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  • Writer's picturePamela Ehn


This is something that most people equate with autistics. And yeah, shutdowns and meltdowns are a fact of life for autistics. Our nervous systems are so sensitive and the world is so insensitive to our needs that it happens.

There are other things, like burnout, or exhaustion. Autistic people have two speeds: Speedy Gonzales or potato. But one can plan for these things if one is aware of one's energy levels and needs. It's a skill I call Spoon Management and it's what I call an adult life skill for autistics. In fact, I think it is a skill that should be taught to autistic children because I think it would serve them far better than ABA, because it would teach them to be aware of their body and their needs, and that is something that people try to train autistic people out of FROM BIRTH. So I'm pretty social. At the same time, it's exhausting. So I know that if I go to a party, I'm going to be useless the next day. I can plan for that.

Shutdowns and meltdowns are different. These cannot be planned for. I cannot speak for all autistics, but for me, my tendency is to shut down rather than melt down. We live in a noisy world and if I'm at the supermarket and get overwhelmed, I'll shut down and start walking into people and/or walls. And then I get the joy of total strangers berating me for my rudeness as if this was something I was doing on purpose. Worse, is if they expect a response because I'm not exactly verbal when this happens. But usually, I'll get a berating and that's the end of it. I shut down. And I can't predict when it will happen because some days, I might be able to navigate that noisy environment just fine. Shutdowns are not preventable, but if I'm left to my own devices (please stop me if I walk into the street), I'm quiet and will be ok.

On the other hand, for me, meltdowns are entirely preventable, but not by me. I can't think of a single time in my life where a meltdown wasn't precipitated by someone being a complete and utter asshole while I was in distress or shutting down. Every single meltdown I've ever had was caused by an asshole. The most spectacular one I had happened shortly after I moved to New York and didn't understand the subway system that well. So I was trying to get back to Astoria late one night, and when I got to Times Square, there were signs up saying the N was not running.

So I asked a couple of MTA workers, "How am I to get home?"

And one of them nastily said, "You're going to have to take a cab!"

And I freaked out because I did not have money for a cab and I had no idea how I was going to get home at all. I hadn't lived in New York long enough to know that the MTA always provides alternatives when lines stop running. So I was already in meltdown mode, and then the one thing that could make everything worse happened. God bless them, but everyone crowded around to help me. It honestly would have been better had I been left alone. These kindhearted strangers were not the cause of my meltdown, and they only had the best of intentions but they didn't help, what with their questions and crowding around me. I was not verbal enough to tell them so I became hysterical. And I saw a cop eyeing me, and I remember thinking, "Oh great! I'm going to get carted off to Bellevue and no one will ever see me again!" But he merely kept an eye on me, as he should have, to make sure I was not a threat to myself or others, and did not otherwise interfere. (The NYPD does the best job in the country in training its officers in how to deal with the developmentally disabled population.)

Somehow, these people somehow figured out collectively where it was I needed to go without my input and helped get me onto the correct shuttle bus. And I was fine. But even though that was twenty years ago, I'm still mad at those MTA workers who prompted a completely unnecessary meltdown, which is mortifying to me, by being such jerks. There is no call for that. But there are some people who just enjoy making the lives of distressed and vulnerable people that much more awful.

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