Overload, Meltdown and Shutdown

April 11, 2013
Posted by maedel in „Mein Autismus“

After my last article, I’d like to dedicate myself to the topic of overload, meltdown, and shutdown. After initial research, I’m actually surprised that there is so little written in the German language about it, and even autistic people are well aware of these obvious “basic companions”, but cannot conceptually assign them precisely.
So I’d like to try that.

It is sometimes difficult to determine exactly where to draw the line. In one moment everything seems to be okay. The external stimuli are like a trickle, a slight rippling, perceived but not bothersome. Then you realize how everything is louder at once, flash, flashy. The trickle becoming a stream swells into a raging torrent. Is it not possible to retreat, then at last there begins the overload for me .
Then it goes on very fast, and the torrent becomes a waterfall, the background noise a raging storm.
Then the children’s laughter is not so great, the refrigerator gets on one’s nerves, and the car has blossomed into a plane. Also, the cuddling is unpleasant at once. The touches that were only slightly uncomfortable before, become unbearable.
That moment when the whole flood falls down on me is clearly felt by me. When the filters collapse. When the overload begins.

The overload (= overstress):
The overload basically is a “sensory” overstress, and I shall restrict it to that concept. Overloads do not show as “aggressive” or in a complete “shutdown”. Overloads occur to me when the external stimuli overwhelm me and flow to me without filters and then crush me.
The maximum I show at that point is a certain irritability, sometimes absence and a strong desire to reduce the stimuli. It is best for me to seek a quiet and darkened place where the danger of contact is minimized: most commonly referred to as so-called withdrawal.
Sometimes I need it to be calm, sometimes noises in this phase are entirely permissible. But these must be predictable noises. For me, my music. Personally, I hear very structured music. With restless music I can do nothing in such moments. Usually it is always the same song I’ll play over and over again. By stimming, an overload can be much delayed or regulated. Personally, it helps me to swing or flick (when I’m alone) or, a bit more subtle, rocking my right leg (a kind of sideways rocking). Sometimes I sit on my hands, so to speak, bite the inside of the lips or rub my hand back. Usually I try to withdraw before an overload comes. But sometimes there are situations where this is not possible.
If at that stage a retreat is not possible and nothing else helps, then I slowly start to focus. With all my force I keep on functioning. Concentrate fully on what I’m doing. You can most likely compare it with a tunnel vision. At this point at the latest a withdrawal is urgently advised, otherwise the waterfall pulls me down into the depth like a swirl. After that there is no escape, inevitably there follows the shutdown.
During the diagnostic interview for my son I could watch that on me. I focused my attention more and more to the doctor, at some time took her figure only dimly, then concentrated on her voice and the questions she asked me. Basically one sense after the other said goodbye to me. The last thing still perceived was listening, and I even could no longer understand the meaning. My thoughts were constantly about how to get out of this situation as quickly as possible, and that thought became louder and more urgent.
The downside of the delay or even stop of the functioning is that it can greatly increase the impact of a shutdown.

The shutdown ( = total withdrawal):
With me, it is often the result of an overload, if the withdrawal is not possible or I need to keep functioning, because, for example, a conversation is important or because I have yet to come home.
But not always an overload is the trigger, even if a shutdown is always accompanied by an overload.
Sometimes the trigger is also stress, and dependent from how I feel this can lead to the fact that several steps are skipped. Then a plan amendment might be sufficient, or an additional stress factor, to accelerate the whole thing significantly.
A shutdown is a complete retreat. A “switch-off”. I often call this my inner space. Which may be in place. Then I simply roll up in a corner or on a roadside and am no longer accessible. Ideally, I am running to a safe place. There it has to be dark and quiet. This may be my room or the bed. I perceive external stimuli only muffled and as if through a veil. It seems every movement is onerous and incredibly slow. Like in slow motion. My reaction time is extended greatly, and at this stage I strongly tend to mutism. If I nevertheless try to talk, then I babble very hard and hardly get more than single words on my lips.
A shutdown usually takes about 30-60 min. Then I slowly “appear” again.
But you cannot say that I was fully restored then. Talking is still difficult for me. I usually get very bad headaches, and my senses are strained to the utmost. This condition can drag on for 2-3 hours. But I can perceive my surroundings again and react again. This works best for me during the writing phase. Usually I’ll start there analyzing already. The following two days, I always call this time the aftermath, I am generally very sensitive with my senses and usually very much preoccupied with myself.
The shutdown is a variant of the reaction, which occurs more often for me than a meltdown.

The Meltdown (= tantrum):
The meltdown actually is somewhere between the overload and the shutdown, but it is very rare with me. As with the shutdown, it can be triggered by an overload, but also by stress. I actually remember only a few situations in which it came to such outbursts in me. I then behave like a fury, and cry hysterically. That’s bad, I even notice that I’m acting completely wrong, but I have no control at that moment. I never attack someone. Usually I tend to autoaggressive behaviour. I injure myself to feel my body. It is similar to a tactile perception disorder, when a strong pressure can counteract to a light touch and therefore reduces pain. So that self-injury sometimes helps to decrease the pain of stimulus overload or to reduce the stress. It is still something that is not desirable for me, and so I usually try to suppress the impulse or at least redirect it. Sometimes I know no other way than to destroy objects intentionally. If I was lucky, it were not objects too expensive. I remember a case when I hurled a shoe backwards so that the glass of the door broke (and it was quite thick structure glass).
It gets uncomfortable when someone prevents me from withdrawing, or misunderstands the situation and tries to hold me. Contrary to the situation where I am trying to keep on functioning, even where I myself am the trigger, someone prevents me now from ending a situation that is unbearable and painful for me. Then it may happen that I kick around me, push away or accidentally break things. Basically, I really want to get away, and as long as no one stops me, I will never be violent. The frightening thing with a meltdown is however, how fast it sometimes can come and how fast it can be over again. For me the meltdown usually always follows a shutdown with all its side effects.

Overall, this is an attempt to present the gradations in me. Basically, the transitions are fluent and not always in the same order. Often I skip one or the other step, in extreme cases even several ones.
Personally, I usually try through stereotypes, stimming, and other aids, not to let it get that far. If I cannot stop it, I somehow try to get through the day, at least until the kids are in bed. Then I drop everything that is not important, and focus on my children. That is very tiring, but doable.
I always make sure that not too many appointments follow to another. For important appointments for meetings I mostly take care that someone is there and helps me with the children. Then I can take care of myself. I avoid situations that could overwhelm me and always plan enough rest phases.
My children know very well how to deal with me, and they know that Mom now and then needs some rest.
In my report it was especially about the terminology. That the overload is just overstimulation, the meltdown a tantrum, and the shutdown a switch-off. So far there is hardly a precise definition of the terminology in the German speaking area. I do not know if this has been achieved. But I hope so.


back to german

1 Gedanke zu “Overload, Meltdown and Shutdown”

Kommentar verfassen

Trage deine Daten unten ein oder klicke ein Icon um dich einzuloggen:


Du kommentierst mit Deinem WordPress.com-Konto. Abmelden /  Ändern )


Du kommentierst mit Deinem Twitter-Konto. Abmelden /  Ändern )


Du kommentierst mit Deinem Facebook-Konto. Abmelden /  Ändern )

Verbinde mit %s