Most people have at this stage heard of Autistic Meltdowns. Those involuntary “outbursts” caused by immense stress and overload. And we all know that Meltdowns cannot be controlled or averted once they start.
But in a way, they can. Sort of. On the surface it looks like the meltdown has either stopped short or just not happened. But in reality it’s turned inward. And this is what is known as an Autistic shutdown.
While I cannot change the course of a meltdown once it’s started, if I catch it just before it starts I can transform it into a shutdown, through sheer willpower. This is just my own personal experience however. I’ve no idea if this applies generally.
I was reminded of this yesterday. I was in a meeting and not having a good experience. My husband later said he thought I was about to have a meltdown. And I was. But that would have been a very bad situation and I was aware of that.
So I did the only thing I could: I took all that emotion and chaos and pushed it down and sealed it with a tight lid. The effort and energy that took resulted in total shutdown. I sat there, staring at an empty space on the table in front of me. Not able to move. Not able to make eye contact. Not able to listen. Willing the moment to pass.
Miraculously it only lasted a moment. I was then able to engage again. But only in the most superficial way. Not really able to speak with the clarity I needed. Not able to think clearly or express myself clearly. But at least I made it through.
For the rest of the day, I felt hungover. Beaten up. With a headache. Which I still have.
Being kind to myself today is key. No plans. No chores. No meetings. No unnecessary social interaction.
Autistic Meltdowns and Autistic Shutdowns are two sides of the same coin. Both unpleasant, and sometimes downright dangerous. Understanding and patience will go a long way in helping us recover afterwards.