In the sections about sensory sensitivities, stimming, SIBs, and executive function, I’ve said a few things about autistic people being stressed or overwhelmed. Now I want to say a little more about stress, and how autistic people’s reactions to it may be different from other people’s.
Autistic people— children and adults— sometimes seem to have very disproportionate responses to minor problems. This is partly because we can become stressed and overwhelmed more easily, as I’ve already talked about, and partly because the ways we express our emotions are often not typical. Autistic people (especially those of us with severe sensory sensitivities) may be under a lot of stress even in situations that seem calm to others, and on top of that, our facial expressions and body language don’t always show that stress in ways most people can recognize. We may also feel pressure to cover up how stressed we feel, to hide that we’re autistic or to avoid inconveniencing others. So, people around us often assume everything is fine until we’re so stressed that we start crying or run out of the room.
Two terms that are used a lot in the online circles I follow are “meltdown” and “shutdown”. Meltdown means obvious outward expressions of stress— feeling frustrated or angry and showing it through things like crying, shouting, and the self-harm that I discussed in the last section. Shutdown means reacting to stress by withdrawing— feeling exhausted and mentally foggy, not understanding or responding to what’s going on around you, physically withdrawing by covering your ears or trying to avoid people.
I get the impression that the term “autistic meltdown” originated from parents of young autistic children, as a better word than just “tantrum”. This is an important distinction to make. When people use the word tantrum, they usually mean someone is exaggerating how upset they are and making a scene deliberately, in the hopes of getting something they want. An autistic person’s meltdowns may seem unreasonable, but they aren’t fake or exaggerated. Pretty much anyone, and especially any child, will cry and make a scene if they’re pushed far enough. Autistic people just tend to get pushed farther in the course of their everyday lives.
Here are some autistic people’s descriptions of meltdown and shutdown. (Cynthia Kim, Sparrow Rose Jones, Aiyana Bailin, CrabbyCentaur)
Personally, I go towards the “shutdown” side 99% of the time. I may not feel calm and in control of myself, but I don’t do anything that looks like losing control— I don’t lash out physically or break down crying in public. I withdraw in on myself, I speak less or not at all. Thinking seems difficult. I know I should be able to deal with the situation in front of me, but my mind stays blank no matter how hard I try to remember what I should do. If circumstances force me to keep trying over and over to do something I can’t do at the moment, then I might get too frustrated and break down, but I can usually avoid that.
From the outside, overload may look similar to anxiety– I can see how “acting like a small problem is huge and serious” is a characteristic of both– but the internal experience is completely different. When I’m overloaded, I’m not feeling anxious (whether rationally or irrationally). I’m not worrying about the greater implications of the small problem in front of me. I’m not emotionally overwhelmed. Oftentimes when I’m anxious, dealing with my emotions is the only thing I really need to do– once I’m calm, the issue is so easy to solve that it doesn’t even deserve to be called a problem.
When I’m overloaded, on the other hand, a problem that may seem small to someone else is actually huge for me. It hits one of my sensory sensitivities, or some aspect of it is too complicated for my current level of executive function. The process of trying to solve the problem is incredibly unpleasant or cognitively difficult, and my emotional reaction comes from the fact that I’m trying to do something very difficult. When someone tries to calm me down when I’m overloaded, it often feels like they’re adding even more problems to my load– now I have to solve a very difficult, frustrating problem and, meanwhile, act like I’m not struggling and frustrated.
When I’m feeling overloaded, the main thing I need is to stop struggling with whatever overloaded me. I either need assistance to get it fixed as quickly as possible, or to take a break from trying to deal with it, including from trying to act calm and controlled.