Category Archives: Overload

Burnout

I crashed out of secondary school twice during the course of my five years there. I dropped out of college by the end of my second year. I bailed on my first ever ‘proper’ job at a fast food restaurant after less than two months and about ten shifts, half of which I didn’t go to. I had to give up on my volunteering position in a cafe after a few months and several missed days.

For a long time I was able to recognise this pattern, but I couldn’t understand it. I was never able to explain it to other people, because it just sounded like I was being irrationally negative: “I just have mental breakdowns every few years, so it’s bound to happen again soon.” People would just try to reassure me that I was exaggerating or making assumptions. But… I usually turned out to be right.

Eventually I came across the phrase “autistic burnout”. It’s an experience that lots of people have described, where a period of long-term gradual overload becomes intolerable. That sounds understandable enough: non-autistic people experience burnout sometimes too, maybe when they have major life events happening. But my burnout hasn’t been at times of particularly major life events – nothing more major than others around my age were going through. The explanation for that is deceptively simple, but difficult to fully explain: I have a much lower than average threshold for stimulation.

Stimulation

I’m not just talking about sensory stimulation here – that’s a part of it, but only a small part. I’m talking about the really general meaning of stimulation. For me, that includes things like:

  • Spending time around people (moreso if they are strangers).
  • Being told what to do.
  • Doing time-dependent and time-limited tasks.
  • Travelling away from home.
  • Anything which involves commitment to a task or a time or anything else.
  • Dealing with a rigid social hierarchy of any kind.
  • Sensory input – a lot (e.g. crowded places), bad (e.g. smells), or both.

There are other things, too – I only wrote down the main ones. Some of them are so subtle that it’s difficult to even define them. It’s probably easier to define what stimulation isn’t. It isn’t “me being at home by myself doing whatever I want”. Anything which deviates from that will be stimulation of some kind or another.

Threshold

I think the concept of stimulation applies to everyone – autistic and otherwise. Everyone is probably familiar with the feeling of needing a break, or being desperate for a holiday, or just wanting everything to STOP. Everyone has a certain amount of energy (or spoons, if you prefer) per day, per week, per hour – and it costs that energy to deal with stimulation.

The difference is that not everyone has the same amount of energy. The average able-bodied NT person has plenty of energy to spare, so that they rarely ‘run out’. Most of the time they are perfectly able to have a full-time job, socialise, look after themself and their home, and pursue their interests and hobbies. The idea of a limited energy level that doesn’t simply result in sleepiness after a long day is difficult to understand if you’ve never experienced it.

But some people – autistic people for example, or people with chronic illness, or mental health problems, or many other things – have a much smaller amount of energy to spend. That means they run their energy down to zero much more quickly when doing the same things. People with reduced energy thresholds can still exert themselves once they’ve run out – just like spending money with an overdraft. But overloading that energy debt can have extreme negative consequences (just like how you pay back more in interest than the amount you actually borrowed).

Depending on the reason for a person’s reduced energy threshold, the result of an energy debt may vary. For a person with chronic pain, getting into energy debt might result in a flare-up. For me, the energy limit is not so much physical as neurological. So the result of me getting into debt is a mental inability to cope: which results in severe anxiety, panic attacks, and depression.

Burnout – meltdown

My description of an inability to cope with overload might sound familiar if you read my post about meltdowns. That’s because it is similar. In fact, I’d say that burnout is a type of meltdown – one that occurs over a much longer timescale. It fits the same niche: it’s my brain’s last resort, an extreme emotional release as a result of overload. But it’s a response to a chronic energy debt, instead of an acute one.

Burnout eventually does have the intended effect – it stops the overload. Because it stops my ability to function at all, which handily includes my ability to go to school or work or do the things that were draining my energy faster than I could replenish it. Just like a meltdown forces me to get out of whatever situation was acutely overloading me.

Aftermath

After I’ve hit burnout, there is an unavoidable period of rest as I pay back that energy debt (which could take weeks or years, depending on how large the debt is). And then, if I haven’t learned my lesson, I go back to the overloading things and start racking the debt back up again.

So, I think I will try to learn my lesson. The trouble is, that’s not easy. I’ve spent my life so far having full-time occupations and catastrophically failing to cope with them. I don’t actually know what it’s like to have a level of stimulation that I can cope with. I don’t know what level of stimulation that will be, and I don’t know how to find out without testing myself until I crash again.

For now, my plan is to increase my level of stimulation very slowly. It’s been two years since I dropped out of college after my latest period of burnout. I spent the first year with no real occupation, which was needed in order to repay the massive debt I’d accumulated over the years previously. For the last year I’ve been studying at home full-time, which entails only minimally more than zero stimulation.

This next year I’m planning to carry on studying full-time, and incrementally add more things into my life. I’m about to become an assistant presenter for courses about autism, which will probably only happen a few times a year but is very high-concentration in terms of stimulation (talking to groups of strangers – eek!). I’m tentatively starting to work on a book and looking into publishers. I’m hoping to take more direct action on my mental health. I want to try to see my distantly-located friends and brother more frequently.

Those are mostly good things, but they’re also very hard. I am extremely wary about pushing myself too much. Burnout is not fun.

Disabled

It’s difficult to explain the concept of limited energy to people who haven’t experienced it. It’s even more difficult to explain when I actually have functioned with a full-time occupation before. If I now say I’m unable to do that, it either seems like I’m flat-out lying, or like I’m deliberately ‘disabling’ myself by limiting what I can do. But neither of those is the case. I never knew that most people don’t feel overwhelmed and overloaded all the time. I did know that most people don’t have mental health breakdowns like clockwork every few years – but I didn’t know why that happened to me and not others. Maybe most significantly, I didn’t know that energy limits existed, let alone that the idea could explain my experiences.

Now that I do know those things, I’m not lying about my past or trying to make myself worse off than I am. I’m finally being honest, to myself, about my own abilities. If that looks like I’m limited myself, it’s only because I’ve pushed myself way too hard for my whole life until now. It might look like I now have the life of a ‘more’ disabled person than I have before. But it’s actually the opposite. I am just as disabled as I always have been, but now I am taking some control over how my life works. I’m looking forward to finding out what happens.

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Asking for help

When I saw people talk about having trouble asking for help or accommodations, I wasn’t really sure what it meant. I assumed I was good at asking for help. I can be assertive, I can clearly and explicitly state my needs, I can follow rules and instructions to do exactly what I need to in order to get help. It all sounds pretty simple.

But I’ve recently realised it’s actually not that simple. Asking for help has a lot more steps than just “Use words to tell a person what I want them to do”.

  • Recognise that I’m having difficulty with something.
  • Recognise that the difficulty can be solved or improved by a specific thing.
  • Recognise that another person could provide that specific thing.
  • Decide which specific person can provide the thing.
  • Decide how and when to ask the specific person.
  • Actually ask the person.

It turns out I might be good at the very last one, but every step before that is difficult. I’m going to use the fictional example of being in a hot classroom to illustrate the steps.

  • Recognise that I’m having difficulty with something

This is hard because I’m never sure how to define ‘difficulty’. How hard or unpleasant does something have to be before I can consider it difficult? How much worse does it have to be for me compared to other people for me to justify asking for help?

There’s also the fact that I sometimes literally don’t notice that something is difficult or unpleasant. It was only in fairly recent years that I realised loud and busy situations are inherently stressful to me. Before that I would be inexplicably miserable and exhausted, and with no idea why or what to do about it.

In my example, this stage would be recognising that I feel too hot and it’s making me uncomfortable.

  • Recognise that the difficulty can be solved or improved by a specific thing

This part is difficult because it requires going from an overall feeling of “something is wrong”, to a specific idea about what can be changed and how. It also needs me to imagine how a certain thing would change the situation in order to work out whether it’s a suitable solution.

In my example, this stage would be to recognise that I’d feel better if the room was cooler. It also means discounting impractical or impossible things which would solve the same problem: leaving the classroom would get me out of the heat but should only be a last resort; I could change into cooler clothes but don’t have any with me; etc.

  • Recognise that another person could provide that specific thing

This means figuring out which aspects of a situation can be controlled by people and which can’t. It can be difficult because when I’m stressed it’s hard to separate out different aspects of a situation to define them.

In my example, the weather: can’t be controlled. The air conditioning: can be controlled. So another person could change the temperature of the room by turning on the air conditioning.

  • Decide which specific person can provide the thing

This needs me to work out who is the best person to ask for help. Who is the mostly likely to understand my request, who has the power to do the thing that I need, who will want to help me, etc. This is hard because I have trouble working out how people will respond and who is the best person to ask.

In my example, I might have to decide whether to ask the teacher or the teaching assistant. The teacher probably has more authority, but the teaching assistant might be more friendly or approachable, for example.

  • Decide how and when to ask the specific person

I have to figure out how to ask for what I want in a way that expresses my difficulty and also gives clear information about what would help. I have to decide the right time, place, and situation to ask someone, and exactly how to approach them and initiate the interaction. I have trouble interacting with people at the best of times, and when I’m already stressed it’s much harder to know what to do.

In the example I’d had to decide when was a good time to ask the teacher to turn on the air conditioning. I should wait until they’re not addressing the class, but I should also try to get their attention early on in the lesson so that I’m not suffering for too long. I have to know how to get their attention and ask them without overstepping my boundaries as a student or seeming like I’m demanding rather than requesting.

  • Actually ask the person

This is the bit I can usually do, once I’ve worked out everything else!

In practise

Last weekend involved a short but very busy trip – meals out, socialising, and all without any real gaps in between. I was miserable and exhausted by the end, even though it was a happy occasion.

And I failed horribly at asking for help. I just tried to put up with being overloaded, because I didn’t think I had a choice, or didn’t realise anything could be changed, or that anyone else might be able to improve the situation. So, this is my formal challenge to myself to try and get better at it. Next time I recognise that I’m having trouble, I will work on the steps after that so that I can try to improve the situation.

 

 

 

 

Communication

Problems with communication are universal among autistic people, but they can be expressed in very different ways. One thing that seems to be quite common is a temporary inability to speak – sometimes called selective mutism or being nonverbal. I don’t think this has ever happened to me in the simplest sense. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I now realise it sometimes does happen, but gets expressed in more subtle ways.

Specific topics

Sometimes I have trouble putting a certain thought into words. Probably as a result of my not-words-or-pictures thinking style. This is most likely to happen when I’m trying to talk about an emotion or something related, and when I’m trying to think as I go along (rather than explain something I’ve been thinking about before).

My response to this depends on a lot of different factors. I might be able to push through it, find a way to express myself with disjointed words and diagrams. I might just give up trying, and tell the other person that I can’t work out how to say it. Often I can ruminate on something for a while and eventually be able to write down the words, because there’s much less pressure than speaking.

Overload

This is a major aspect of shutdown – my way of recovering from an overloading experience. In this case, it isn’t finding the words themselves, it’s all the other aspects of conversation. The social stuff like body language and tone and thinking about the other person and figuring out the meaning of ambiguous questions… When I’m already low on energy it becomes very difficult and very unappealing for me to waste the effort on non-essential interactions.

Most of the time when I feel like this, I’ll just isolate myself while I’m shutting down so that I can recover. But if I’m unable to do that and people try to interact with me anyway, then I will be very withdrawn. I’ll probably be slow to react, and respond to questions very briefly. I’ll definitely make no effort to continue the conversation, and end up seeming irritable if people don’t leave me alone.

“NT-passing-mode”

This is probably the least noticeable form of being ‘nonverbal’, but also probably the most significant to me. When I’m in a social situation, a lot of my behaviour becomes automatic. I suppress natural behaviour and change the way I act without even consciously realising it. The extent of this varies depending on the situation. If I’m with just my close family, then I act pretty naturally and consciously. If I’m in a big party full of people I don’t know, I’m barely controlling my actions.

This also includes speech. I say things quickly and automatically, and without actually meaning anything. I often have strange experiences where I hear myself answering a question and inside I’m thinking “that thing I just said is the exact opposite of my real opinion”. I also find myself trying to backtrack when someone is bothered by what I just said, but it’s very hard to explain! Most people don’t really understand that my mouth can just say words and they sound like they mean something but it has nothing to do with what my brain is really thinking about.

Internal – External

When I think about those last two types, I’m realising they are pretty much the same response internally. The only difference is what external context I’m in. They are both caused by being socially overloaded and make it hard for me to spend energy on processing social speech. If I can get myself into a fairly safe situation, I can voluntarily shutdown and stop trying to do the speech thing.

But if I’m in a social situation when I’m already low on energy, then I get stuck in “NT-passing-mode”. I still don’t have the energy to properly work out what to say or how to say it. But some part of my brain has this instinctive skill (probably learnt to try and stop myself seeming ‘rude’ in social situations) of making it look like I’m socialising normally. It only becomes obvious if you look very closely – you would realise I’m saying things I don’t mean or that don’t quite make sense. It’s like a robot that can put together words and phrases so that they sound plausible, as long as you don’t try to think too carefully about what they actually mean.

Overload and shutdown

I had a busy weekend. In the course of about twenty-four hours, it involved:

  • Two long car journeys (including one which was almost double the expected length due to traffic)
  • Near-constant social situations except for sleep
  • Eating unfamiliar things in unfamiliar places, repeatedly
  • Sleeping in an unfamiliar place
  • Several busy social situations with lots of new people
  • Unstructured time in inescapable social situations

…and that’s just the highlights. Overall, it wasn’t completely un-enjoyable – it was just extremely tiring.

I thought it would be a good occasion to write about how I deal with overload when it doesn’t turn into full meltdown. The busyness was spread fairly evenly over the time, and I managed to get enough breaks to keep myself together until we got home – for which I’m quite proud of myself!

Noticing Overload

This is something I am really not very good at. When I’m in a social situation, I automatically switch to ‘NT-passing mode’. Stimming gets shut down, speech gets ramped up, and I start to drain all of my excess resources to keep it going. It requires an unsustainable amount of energy – that is, it takes more energy in a given time than I am able to renew.

But its only fairly recently that I even realised I had an NT-passing mode. I used to just think that I became inexplicably more sociable and energetic when I was forced into a social situation, even if I had been dreading it. In fact, that’s something that had me confused about depression for a long while, too. I used to doubt that I could be depressed, because I always seemed to be so happy when I socialised. But really, that ‘happy’ act had nothing to do with depression, it was just my automatic NT-passing kicking in.

So, I’ve learnt that I do have an NT-passing mode. But I still have great trouble identifying it. I can talk about it in a detached way like this, but it’s very hard for me to recognise it when it’s actually happening. And that can be troublesome, because it means I can’t always tell when I’m being overloaded (until it’s too late and I’m melting down).

My best solution is simply to learn what kinds of situation overload me, and then assume I’m being overloaded, even if I don’t actually feel it. I’m getting better at doing that – and this weekend is a good example. I knew in advance that it was going to be difficult, so I made sure to look after myself during the time – even if I didn’t think I felt overloaded.

Recovery

Being in NT-passing mode or in an overloading situation uses more energy than I can replace in the same time. That means that after the situation is over, I’ll be left with an energy debt. The longer-lasting or more difficult the situation, the greater the debt. In order to ‘repay’ that debt, I have to find a way to renew as much energy as possible, and spend as little as possible.

This is what I think of as a ‘shutdown’. I know that definitions of shutdown vary even more than meltdowns. Some people say a shutdown is a type of meltdown, or that it’s what happens before a meltdown, or after a meltdown, or it’s a meltdown in a specific situation… But for me, a shutdown is the opposite of overload – it’s the way I recharge my energy in the most efficient way possible.

There are different degrees of shutdown, just like there are different degrees of overload. If I’ve been socialising with my parents for a couple of hours, I will want to go to my room alone for a while afterwards. That’s the same type of response as when I sleep for ten hours solid following a huge party.

Defining shutdown

Shutting down involves two main things: 1. reducing the energy I’m spending, and 2. maximising the energy I’m gaining.

Reducing energy expenditure

  • I’ll always avoid further socialising after an overloading situation. Ideally, I would be completely alone until I felt fully recovered. Otherwise I’ll hide in my room away from anyone who might be in the house, or spend my time on independent activities and avoid unnecessary interaction.
  • I avoid physical activity. Although physical tiredness is different to overload tiredness, they feel similar. And physically exerting myself will drain overload energy as well as physical energy. I generally want to stay in the house and spend most of my time sitting or lying down. I often sleep a lot more than usual following an overload. Generally I need a pretty small amount of sleep, and I never nap during the day. But the day after my busy 24 hours this weekend, I slept in until almost midday and then dozed on and off throughout the afternoon. It’s disconcerting to feel so sleepy, but I’m getting better at accepting it as part of overload.
  • I avoid anything which may provoke anxiety. Anxiety contributes to a lot of overload for me, so I do everything I can to reduce it. This generally means avoiding any situation which is remotely threatening, difficult, new, or unpredictable.
  • I avoid thinking about anything too difficult. I’m in no state to make important decisions or solve problems – everything gets put on hold until I’ve recovered my energy.

Maximing energy gain

  • Stimming. Lots and lots of stimming. I find that I’m much more interested in large-scale movements when I’m recovering from overload. Lots of rocking, swaying, waving my arms, pacing. These movements help me figure out where my body is, which is important after overload – because NT-passing mode involves being very distracted from my internal state.
  • Physical rest. This is partly a way of reducing energy loss (like above), but it also recharges energy in itself. I sleep a lot, and when I’m not sleeping I’m flopping around or dozing or lying down.
  • Doing my favourite things. After overload I’m usually too tired to properly concentrate on learning about my special interests, or actively engaging with them. But doing things which are tangentially related makes me feel happier and calmer. So I’m likely to do easy special-interest-related things like watching my favourite TV shows, or even just thinking about my special interests.
  • Waiting. In the end, there’s nothing I can do to skip over a shutdown. Once I’ve been overloaded, I will have to spend time regaining energy. I can help that process along and make it more pleasant by doing all these things, but it’s still going to happen whether I like it or not.

Acceptance

My busy twenty-four hours was from Friday afternoon to Saturday afternoon. It’s now Monday afternoon, and I’m almost feeling back to normal. I’m still a bit more sleepy than usual (and I slept for longer than usual last night). I’m still feeling a bit more averse to going out. But I’m able to do some light socialising today, and my cognitive power is pretty much back to normal. I’m getting better at knowing my limits, and knowing what I need to recover.

Meltdowns and panic attacks

I realised after my latest post that I didn’t really explain how I learnt that my ‘panic attacks’ were meltdowns all along.

I spent so long researching meltdowns and trying to figure out if I experienced them or not. But it was only when I did more research into panic attacks that I realised my assumption had been wrong from the start. My first ‘panic attacks’ were when I was pretty young, so I just trusted the people around me when they told me that’s what they were. There was no reason to question it, because anxiety was the predominant emotion.

But one thing I came across when I was learning about panic attacks recently was “sudden onset”. Mine almost never started suddenly. Instead, they came after a gradual increase in stress and anxiety, as a result of various (mostly external) factors. That’s when I realised the description of meltdowns was a better fit: because it took into account the way that seemingly unrelated input could contribute to the overload.

The most confusing part is that emotion itself can add to overload. Which means that anxiety can push me towards a meltdown, but when I meltdown it’s expressed through anxiety! So it’s a strange sort of feedback loop, a bit like the kind that happens in a panic attack, but a bit different.

Defining meltdowns

What is a meltdown?

Eek. This is probably the most difficult part. Everyone answers differently, and descriptions are always subjective and individual. Here is my ‘objective’ definition of my experience of a meltdown.

An intense, involuntary emotional release due to complete overload.

“Intense”. Yeah. A meltdown is the most intense emotional experience a person can have. It is what happens when other emotional responses have failed to solve the problem/s.
“Involuntary”. Once it’s going to happen, then it’s going to happen. It can be avoided by preventing overload, but once overload has happened then a meltdown is inevitable.
“Emotional release”. This is the part that describes what other people see when I’m melting down. The emotion in question can vary (more on that later), but it’s always powerful and negative. So it probably involves at least some of the following: crying, shouting, hitting myself, hitting nearby objects (sometimes people), intense stimming, attempts to escape.
“Complete overload”. This is the ultimate cause of a meltdown. ‘Overload’ is a vague term on purpose, because the type of overload can vary widely. (more on that later) It can be a combination of similar or different things, it can be long- or short-term (or both), it can be internal or external. No matter what it is, it results in an emotional inability to cope with the situation.

Types of Overload

The ultimate overload can come from a combination of different factors. In fact, it’s most likely to be a result of several different things.

  • Social. Being in any social situation for a long time, being in a situation with lots of people, interacting with new people, unplanned social interaction, confusing or difficult interactions, unavoidable but unwanted interactions… etc.
  • Sensory. Being somewhere loud, being somewhere crowded, being in bright sun, being too hot or too cold, being hungry, eating something I don’t like, being tired, wearing uncomfortable clothes, standing/sitting/lying in an uncomfortable place or position, bad or strong smells, people talking over one another… etc.
  • Internal emotion. Being anxious about something, being angry about something, being excited or nervous in anticipation of something… etc.
  • External emotion. Being around people who are arguing, people who are stressed, tired, grumpy, upset, being criticised or told off by people, being around people of incompatible emotions (e.g. someone trying to cheer up a grumpy person)… etc.
  • Cognitive. Being pressured to make a big or difficult decision, being rushed to complete a task, obsessively trying to solve a problem, plans changing… etc.

These types of overload are artificially-imposed categories. Really, any factor could be put into more than one category and there are lots of things that don’t fit into any. But these categories are a good summary of the most common factors with examples.

Types of Meltdown

Although all meltdowns are ultimately the same thing, the emotion through which they are released can vary a lot. And it’s the way they are released that has the biggest effect on how they look from the outside. In my experience, I’ve noticed three main types of emotion.

  • Panic. This is by far the most common one for me. In fact, this is a big part of the reason I didn’t know that I had meltdowns. It turns out that a lot of the experiences which I (and others around me) had classed as panic attacks, were actually a type of meltdown.
    These are expressed through fear, anxiety, and panic. Most of the behaviours and symptoms look the same as panic and anxiety in other situations. So, lots of hyperventilating, pacing, attempting to escape the situation.
  • Anger. This type was more common when I was younger. Expressions of anger through things like: throwing objects, hitting people, shouting, attempting to destroy things.
  • Depression. Expressed through sadness and despair – mostly inconsolable crying, hopelessness, that kind of thing.

It’s also quite common for meltdowns to combine more than one of those types. The most common example is that something that starts out as a panic-meltdown then turns into a depression-meltdown before it subsides.

Suppressed Meltdowns

The descriptions above are what those meltdowns generally look like when I’m alone, by default. I’m lucky enough that most of the time I’ve been able to escape an unbearable situation and meltdown in private. When I was younger, meltdowns would look the same regardless of situation (for example, having huge anger-meltdowns in school at people who were making fun of me) Nowadays, if I’m trapped in the unbearable situation, the meltdown will be expressed differently.

All the emotional expression gets directed inwards instead, in order to avoid drawing attention to myself. If someone’s watching closely, they’d be able to tell – but otherwise it’s pretty well hidden. I withdraw from social interaction, make myself as small and invisible as possible, and stim in small but intense ways (like picking my fingers). All the internal symptoms are the same – the obsessive negative thoughts and strong emotion.

But this isn’t a ‘full’ meltdown. After a full meltdown, the emotion is mostly diffused and the overload meter gets reset. When I suppress a meltdown, all I’m doing is putting off the inevitable. Doing that gets harder and harder the longer I try to hold it in, until I’m able to escape the unsafe situation and meltdown for real. I imagine that if I was totally trapped in an inescapable situation, then the meltdown would eventually happen fully – regardless of the consequences.