From barely functioning to melting down

When I’m somewhere outside my comfort zone – anywhere new, busy, or with a lot to remember – I will go into the mental equivalent of power saving mode. I keep my head down, remain on the sidelines, or wherever it’s quietest, and withdraw into my own head.

If I have an obligation to be in this place, I will do what I think is expected, but, though polite, will not be at my most sociable. Nor my most attentive. My brain is doing only what it has to. As soon as is socially acceptable, I will recharge in the seclusion of my own room, and start to feel more human pretty quickly.

Now turn it up a notch. I’ve been in such a place too long, or there are too many demands being made, or maybe I’m in a difficult situation with a person. At this point, even power saving mode is wearing thin. Until it becomes…meltdown mode.

What is a meltdown, anyway? It’s something people with autism experience. It’s something people with mental illnesses experience. It’s feeling something snap inside you and suddenly having to leave the room because you can’t take any more. It’s crying because of some minute trigger that unleashed festering negativity. It’s snapping irrationally at those nearest to you. It’s doing anything to shield your senses from the world around you. It’s being too stressed, bewildered, and unfocused to function. It’s…it’s…it’s…

Well, it’s lots of things really. And no two people melt down in the same way.

For me, meltdowns are mostly internal. I don’t have big, emotional outbursts, because it just isn’t in my nature. I feel that mental “snap” inside me, and I might cry, or try to escape, but usually I’m just stuck in a daze, with my mind in turmoil and my social skills gone. Outwardly, on the other hand, there’s little noticeable difference between that, and power saving. So it looks like I’m doing ok.

How do you deal with a meltdown anyway? Write down what it means for you, and the situations you might struggle with. Useful for showing to people for future reference, and can help you understand yourself better, too. When facing a high-stress environment – for me, it would be airports, very large train stations, or my graduation ceremony – plan when and where you could take a breather. Learn in advance what to expect from the occasion. Stick with someone who understands you well. And bring a book, or an ipod, or anything that helps you calm down.

Whichever coping methods you come up with, try to use them while power saving mode is still working. Because the more you are struggling, the harder it may be to communicate your needs. It’s not easy telling others about what feels like a weakness, especially one that the majority won’t have experienced. But the people around you have a right to know. And you know what? You have a right to not suffer in silence.

Girls on the spectrum

Girls with autism are often seen as something of a rarity. A lot of writing on the subject, unless specifically about girls and women, focuses on traits more common in men on the spectrum. Then again, that might just be linked to the patriarchy. But still. The popular statistic is that autistic men outnumber autistic women – 4:1.

Is that actually true? I don’t know. It is a popular belief that an autistic brain is an extreme version of a more average male brain. But that doesn’t explain why women on the spectrum exist at all. There probably is some genetic influence. I mean, colour blindness, left-handedness, and ADHD are more common in guys. Yet others would argue that autistic girls slip under the radar. Why is this?

For a start, girls are thought to be better protected among their peers at school. Maybe up until the teen years*, anyway. Girls with it tend not to care how they come across. Girls without it aren’t too worked up yet about their social image. To them, that girl who needs help in lessons and who still carries toy animals everywhere by 11 years** is in need of social salvation. Who better to take under their wing?

Meanwhile, autistic boys are apparently more vulnerable from day one. Most boys run on dirt, chaos, physical competition and other autism nemeses. Boys who don’t may very well find themselves at the butt of all that. And men who don’t are often presumed to be gay.

But boys on the spectrum still have those surpressed, testosterone-fuelled emotions. Combine that with being in a world where your peers use you for target practise and nothing at school makes sense, you can see why some are prone to angry outbursts. This isn’t unheard of in girls, but it is less common. For one thing: sorry guys, but girls do tend to be more in tune with their own emotions on average, and more likely to worry about how their actions affect others – even if their judgement here is poor.

On the flipside, this makes them less prone to emotional outburts. Which sounds like a good thing. It’s easier for those around you to deal with, and who wants to (figuratively) explode under pressure anyway? But keeping inner turmoil under wraps all the time is like being unable to expel poison. It goes unnoticed, and unaided.

Which is why we need more awareness. As far as autism is concerned, men and women aren’t always polar opposites. But, like neurotypicals, there are differences. Guys might be fascinated by Maths, Physics, computers and the like. Or they might be more creative. Girls may err towards art, literature, and animals. Or they might have a head for technical stuff.

Whatever you have learned about girls, guys, and the autistic spectrum, keep on learning. And what better way to learn than by getting to know an individual as the unique person that they are?

 

 

*Don’t even go there. Actually, please do. Right here.

**Not mentioning any names. Especially not mine.