“Which parts of myself are an act and which parts of me have been hidden? What do I have that’s valuable inside myself that can’t be expressed because I’m constantly and automatically camouflaging my autistic traits?” —Igelström
Since I’m experiencing my third bout of insomnia in the last month, I thought I’d document the sources of different overstimulations that may have contributed to my sleeping issues, as well as meltdowns, shutdowns, migraines, diarrhea, and/or anxiety attacks.
None of these stimuli are from long ago; these are all events within a 30-day window. I’ve also listed common physical reactions to the source, parenthetically.
- car brights on opposite side of road (nausea)
- driving during sunset, no sunglasses (nausea)
- incandescent bulbs oscillating/flickering (irritant)
- infinity mirror on flash setting, rather than fade (lightheaded)
- tracking nonverbal behavior over prolonged socialization (confusion)
- tracking eye movement over prolonged socialization (confusion)
- flashing disco ball (irritant)
- observing nonlinear dance performances from many people (confusion)
For easier navigation, I’ve collected these lists based on different stimuli; I’ve also included links to Wikipedia articles for each of these senses, in the event you’d like to read about any of them further.
An (irritant) stimulates, positively or negatively, to overload; (nausea) cause gut reactions at best, illness at worst; (confusion) triggers anxiety; (fight) and (flight) similarly trigger anxiety, although I believe it’s more associated with the reptilian brain; and (lightheaded) is straightforward.
- prolonged, uninterrupted screaming baby (flight)
- shouting (fight)
- being subjected to shouting (fight)
- neighbor’s illegal fireworks (confusion)
- club music (nausea)
These situations are overstimulating for me,—or at least in hindsight, I imagine they must have been overstimulating, since I poignantly remember them—but the same scenarios may not necessarily be as difficult for other autistic people.
- too spicy (shaking)
- too fishy (irritant)
- McDonald’s damn dried onions (irritant)
Bearing in mind the fact that this is a documentation of one person,—not of autism as a whole—I still hope my experiences shine some light on how everyday, neurotypical experiences can drain autistic people.
- waft of freshly sown cow poop (nausea)
- woman in stairwell too much perfume (nausea)
- too much citronella in aromatherapy diffuser (lightheaded)
- 3-day old, accidentally abandoned full trashbin (nausea)
- clouds of cat litter and ammonia (irritant)
Beyond offering a window into what overstimulation looks like, my personal purpose for this exercise is to track patterns—likely, this will involve repeating the structure of this post a few times—so I can improve my self-care regimen and living space in the future.
- too much pressure during hug (irritant)
- too little pressure during hug (irritant)
- too much rubbing in one spot (irritant)
- multiple loved ones touching/hugging at once (confusion)
- stranger bumping into me (flight)
Have any questions come to mind as you’ve been reading? Feel free to leave a comment; I’ll do my best to answer.
- burst of movement while trying to swim underwater (lightheaded)
- burst of movement while crossing parking lot (lightheaded)
- dancing (lightheaded)
I have a balancing stool (a.k.a. a wobble stool) to help me with this part of my sensory make-up; it’s helped tremendously in building a relationship with my core.
- sleeping in 1-2 hour bursts without air conditioning during heat wave (nausea)
- sleeping in front of wall unit air conditioner during heat wave (irritant)
- gardening during heat wave (nausea)
- walking half a mile during heat wave (nausea)
- swimming until sunburn during heat wave (irritant)
- too hot bath (irritant)
I’m sure many people feel the heat is particularly unbearable lately, especially if you’re also a Californian; but please bear in mind that autistic people have sensory sensitivity, which means whatever feeling of heat you experience, it’s likely amplified for us.
- prolonged fine motor in non-dominant foot while navigating traffic (irritant)
- unfamiliar fine motor with handheld trackball (irritant)
- disassociation from body during meltdowns (confusion)
- numbness in body during shutdowns (confusion)
- a few eye twitches (irritant)
My sister dubbed me with the endearing nickname “penguin” after watching me waddle quickly across a crosswalk, back when we were in high school. This is just one of many examples of how my movement isn’t neurotypical.
- kicked foot into desk on accident while intentionally kicking bean bag (fight)
- bumped head into car door frame after misjudging how to get out (fight)
- bumped into wall while trying to walk to restroom in the dark (fight)
- stepped on shattered glass (flight)
- kinked neck sleeping on floor (nausea)
- kinked back driving too much (irritant)
- several migraines (flight)
- jaw grinding and tightness (irritant)
- tooth ache after eating ribs and flossing (nausea)
I’ve always felt my sensitivity to pain is the greatest weakness autism has afforded me; that said, I wouldn’t trade in my sensory sensitivity, if I was given the option. I wouldn’t trade in my autism, either.
- two meals 6-8 hours apart, with 8-12 hours rest, rather than regulated 3 meals 4-5 hours apart (nausea)
- binge eating at 3 am (confusion)
It’s possible to be sensory sensitive without being autistic. This is why, when my extended family acknowledge me as “sensory sensitive,” without accepting that I’m also on the spectrum, it’s incredibly frustrating; it’s a half-acceptance.
- smoked a cigarette (irritant)
- gaseous bubbles from greasy food (nausea)
- panicked, tight breathing mid-anxiety attack (lightheaded)
It’s also possible to be autistic without being sensory sensitive. Some autistic people only report sensitivity with a couple of sensory inputs. It’s important to always listen to an autistic person’s authentic story of their experience, versus arguing with them that they should be “this way” or “that way” in order to be on the spectrum.
- smoked a cigarette (irritant)
When you’re autistic and sensory sensitive, this means not only will sensory sensitivity lead to migraines, but they’ll lead to those unique meltdowns and shutdowns we only see on the spectrum; and to complicate matters, a triggered migraine can spiral into a shutdown.
When I’m having a meltdown, I want everyone to steer clear of me. I want room to find myself again. But when I’m having a shutdown, it’s okay to offer help; however, I don’t expect that offer, and I also know it can be frustrating when I’m reduced to only grunting or pointing to communicate until my mind comes back together again.
Since meltdowns and shutdowns are incredibly exhausting, they leave me lethargic for the rest of the day; because of this, I feel it’s important to really address this aspect of being autistic. Another autistic person may decide not to prioritize the downs as much as I do—they may focus on a different goal, like improving social skills—and this is okay.
It should be up to the autistic person to choose how to improve their lives, just like how it’s up to neurotypical people to choose how to improve their lives. Of course, we all should work together as human beings to not be hostile towards one another; that is an ultimate goal that everyone can share.
One final note: Not all overstimulating experiences are “bad;” but none of them should be qualified as positive or negative, because the point is to identify overstimulations, not evaluate ethical quandaries. This is why, when it comes to meltdowns, shutdowns, and other autistic struggles, seemingly “pleasant surprises” can be as much of a wreck as unpleasant situations.
Two dreaded words that you never want to hear if you have an autistic loved one. And if you are autistic, these are the two most dreadful experiences you probably face…
Living inside a meltdown or shutdown
is always, always, always harder than
witnessing a meltdown or shutdown.
I’m going to touch on this subject in 600 words, just as an introduction to the harder side of autism. Then in an August week-long daily post challenge, I’ll come back to this topic in greater detail:
- Tracking triggers for reducing meltdowns and shutdowns;
- How to proactively handle sudden disruptions to routines;
- What to do if you’re trying to help someone with a meltdown;
- What to do if you’re trying to help someone with a shutdown;
- What to do if you’re experiencing a meltdown;
- What to do if you’re experiencing a shutdown;
- Recovering after the meltdown or shutdown.
If there’s anything you take away from this blog post:
What is felt is worse than what’s seen.
It horrifies me when I see parents and partners of autistic people writing about their meltdowns and shutdowns on Twitter. Or when parents record their child’s meltdown for YouTube. My ex used to record me when I was having a meltdown.
Whatever you’re rollercoasting through, living on the edge of an autistic person’s meltdown or shutdown, it pales in comparison to what they’re experiencing; and rather than grab a glass of water, a weighted blanket, or a hand spinner, you pick up a camera?
That is the antipathy of love.
What is a Meltdown?
Autistic people define meltdowns in different ways; I’m going to try to describe them using metaphors, in hopes I can help readers build empathy. I like metaphors.
😡 A meltdown is what happens when a thousand needles try to force themselves through a pixel simultaneously, except the needles are your feelings, and the pixel is your amygdala (i.e., your fight-flight control center).
🤬 A meltdown is what happens when cymbals bang in random intervals behind you, lightning strikes near your feet, and your asshole ex leaves a bag of dog shit in your fridge, right after you hit every red light on the way home from work and school.
🤯 A meltdown is an explosion.
What is a Shutdown?
Again, I’m going to lean into metaphors to describe a shutdown.
😭 A shutdown is an implosion.
😣 A shutdown is a crippling car wreck in your head, and you should be unconscious, but instead you’re wildly trapped inside a broken body with no pain killer.
🤮 A shutdown is what happens when your heart, mind, and soul break simultaneously.
Aspies Want to Help You Understand…
Over a long period of time, meltdowns and shutdowns can wear your mind thin.
You may become chronically anxious of future meltdowns.
You may slip into depression when you realize they will never go away; the best you can do is reduce risks.
You may have post-traumatic stress disorder due to the way your meltdowns and shutdowns were handled in your previous years.
Or maybe you have passive suicidal thoughts because the meltdowns and shutdowns have worn you thin; because the way your environment collapses at first sight of these experiences is too much to think about anymore.
If you have active suicidal thoughts,
(i.e., you’re anywhere in the planning process,)
please call a suicide hotline immediately:
It’s hard for me to write about meltdowns and shutdowns, but it’s just as imperative to try to sort through the logic behind these perfectly human behaviors. I hope to shine more light on this subject in August, after I complete more research.