Monday, September 13, 2010

Shutdowns and Overstimulation

It’s been a while since I had time to post anything, so I thought I’d make an entry about something that has been plaguing me a lot more than usual over the past three or four weeks, due to my extensive social exposure in that time – sensory overstimulation, social withdrawal and shutdowns. This is a long one, and more personal than my others, so bear with me.

There are a lot of different “triggers” out there for people with an ASD when it comes to their sensory problems. For me, the main ones are to do with sounds, especially overlapping ones, and having to process many different stimuli around me at the same time.

For example, if I am sat in the living room with my laptop, and I have a lot of people talking to me in my AIM window and lots of different things to check into and reply to, I’m likely to overload. If someone were to enter the room whilst I was busy doing something, and the television was on and I was trying to work and people were talking to me, that would be another big trigger for overstimulation, because my brain literally cannot process that many stimuli at once. I end up shutting out everything but one thing – and that one thing is usually the thing I was doing in the first place.

Another thing that is a trigger for me is feeling like people are being “demanding” of me. I become selfish and irritable, wondering “what they want from me” and “why they won’t leave me alone”. If I am busy doing something, especially something of interest or that I really have to concentrate on, and people attempt to talk to me or interrupt me, my chest tightens and I start to become overstimulated, angry and snippish. This is where I most likely offend people the most, as when they attempt to interact with me, I snap at them or ignore them – sometimes deliberately, sometimes because my brain literally does not hear them.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with friends recently, as we are working on a music project together that is drawing to a climax. Music is my biggest passion, and some of my friends have described me as a “musical savant”, even if I think that’s a little too strong (I can recall lyrics, melodies, guitar and bass riffs, drums, you name it, from memory without any difficulty, can dissect music into parts due to the parts-to-whole syndrome, and can come up with good melodies to any set of lyrics quite easily).

However, spending this much time with people has taken a toll on me – a huge toll. One that makes it impossible for me to fathom how my friends and coworkers go about social lives where they go out every weekend with their friends to the bar or a club, or spend every waking hour on the phone or with their buddies, work and play.

Those of you who read my tweets will know that I came close to losing my job last week. The extremely high demands of being so social, so accessible to other people, have left me literally unable to crawl out of bed anymore in the mornings. Some days I won’t even hear my alarm; others I have laid there unable to move, staring at the ceiling, knowing that I am already late and not being able to face the errors that I have made, the consequences, by sleeping in through my countless iPhone alarms that go off every five minutes for at least an hour. My continuous absenteeism and tardiness have caught the attention of my manager and the VP of Operations at my company, who called me in for a meeting. I was tense throughout the entire thing. I fought to look him in the eyes, keeping my gaze on his hairline, and my hands continued to twist and writhe, knee bobbing up and down, even though I was trying to control it. The ring Sammie (my girlfriend) got me was slid from one finger to the next, to the next, to the next, until I dropped it and had to pick it up when he looked down at the paperwork on his desk – my final written warning.

Sixteen sick days in one calendar year and countless lates – how do you explain that you have a disorder that sometimes makes it impossible for you to even consider facing the outside world, especially when your manager doesn’t have a clue about anything autism related, despite you attempting to explain the symptoms and how they affect you?

Since, I have been taken down to part time, with Fridays off to hopefully give me more “me time”, and I have a 9am start rather than a 7am or 8am. Luckily, my bosses want to work with me to hopefully find something that works for me as, when it comes to my work, I’m a machine and churn out the problem-solving of each order I touch twice as fast as my colleagues.

We’ve also been recording at a friend’s house recently, as well as practicing non-stop. The days were long and exhausting, both physically and emotionally. Sometimes, I just shut down. Being crammed into a small Ford with three other guys and Sammie – and occasionally a second girl – for hour-and-a-half-long commutes out of town there and back are not ideal for an Aspie. The continuous conversation in the car and harsh sunlight through the windscreen, along with the need to submerge myself into my iPhone to get away from everything and recover from the day of work and the mild motion sickness I suffer from, along with the panic of where, when and what I was going to eat that evening, took a toll. Most commutes, I had my ear plugs in my ears to block out the noise. One time, I wrapped my scarf around my face too to hide from the light and the sound both, and I wound up falling asleep in the passenger’s seat out of overstimulated exhaustion.

Couple this with four plus hours of continuous noise (our drummer played like a beast) and the commute home, heading straight to bed just to get up again the next morning, rinse and repeat, and you can probably see why I’ve been driven crazy in the past few weeks.

And the worst part about it is that you start to resent the people around you, and take them for granted. I haven’t spent proper time with Sammie since this all started, because any tidbits of time I get to myself I engross myself in my laptop and zone the fuck out of everything around me. Roleplaying and writing has always been an escape for me, a doorway into another world where I can forget the stresses of life (even if I have trouble playing or writing certain character archetypes due to a personality clash with my own, and an inability to empathize with and understand them), and so I have been clinging to it even more than normal over the last month, to escape the overstimulation and over-socialness of the world around me. I haven’t wanted to cuddle, talk, laugh, watch television or socialize at all with my roomie and girlfriend, and I can only expect them to be patient for so long.

So, what happens when something triggers me? Well, I guess it sort of follows the same path as a meltdown would, except I wind up going into “shutdown” mode instead. Meltdowns and shutdowns are akin to each other somewhat, though both have different end results, despite each one typically starting with overstimulation and annoyance. Something will initially trigger it – it may be that I’m doing something I enjoy, and someone tries to talk to me or distract me from it. A lot of Aspies, I’ve read, become irritated when someone tries to take away something they enjoy doing, because to them it’s the only thing that matters and they can’t stop. Makes a lot of sense for me. Another thing that might happen might be a sudden burst of excess stimuli from the world around me – a lot of people coming into a room all talking loudly, a television and music both being switched on together, a bright light in my eyes, a change of schedule, that sort of thing. I’ll usually start by snapping, and then the definition between whether it’ll be a meltdown or a shutdown tends to happen. I have no idea what the deciding factor is, all I know is that some times are different from others.

If it’s going to be a meltdown, I’ll start to snap at those around me and get angrier and angrier. With shutdowns, I just want to withdraw. I’ll start to become deaf and unconscious to things around me, which will lead to frustration if people attempt to interact with me, because I find it hard to process what they are saying and usually need them to repeat themselves. I’ll squirm away and try to hide my face, whether it’s by drawing my shoulders up, pulling my hat down, or literally burying it in something. Sometimes it’s as simple as closing my eyes or just focusing intently on my phone or laptop. I completely avoid eye contact even more so than usual – going as far as to not even look at a person, let alone their face. If there was a definite trigger, such as food or a decision that needs to be made, I become frustrated with it and reject it completely, wanting nothing to do with it anymore.

The shutdown literally feels like the world around me has been glazed over, like I’m in my own little bubble. I retreat and hide, and use that to counter whatever it is that has triggered me. I disconnect from reality. Because of this disconnection, I’m more likely to take risks, or hurt myself – not angrily like during a meltdown though, but slowly and deliberately. I like to dig my nails into the palm of my hands or bite the skin of my arms and hands, or even hold my breath for long periods of time.

I’ve found that, like meltdowns, there isn’t really a cure for shutdowns except for time. Eventually, I’ll feel recharged enough to just melt back into the real world, which will most likely start with acknowledgement of the people around me again, my hearing returning, and attempts at conversation, such as chiming in with a comment. However, once this has been happening for a while – a month or so, like it has been for me recently – it’s easy to become depressed and just stop caring about everything.

Sort of a depressing way to end this blog, but I’ve never been too good at ending things as a writer. I’m debating sharing some information on Asperger’s with my boss, to better educate her about why I act the way I do. It does interfere with my work life, but at the same time, I don’t want to be put in a situation where I could lose my job for “another reason” they feel they have to let me go. It’s a tough one. I’m hoping with the extra day off a week and the later start, and the fact that life seems to be calming down a bit now, I’ll be back on track shortly and it won’t take longer than a few days to a week of recovery time by myself.


  1. Aspie. I could feel your emotion in the post. Keep writing. Have you thought of writing MUSIC? Try that. You can do that on your own and try some songs on an acoustic? Be strong, cuddle more and be thankful for what you have. Blessings. Scott - Austintistic

  2. Second shortened attempt ... Can you talk to the people who gave you your diagnosis? They should be able to give you information about how to deal with employment issues. If not then the Canadian Autistic Society: may help. The NAS in UK is very proactive and a useful resource for us here. Use any support/advice as you see fit @ personal level but get advice about your job as there must be ways to get your employers to be more tolerant and understanding.

  3. This part of your post really reminds me of how my son, a 9 year old Aspie, responds to changes and distractions: "Meltdowns and shutdowns are akin to each other somewhat, though both have different end results, despite each one typically starting with overstimulation and annoyance. Something will initially trigger it – it may be that I’m doing something I enjoy, and someone tries to talk to me or distract me from it. A lot of Aspies, I’ve read, become irritated when someone tries to take away something they enjoy doing."

  4. You have disappeared off the fact of the earth! I hope you are doing well.

  5. Thanks for your honest sharing. I've been spending the last weeks reading everything I can about Aspergers, in an attempt to make sense of the experience I had with a guy I care about deeply, who has gone no contact for weeks, and in shutdown mode I think. And I think you have shed much light on the specifics on what goes on in your world, and hopefully in turns, it also helps me to understand some of his world, and what I can learn to do to relate to him - that is, if he still wants to.

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