For those who may not know, April is autism awareness month. I wasn't originally planning posts in honor of the month, but something that happened last week started me thinking about something that's not often talked about
"But Amanda," exclaim those of you who read the title, "people talk about meltdowns all the time. Shutdowns not so much, but they're talked about plenty too."
And yes, meltdowns and shutdowns are discussed, but not often in the way I will speak about them today. When these facts of life as an autistic individual are spoken about, it's almost always in a completely negative light. The “symptoms” are all negative. You rarely hear about causes for them that are not wholly negative, and their purpose is also almost never spoken about.
They’re Not Just an Autistic Thing
Believe it or not, meltdowns and shutdowns have a purpose. Yes, they may be challenging to handle. Yes, they may produce self-harming behaviors when particularly intense. But at their core meltdowns and shutdowns are fail-safes built in to “reset” and protect the nervous system, and while more common in those of us who are neurodivergent, they are far from a solely neurodivergent experience. Push anyone to their limit, and they will go into shutdown or meltdown.
Why are they so much more prevalent for those who are neurodivergent than those who are neurotypical? That tends to come down to the individual’s baseline stress levels and how well their mental filters work. Let me use a couple of visual metaphors to explain.
Meltdowns Empty an Overflowing Cup
Imagine everyone's stress limit as a bucket. It’s there to collect and deal with all the incoming information and stresses to protect the nervous system as a whole. So in this illustration, the rest of the nervous system is the house the bucket sits in. The individual’s ability to deal with the incoming stressors is a connected tube that allows the bucket to shunt water into the house’s cistern.
Sensory input, new information, demands, and stressors are rain coming in through a leak in the roof. If the bucket becomes too full, it will overflow and cause water damage to the house.
Neurochemically speaking, a meltdown is a mental storm that burns off excess stress and energy in something of an emergency failsafe. It’s like someone disconnecting the bucket right before it overflows and tossing the water out the back door before hooking the emptied bucket back up.
In this metaphor, every day is a rainy day because each day brings its own stressors. Some days it's just a drizzle. Some days it storms.
Everyone's bucket is hooked up to the home’s cistern with a tap and drainage tube. These are things they do to blow off steam or otherwise keep themselves regulated. Some help drain off water faster than others, but they all serve to allow the bucket to deal with the incoming water in a controlled manner.
Generally speaking, neurotypical individuals have slower leaks in their roofs, which in itself represents the mental filters we all have to one degree or another. Those with autism or ADHD or other neurological differences usually have far more rain leaking in faster because we often have little control over when and how well our mental filters kick in and work.
Sensory aids like ear defenders and sunglasses can act like a patch for a few of the leaks. Stimming or spending time with special interests act like temporarily hooking the bucket up to a larger gauge drainage system. Sometimes it's just a tiny difference. Other times it's bigger. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to guess how well one will work in a particular instance or on a particular day.
Self-isolating can be kind of like using your hands to scoop out some of the water to give yourself some more time during a bad storm.
But as I mentioned before, the rain is constant though not consistent. No matter what you do, the bucket will eventually overflow. That can be a good thing though, even though it feels crappy before, during, and after because staying with high baseline stress levels and the neurotransmitter buildup that comes with it can eventually damage the brain if not corrected. That's why the body has programmed meltdowns as a way to force a reboot to reset the system.
Shutdowns Are a Surge Protector
Shutdowns are similar, but they work a bit differently. To explain shutdowns, let’s think of the nervous system as a hospital.
Because of the nature of the work they do, hospitals are built to keep running no matter what. They have systems with redundancies and backups to keep things chugging along even if one system goes down. The nervous system is similar. Yet, no matter how good the system they all have limits.
What happens to electrical equipment if it is kept running at maximum for a long time? Eventually something or other with burnout or break. Our minds and bodies are much the same. If you push yourself to the limit, your stress hormones will kick in to keep you going for a bit, but that can only keep you afloat for so long. Eventually, something has to give. That’s when shutdowns happen.
Let’s go back to the hospital analogy. Something big happened. The main power is knocked out, so the hospital's emergency generators are kicked on to keep things going. Emergency crews are dispatched to try and repair the electrical grid, but in the meantime, patients keep pouring in. The generators are kept running at max as long as possible, but soon enough, they start struggling and decisions have to be made on where to expend energy to keep the most important stuff running.
Power gets cut to the system supplying the televisions in patient rooms and the waiting rooms. Next staff go around and begin manually turning off lights wherever possible. Vending machines are unplugged, and so on.
Shutdown acts in the same way. More information is coming in than can be processed, so the brain begins shutting down “unnecessary” systems to free up “ram” for additional processing capacity. It serves the same purpose as a meltdown, but it takes a slower and somewhat more “gentle” approach.
Instead of dumping out and replacing the bucket, it sets a bowl over it and lets it drain before pouring off some of the water and repeating the process until the rain slows to a drizzle again.
Meltdowns and Shutdowns Have Their Positives
So, as you can see, while meltdowns and shutdowns can be unpleasant to experience, they serve an important function. Neural pathways are resilient, but they have their limits. Overuse or overloading a single pathway can damage it, so our bodies have methods of protecting them.
But did you know they can be triggered by pleasant and welcomed input just as well as they can adverse input?
I know this, but I still manage to get surprised by it all the same. I love working conventions. They’re fun, and I enjoy getting to see folks I have gotten to know working the local circuit. But conventions are also a very concentrated source of sensory and social stimulation. A two to four-day adrenaline surge ensures I don’t often feel it during the convention, but once it’s over, we’re all packed up, and heading home, that adrenaline wears off. By the time we get back home and unload the car, I’m usually on the edge of shutdown or already in it.
I have heard much the same from other autistics and autistic creators. Sometimes things we enjoy completely can lead to meltdowns or shutdowns because it is a lot of sensory input all at once. Even when we take precautions, they may still happen. Does that mean we should avoid concerts or conventions or theme parks altogether?
I’d certainly hope not.
Accommodations Over Total Avoidance
My point with this article is, not everything connected to meltdowns and shutdowns is negative. In a world that seems determined to pathologize absolutely everything having to do with any and all neurodivergence, that is something important to remember. Both can happen because of a combination of factors, many of them simply living life with a brain that processes information differently from the majority for whom the world is designed. They themselves are neither negative nor positive but simply exist for the overall well-being of the mind and body. They’re just a fact of life for anyone with a high baseline of stress and/or anxiety and should be looked at in a similar vein as anything else someone must learn how to cope with due to a medical condition or mental illness.
If you are prone to self-harmful stims or behaviors during meltdowns, please look for ways to keep yourself safe when you know you are close to having one. But take it from someone who has hurt themselves more by thinking meltdowns were something that should be stamped out entirely, it’s not really possible, and establishing your ability to keep from having them as a factor upon which to judge yourself is just asking for even more stress and self-esteem issues.
Sometimes it can be better, in the long run, to make it somewhere you are safe and let it happen or purposefully trigger it if needed than keep trying to push through until you just can’t anymore, and you explode into one wherever you happen to be.
A. B. England is a novelist, all around geek, avid crafter, and the home-schooling mother of two.
She is an autistic creator with a love of mythology, fantasy, and all flavors of science fiction.
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