Autism and Overwhelm: Autistic Meltdowns, Shutdowns, and Overloads - Oh my!
While grace and understanding from others can make these struggles easier, they don't prevent them entirely (because some of my biggest triggers come from within).
I'm Autistic, and just like every human, I get overwhelmed sometimes…
I can't think and communicate clearly when overwhelmed (like with anyone).
Communication is often the first thing that goes whenever I enter any state of overwhelm.
As my brain spins, drowning in "fight, flight, freeze, fawn chemicals," the words and reason become far away as I slip into an intense panic - where everything feels like a threat.'
When I'm overwhelmed, I need to be made to feel safe, regardless of the type of overload.
My brain tells me I'm in danger (even if no visible threat can be seen around me). When our brain sends messages to us, our instincts are often to listen and obey (regardless of NeuroType).
Autistic People are not that different from non-autistic people.
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When triggered (or when we sense we're in danger), we may:
Fight - Meltdown
Fighting physically or through our words (especially if we feel cornered or trapped).
In meltdowns, I often will say and do things I may regret later, so I try to avoid other people when having a meltdown (unless I know they are a safe person).
When I was a kid, I had a lot more meltdowns, but I learned as an adult meltdowns don't keep me safe (and can even put me in danger). My survival skills have shifted, and I'm now more likely to RUN (elope) or freeze (shutdown) - though I do still fight and meltdown from time to time.
If I feel overwhelm creeping in, my first instinct is to run away and put myself somewhere safe (like a bathroom or to take a walk).
I keep to myself so other people won't bother me (or become alarmed by the impending meltdown or shutdown that I feel coming).
Flight - Bolting/Elope
Sometimes, Autistic People (especially when we're young or struggle with impulse control) may give in to the impulse and urge to run or bolt away when panic chemicals in the brain send the message to "run."
This response, intended to keep us safe from predators in the wild (signaling us to run without thinking first), can put us in danger if signals tell us to escape when no serious threat is present (and we listen to what our instincts tell us).
Autistic kids have bolted into traffic and other deadly situations because of this overwhelming and intense urge to “run” and escape.
I've known since I was very young that I've got some questionable instincts. Sometimes, I have urges to do things with horrible outcomes (that I do not desire).
Regardless, the urge to do things that aren't in my own best interest (like jumping off cliffs, bolting into traffic, touching fire, pushing "forbidden buttons," or burning bridges with everyone I know and abandoning life and civilization) can be pretty strong... do I listen to it?
No!!! - (I know better now.)
I've learned my "mind" is FULL of BAD ideas that will get me into trouble. This has forced me to separate myself from the impulses that began to rush through me at a young age (because I learned early on that trusting myself could be dangerous, painful, or would get me into trouble).
Freeze - Shutdown
You may not notice if someone is shutting down, as it can be easy to miss.
A person who is shutting down may be very still and quiet. They may sit or stand in the corner, lie on the floor, or curl into a ball. When someone shuts down, they may go blank in the face, or they may cry to themselves quietly.
Freezing or shutting down is my go-to reaction when something triggers or overwhelms me these days (unless it's sensory, then my response is to get the heck away from the sensory thing, and if I can't do that, I will melt down).
For me, freezing (or shutting down) is quiet, safe, less dangerous, and less likely to get me into trouble with people I care about.
When I freeze or shut down, I often lose my ability to speak fully or partially.
The shift from melting down to shutting down is not something I've done consciously. It's something trauma has taught me.
I still don't have control over what reaction I have in the moment. It depends on the type of fear or overload I'm experiencing (and the trigger of that overload).
Fawn - Camouflage/Mask our Autistic Traits
Another survival skill many Autistic (and other NeuroDivergent People) adopt (due to the repeated traumas and rejections we experience JUST for being us) is that we strive to appease those around us (to avoid abuse, criticisms, and bullying) by working to make ourselves invisible, more palatable, or "socially acceptable."
We don't change ourselves, hiding our discomfort and denying our needs to be manipulative or deceptive.
We hide (to our detriment) because we have learned that expressing our needs (or standing out) can be dangerous to us (so we do what we can to blend in, not make waves, and be invisible) - which is hard if you're someone who's "born to stand out" (as I am).
There are types of neurological/brain diversity people are born with (such as neuro-developmental differences like Autism, Hyperlexia, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Apraxia, Dyscalculia, and ADHD), and there are brain differences people can acquire in life.
Even as adults, one's brain can be forever (or temporarily) altered, causing one's perception of their emotions, the world around them, or communication abilities to change.
PTSD, TBI, Anxiety, and Depression all are acquired conditions that can majorly alter the way a person experiences life – long or short-term).
Additionally, when someone is NeuroDivergent, they are often NeuroDivergent in multiple ways. This is especially true with Autistic People.
Many of us have layers to our NeuroDivergence (or multiple NeuroTypes).
Many of us have experienced repeated traumas and rejections simply for being ourselves.
As I've said in the past:
Regardless of whether someone's brain differences are ones that they are born with or are acquired later in life, permanent or temporary, the more layers they have, the further they diverge from what is considered "average," AND the more support they will need to thrive in systems that were designed by and for the NeuroTypical average or "norm."
Those of us who diverge more significantly from the "norm" or average (because of the additional conditions or NeuroTypes we have and trauma we've experienced) will struggle to camouflage, fawn, or blend in - and forcing us to do so (when the goal is impossible for us) is cruel.
For the most part, Autistics overload is not that different from overload in non-autistics, with two main differences:
The triggers - because the world we live in has been designed by (and for) non-autistic people, the world as we know it has LITERALLY been designed NOT to trigger non-autistic people.
Because non-autistic people live in a world optimized for their needs; they aren't getting set off by every day things that can hinder Autistics).
On the other hand, the things that trigger me are everywhere, integrated into modern society:
Fluorescent lighting, strong smells, crowded-echoey spaces, surprises, last-minute plan changes (without grace when I need to process new information), and expectations that I behave, act, and communicate as non-autistics do (although our brains are very different).
Additionally, because Autistic People are in the minority, the things that trigger us are not seen as "socially acceptable," while non-autistic triggers are seen by society as "reasonable."
The intensity - many (not all) Autistic People have intense emotional experiences, and since our internal emotional experiences can be extreme when we feel strong emotions, our outward expressions of emotion match what we are feeling on the inside.
If you've ever had a panic attack, you know what being overwhelmed and afraid feels like. It's not a pleasant feeling.
Autistic overwhelms share a few traits with panic attacks, in that there's an intense emotional fear response, and the adrenaline starts pumping through your body. You feel as if you're in grave danger, and you may experience feelings of wanting to escape or get out of whatever situation you're in (even if escape is impossible or unsafe).
Because of the differences in how we experience emotions and impulse control, our reactions to overloads of all types can seem bigger than the reactions of people who experience their emotions less intensely or have more impulse control.
When overwhelmed, the chemicals running through a person's brain make it hard to think using reason.
This can be further complicated when Autistic and other NeuroDivergent People have co-occurring conditions or NeuroTypes that may impact impulse control, causing us react more strongly (both inwardly and outwardly) to all types of overwhelm.
If someone who's overwhelmed is also ADHD (which can affect impulse control)
If someone has experienced trauma and has invisible wounds that are unhealed
OR if someone has a heightened emotional experience (because there are multiple NeuroTypes that can cause intense emotional experiences)
What doesn't help is getting aggressive, forceful, using restraint, holding someone down, or keeping them against their will.
Remember earlier when I said that "when I'm overwhelmed, "everything feels like a threat" and that "I need to be made to feel safe, regardless of the type of overload"?
Do you also remember that I said we may meltdown (or fight) "especially if we feel cornered or trapped"?
If you want to send me into a meltdown, prolong it, or make it worse, a surefire way to do that is to trap me, hold me against my will, bark orders, or threaten me.
This will only make me feel less safe, keeping the adrenaline pumping, causing me to feel (and act) worse.
What I DO need is:
Support, understanding, compassion, and to be made to feel safe (even if outsiders can't see what's making me feel unsafe).
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