Before I was diagnosed and was made aware of what shutdowns were, they always troubled me. I recall them happening many many times throughout my life, and it has taken me almost twenty years to come to fully understand them. I say fully understand them, yet I am still unable to stop them happening.
When I was a child I became aware of a sinking feeling followed by tiredness and exhaustion. In my teens, I began suffering from depression, and I put these shutdown episodes down to that.
In time, I began to see them as something different. Unlike my depression, they would just wash over me suddenly and then disappear without warning. It was like a separate entity. It was not until my diagnosis in January of 2017 that I began to associate it with autism.
I became aware of shutdowns and meltdowns and many other stresses relating to autism, not from my diagnosis or from professionals, but from bloggers and vloggers (I follow them here, and I recommend you follow them, too.)
So now that I am aware of what shutdowns and meltdowns are, how do I manage them? My advice is to become more self-aware. The more you experience them, the more you become aware of their arrival. Keep in mind that they can come on fast, so you have to react just as quickly. Recently, I started exercising and getting into shape, and I have started to use that as my escape from it.
It begins with a dull presence that feels distant somehow and I begin to feel my mind becoming distracted and tired. At that initial moment of awareness, I begin my exercises. In that activity, I become strong enough to fight it off. Exercise itself might be key as it is good for the health, but it could be other activities that you enjoy or that are therapeutic for you.
That is the ideal scenario in which I can just start working out right there and then, but clearly that’s not always possible. I have had shutdowns in public, at university, in a library, in the city centre, many places. As of yet, I have no strategy for fighting it in that context.
So what do I do when I fall into a shutdown? I stop. If I’m out, I try and stay calm and just get home as soon as I can. If I don’t get home in time, I become panicked and anxious and depressed… and it can last for days.
When I get home, I try to just let my body relax. I lower the expectations that I have for myself that day. I put things on hold, I allow myself to sleep or to just sit there and do nothing. Housework can wait. If you can help it, drop anything that is taxing on you and just let yourself be. It’s the only thing you can do to minimise the duration of the shutdown.
In my experience, there is nothing I can do to get myself out of it once it hits me, but I can affect how long it lasts. Prioritise yourself (as much as possible), give your mind and body what it needs at that moment, and do not force anything.
Sometimes I read but I have to choose a book carefully. I like to challenge myself with my reading choices, but during a shutdown I am incapable of concentrating to any great extent. I recall trying to read one of my own universiy essays during a shutdown (before I knew they were shutdowns), and I couldn’t understand a word of it. It made no sense and it seemed too complex for me to grasp.
So if you like to read, choose something simple, something that perhaps you wouldn’t normally read but can still enjoy. Essentially, something that is very easy to follow. Whatever it is you do, make it work for you. Don’t allow yourself to become frustrated as any such experiences will only lengthen the shutdown.
Although I am offering tips on how to manage shutdowns, I am still learning and am open to suggestions on methods that help you also, so please share.