Autistic Shutdown

Autistic Shutdown

This week’s photographs are mostly quiet moments around Leiden in the Netherlands. We stayed with a couple who worked at the ESA (European Space Agency). It was a nice calm few days before heading off to Amsterdam.

You can get prints of the photos in this weeks newsletter on my print store or you can tip me on Ko-Fi so I can buy film for my camera.

Autistic Shutdown

Earlier this week I went into autistic shutdown. I’ve experienced it a few times in recent years. A couple of times before I was diagnosed as autistic and some after. It’s not fun and perhaps harder on those around you than yourself because they can’t help or relate.

Grab a seat and let me tell you all about how a piece of toast broke my marriage for an evening. Oh don’t worry the toast was fine.

It’s a sunny summer’s Sunday with sausages sizzling and sun kissed tomatoes staying the hell away from my house. My wife and I are doing our “It’s warm enough for a BBQ” BBQ featuring chicken, sausages and smokey toast. The chicken cooks fine but the sausages highlight a heat issue. The left side is hotter than the right so my wife’s sausages cook quicker than mine. No big deal. I move them off the heat when done and finish cooking mine. When done we eat and they are perfect. As the coals are still hot we throw in a small piece of sourdough bread to toast, split and share. A little treat to capture the final moments of fire from the BBQ.

The toast cooks ok on one side. Remember that the left side of the BBQ is hotter and you can see the grill lines on the left side of the toast. I mention the issue to my wife and flip the bread over. The process repeats and the left half of the other side toasts quicker. My wife suggests I turn/flip the bread one way. It confuses me. I don’t know why but it does. This isn’t my first toast based rodeo. We’ve done this many times. I can toast sourdough well enough to make Paul Hollywood cry (Probably because I’m doing it terribly wrong). For some reason my brain doesn’t understand what my wife is suggesting. I can’t really describe where the confusion came from or what appeared to be different about her ideas to mine. All I remember was being confused and explaining to her about the sausage cooking time and how the left side was hotter.

The toast was cooling. Soon it would turn into a plate for butter rather than maintain its original purpose of being toast that butter was supposed to melt into. My wife continued to explain what I needed to do to finish the toast off perfectly. I continued to be confused by the situation and explained that I was confused. I wasn’t trying to debate the finer points of toast craft. I was attempting to unravel my brain from the confused knot it had found itself in. My wife was focusing on the toast that was quickly cooling in the summer breeze as I held it above the BBQ. I followed her instructions and we ate toast. She went inside and I cleaned the BBQ.

For longer than I should have I cleaned the BBQ. I kept cleaning it.

10 Move brush forward
20 Move brush backwards
30 Goto 10

I can’t say how long I was doing this but it was longer than necessary. I reached peak cleanliness and carried on. My wife came to check on me and I explained I was cleaning. She went back inside. I cleaned.

When I had cleaned enough I came back in, did the washing up and we sat down to watch TV. I was quiet for the evening. I could not process information or make decisions. The BBQ situation had broken my brain and left me in autistic shutdown. “Pete’s not here right now. Please leave a message while he stares at the ground.”

We watched TV and I was aware of it being on. There was no real connection to the story though. No emotional response. Questions were met with short answers. I had no ability to decide on anything or offer up any witty comments on the TV show. I was physically present but mentally offline.

By the end of the night my wife was in tears and I explained I wasn’t depressed or anxious. I know those feelings. They question, attack and provide me with horrible thoughts to ponder over. I had no such thoughts. I was blank. I was empty. I was shutdown. I said it was nothing she had done it simply was an accident that occurred and in time I would be me again. By the next day I was me again and I regretted giving up bagels a while back. This could have all been avoided with a bagel.

But what is it?

It’s a lot like that clip from Star Trek.

Autistic shutdown is when my brain, faced with a complex situation, turns off. For me it is usually induced by a heated debate in which I can clearly see my point of view is the “right” one and I am unable to get my point across. I am usually confused by the other persons views and no matter what they say I can’t wrap my head around it.

My brain becomes unable to process the information coming in and what is needed to go out so it shuts down. I stop. Physically I stop dead as I can’t process what to do next. I do not become depressed by the situation. My brain isn’t telling me I’m a failure or that “This always happens so just give up trying.” I’m too shutdown to create depressive thoughts. Yay?

From the outside autistic shutdown looks like someone who always gets their way didn’t get their and is now angry at the person who caused the situation. It can seem intensely personal. In my BBQ situation it would appear like I was really infuriated by my wife’s questioning of my toasting abilities. “How dare she question me! WTF does she know? My BBQ. My rules! Get your own damn BBQ if you want to do it your way!” That’s how it can seem from someone else’s perspective. “Oh you’re not talking to me now? Fine. Don’t expect me to buy you a nice loaf ever again!”

It could appear to be classic soap opera drama except it isn’t. I am simply not in any way able to be human. I cannot talk, move, make decisions or explain what is happening. Unable to move from where the situation started I wait for my brain to reboot so I can enjoy life again.

What next?

This will happen again. When pressured into making a decision at a shop during summer lockdown 2020 I had a mild case of shutdown and couldn’t make a decision. When arguing with a member of staff about rules and regulations on taking drinks in and out of an area of a music festival it happened. The situation was super clear to me. I broke. I stood there doing nothing. The person didn’t think to check if I was ok while I stood there not moving for 5 minutes because of course from their perspective I look like I’m being a moody dick who didn’t get my way. It will happen again.

There’s so many moments in my 20s when this happened due to stressful and complex social situations. Every time I came off looking like a moody dick who didn’t get their way. I was apparently being super childish. I lost my friends when it became too much for them to deal with. If we had only known what was really going on.

How can I avoid it in future? Some how become super chill and let everything run off me like water off a duck’s back? That way it’s all cool man. Toast this way? Sure thing. Let’s see what happens. I can’t take beer in? No worries. I’ll chill here in this mud and enjoy it. It’s all mud man. All mud. Is it even possible to be that chilled while the sun is burning your skin and eyes and the noise around you is like someone constantly popping bubble wrap every 30 seconds from random points in space just to disorientate you?

I honestly have no idea how to avoid or best recover from this. Maybe I should start lying and fake a migraine? That would allow me to avoid causing pain to those around me with my apparent “moody dick” appearance. Unfortunately understanding is the best way forward so faking a migraine isn’t a good idea. But could I really say “Wife. This broke me. Please leave me alone for n hours.” I essentially do with a migraine but that is because my wife has seen how bad they can get if I don’t do what is necessary to manage them. Autistic shutdown isn’t physically painful. It just seems rude.

Maybe one day I’ll be better at dealing with life to avoid this or I will know how to recover from it in a more efficient manner. For now all I can hope is my account helps others understand. Teacake?


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