My Unified Field Theory Of Shutdown And Meltdown

In my post about Heartbreak High’s depiction of autistic meltdown, I focused on the precursor to that meltdown: Quinni’s shutdown on the bus. As I said then, this mostly is because I (like Rhi) experience shutdown far more. Here, I want to come back around to talk a bit more generally about both shutdown and meltdown.

I’ve said before that the way I construct these two events is that overwhelm leads to shutdown while overload leads to meltdown. It wasn’t until the one-two punch of Quinni’s exhibition of both that I started to piece together how I think shutdown and meltdown interrelate.

Shutdowns are a thing I experience far more frequently than meltdowns, and I now think that’s because I’ve tended to have the luxury (or privilege) of being able to respect a shutdown when it arrives. Among the things about autism that are pathologized, shutdown actually is a strategic survival adaptation of the autistic brain. Much like when faced with a threat in its environment a turtle will retreat into its shell, so an autistic person when faced with increasing environmental stimuli will engage in the protective measure of shutdown.

When becoming overwhelmed by the pressures of increasing stimuli, the best and natural thing for the autistic brain to do is to seek to reduce both existing and potential further stimuli. Withdrawing into ourselves, often with the aid of self-regulatory behavior or through the use of mitigating factors such as sunglasses and headphones, we engage in emergency measures to manage the balance between our available resources and the demands being placed upon them.

The worst thing you can do is to try to interrupt or disrupt shutdown when it arrives, just like in the presence of a threat you wouldn’t try to shake the turtle into coming back out of its shell.

In the event that the autistic person—or, worse, the people around them—interrupt or disrupt shutdown, this is when overload looms. Absent the protective retreat to conserve, if not replenish, resources, meltdown becomes more or less imminent, just like (to switch metaphors) continuing to plug more and more appliances into a circuit not designed or rated to handle the increasing load.

One of the things Quinni’s experience demonstrates is that even engaging in something we enjoy, as she enjoys the book-signing despite what she had to go through to get there, is using up resources. Quinni had the entire trip planned out and written down precisely because that outsources the cognitive load of a tricky endeavor. So long as she sticks to the script, she’s managing her resources effectively.

By the time, then, she gets to the bookstore, she’s used up resources she hadn’t planned for and likely doesn’t really have. In a sense, she’s borrowing from her future self. Once she uses up resources on the signing, and then the fight with her girlfriend, we’re basically at the point where you try to hang on with all the might you have until you get home or to some other safe space.

My single biggest meltdown happened four years ago at the project site of my former nonprofit. Resources already taxed, I had to engage in some physical labor that involved trying to put more stuff into a cramped and disorganized storage shed, desperately trying to store bales of timothy grass before the rain arrived.

As near as I can recall now, so much later, I never even got the opportunity to shutdown. The task had to be done, lest the bales be ruined, an expense we couldn’t afford. I’d no one to help, and just had to keep pressing. It did not take long before I was throwing things and screaming profanities.

Typically, as I’ve said, I never get that far gone. Not having many responsibilities beyond those I have to myself, I’ve got that privilege of being able to “check out” if my resources are draining. The most you might catch me doing is rocking back and forth at a bus stop after an exhausting visit to the zoo.

Not having experienced an overtly autistic childhood (I was diagnosed at 46), I only can speculate here but I’d be willing to bet that many of the meltdowns experienced by autistic kids at least in part are the result of the people around them not respecting shutdown. The kids retreat into protective mode, and their parents of other caregivers try to force them out of it.

What I think I’d like people to think about more is this idea that much of being an autistic navigating the normative world is about resource management, and much of autistic resource management comes from the very behaviors and responses that the normative world pathologizes.

Our brains are doing what they are wired to do. Your task isn’t to try to change that but to ally yourself to meeting our needs. Each autistic person is different, despite the general overlap in so-called symptomatologies, so being an ally won’t always look the same from person to person.

Just remember: it’s all about resources, and ours are cumulatively taxed more severely, and in different ways, than are yours. If you respond to something like shutdown or meltdown by putting more demands upon us, you’re only making things worse.