I would like to share the main differences I have noticed between an Autistic shutdown and dissociation, from what I experience. Both can be terrifying, exhausting and I think appear quite similar from the outside, but for me, they have varying indicators and do feel very different. I will also include some coping strategies which seem to be helping me.
1. Being Autistic is who I am.
2. During an Autistic shutdown I know where I am, who I am and who I am with. Even though, things have gone blank, my thoughts have paused, my brain is unresponsive, even when I am unable to talk very much and in need of lots of alone time, I’m still aware of my surroundings.
3. I am getting better at preparing and coping with shutdowns (and meltdowns) understanding myself and what really triggers, upsets and makes things increasingly difficult has helped massively. Keeping a close eye on how much I’m exposed to those things, has also reduced anxiety, OCD and ultimately shutdowns altogether.
4. Shutdowns for me, can potentially happen frequently (and definitely have in the past, without knowing what they were) especially if I’m not managing carefully what I am doing, what else is going on around me, and putting new found coping strategies in place. They last for varying times, but if I can intervene in time, they are greatly reduced or even occasionally stopped completely. The main trigger for me would be sensory overload, my earbuds are invaluable (see bottom of the page for a link to the ones I have). Sensory overwhelm quickly leads to distress. Overthinking is also a main starting point which can lead to a shutdown, it feels as though I have multiple tabs open in my brain and it’s definitely something I have to closely manage – my earbuds, alone time, napping, breathing exercises, low lighting, listening to music and ASMR / relaxation sounds are essential, at specific times, by taking the pressure off myself and accepting that I need this time, I have begun to pick up on my unique rhythm, a pattern of when I need to rest, recover and when I’m able to do more and focus. Particularly for anxiety, assessing situations according to how dangerous it is and how it physically makes me feel on a scale in my head really helps me regulate my mood before even entering that environment.
For example; 1 = Alone in my room (safe to stay) 10 = Burning building (get out now!) If I’m able and have the time to do this in most situations, especially if it’s new, with unfamiliar people, or I’m going somewhere I’m feeling particularly anxious about, then getting down to a 1, 2 or 3 is calming and normally has a positive impact on how I feel for the whole visit too. It’s not always possible, so I have to remind myself it’s ok if I don’t manage it every time, I can’t prepare for everything.
1. Dissociation is a state of mind, which means it doesn’t last forever.
2. Suddenly, I have no idea where I am, nothing feels real. Things move in a very surreal slow-motion way. I don’t recognise or understand the people around me. I feel I need to get out, but have no idea where to go, I’m filled with panic but I can’t move. I don’t feel like me. I usually get very hot, sometimes can have palpitations and feel sick.
3. Dissociation is very unpredictable; it hits me like I have just run into a wall. I also experience a plummeting feeling; deep dread consumes me. No warning, no preparation time, like a switch has been flicked in my brain and I’m left desolate. Overwhelming feelings of loss, loneliness and guilt take over, it can become unbearable to the point my skin feels itchy.
4. Dissociation for me happens quite infrequently, so even though it’s terrifying, can take varying times to recover from, I feel I can apply some rational thinking to it, knowing it’s not a big part of me, it’s a state my mind goes into due to being overwhelmed or triggered by trauma.
I think for both Autistic shutdowns and dissociation, it can take years to learn coping strategies, or some things can start to click into place reasonably quickly. Finding what works best for you is important, because everyone has individual needs, we all learn and respond differently, but know it can be done, just at your own pace. I am not trying to simplify the process, it’s tough, often traumatising, takes time and may not always be successful due to different triggers, unexpected situations arising but I think it’s worth the time and hard work to eventually make things, even just a little easier.
These have been a lifeline and the best gift! (I may have chosen them and researched which ones I would like for about a month!!) Anyway, if you’re looking for some earbuds to add to your life or as a gift, I recommend these! They are super comfy, easy to use, sound quality is amazing, noise cancelling is brilliant, and they aren’t ridiculously pricey!
(If you’re interested click on the picture below!)