emotional load bearing down on my brain. It’s a circumstance in which there is plenty of room for the potential “beat” between innate reaction to stimuli and my outward response to that reaction. The most common version of this occurs during visiting hours at my nonprofit project should there be too much going on, too many tasks that need doing, and too many people onsite.

In such a circumstance, the answer frequently is just to walk away. This of course is easier during visiting hour shifts where I am not the only volunteer present (somehow we always end up with half a dozen people working Sundays while oftentimes it’s just me on Saturdays), but even on solo shifts there’s usually an opportune moment to be found in which I can distance myself from everyone and everything, at least briefly.

(I was doing some reading about Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and was a bit baffled by the “mindfulness” aspect. There are many situations in my experience of autism where there isn’t any time to be mindful. If I’m running out of spoons, for example, mindfulness won’t help. In those limited circumstances where “mindfulness” can help, e.g. during overload, I’m already aware of the opportunity to mitigate, and it certainly isn’t about “distress tolerance”, another aspect of DBT, but about getting away from the source of distress. This notion that it’s a person’s job to “tolerate pain” instead of getting away from the pain is bizarre, and isn’t limited to therapeutic approaches. It seems ingrained in society as a whole.)

Overload in some sense is the smaller, day-to-day, or week-to-week, version of burnout. While burnout, to me, is the build up over time of a kind of psychic plaque due to the (di)stresses of camouflaging, overload mostly happens during short bursts of socially performative activity that pushes both the masking button and the spoons button. It’s both energy- and environment-based.

It’s not entirely clear to me what determines going into overload (where I can “walk away”) versus falling into overwhelm (where I’m simply going to “shutdown”). I suspect in part it’s the degree of distress as well as its velocity. In some sense, my use of stimming to keep my body present when an overwhelm descends upon me could be considered an attempt to suspend me in more of an overload state until I can get home, or somewhere similarly safe enough in which to shutdown.

I’m not entirely sure this glossary reflects the ways in which other actually autistic people experience these states. As I’ve said before, these framings accurately reflect the way my experiences feel from the inside of them, which is all I can really do to try to make sense of what happens to me.