Unstrange Mind

Autistic Author, Artist, Advocate, and Speaker

Tag: vulnerability

Autistic Shutdown Alters Brain Function

spanish moss

[image description: You are standing beneath a mighty live oak (Quercus virginiana) in central Florida, looking up at a heavy, gnarled tree branch dripping in Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides). The sun is just hidden behind the branch and its light shines down through the limbs, illuminating the fluffy yet intricate twists of parasitic angiosperm, creating something of a magical, ethereal effect in the process. Photo copyright Sparrow Rose, 2016]

This is a re-post of a blog post that was originally posted on March 30, 2016.  Other than editing pronouns, it is identical to the original text.

Content note: descriptions of shutdown, meltdown, self-injurious activity, stress, brain function.


By now, pretty much everyone who knows much of anything about autism has heard of meltdowns — episodes of frustration and panic that seriously disrupt the lives of Autistic people, to varying degrees and amounts per person. But shutdowns don’t seem to get talked about as much as meltdowns and I run into people who, despite the blue-illuminated buckets of “autism awareness” out there, were completely unaware of the phenomenon of shutdown.

I had a pretty bad shutdown last week so I thought I ought to write a little bit about them. The people in my day-to-day life were unprepared to deal with a shutdown and that increased everyone’s stress levels. More education about shutdowns can’t hurt and it could help quite a bit.

Shutdowns and meltdowns are more similar than they might appear on the surface. One (somewhat simplistic but workable) way to think of shutdown is a meltdown turned inward instead of outward, much as some people describe depression as anger turned inward.

My most recent shutdown started off as a meltdown. My brain was going through all its usual short-circuits when some synaptic gap got crossed. Or something. One minute I was out of control, smacking myself in the face, as one does, and the next minute I was on the floor, unable to move. I started to get tunnel vision. My hearing began to get fuzzy. My vision closed and closed like turning off an old tube-driven television, closing down to a tiny dot of light that winked out just as my hearing entirely cut out, leaving me alone in the numbly terrifying darkness.

If you like to get your information from audio and video, you should take ten minutes to go watch Amethyst Schaber’s magnificent discussion of Autistic shutdown on their YouTube channel, “Ask an Autistic.” I’ll wait.

Shutdown is a response to overwhelm. It is a self-protective response — shutting down the circuits before they fry, to use computer/brain analogies — but it is as much a system overload as it is a system failsafe. And too much overwhelm for too long can cause some longer-term shutdown and loss of basic skills. We’re talking everything from forgetting how to tie your shoes to forgetting how to speak. And it can hit at age 14 or age 24 or age 54.

As Mel Baggs explained it: ” Most people have a level to which they are capable of functioning without burnout, a level to which they are capable of functioning for emergency purposes only, and a level to which they simply cannot function. In autistic people in current societies, that first level is much narrower. Simply functioning at a minimally acceptable level to non-autistic people or for survival, can push us into the zone that in a non-autistic person would be reserved for emergencies. Prolonged functioning in emergency mode can result in loss of skills and burnout.”

I my case, it was just a matter of hours before I started coming out of shutdown, much like an ocean creature finally creeping onto a deserted beach after a long swim across the Marianas Trench of shutdown. But I only had one, isolated shutdown. An extended amount of time living on “personal emergency reserves” due to being forced to operate at a higher clock speed than my chips are rated for, combined with a series of shutdowns would have left me pretty burned out. I’ve gone 17 days in shutdown before, unable to speak or properly care for myself. This is why shutdowns must be treated with caution and this is why going to apparent extremes to avoid shutdown is not “lazy,” “spoiled,”  “entitled,” or any other judgmental adjective anyone has ever been tempted to drop at an Autistic’s feet. Or heap on an Autistic’s head, for that matter, since it’s often on the floor alongside the feet once shutdown hits.

Miller and Loos wrote about shutdowns and stress, both in a manner accessible to laypeople and in an academic paper. Their observations were based on a case study of an Autistic six-year-old girl who was prone to shutdown under stress. The authors found that shutdown behavior gets labelled as conscious avoidance but is more likely an involuntary physiological process caused by “stress instability,” an inability to regulate the body’s overwhelming response to stressors. The authors hypothesize that shutdown begins with the basolateral amygdala (BLA) in the brain and quickly spirals into a debilitating feedback loop: the BLA is involved in experiencing emotions. When the BLA becomes overstimulated, it can become hyperreactive, leading to extreme emotionality, heightened levels of fear, and social withdrawal.

The BLA can quickly become hyperreactive when exposed for too long to corticotropin releasing factor (CRF), a “stress-mediating neurotransmitter.” In other words, stress gives the BLA a hair trigger and the resulting explosions feed more CRF to the BLA, ramping the overload up in a ratcheting cascade of intense panic that finally flips all the breaker switches, resulting in shutdown. This is probably why my own meltdown tipped over into shutdown: I had been stressed for days with multiple meltdowns and my system just couldn’t handle any more stimulation so it shut off to prevent my brain from frying itself. My brain crawled up inside its own virtual Faraday cage to wait things out.

In the case of “the SD child,” Miller and Loos observed that one shutdown would make her extra vulnerable to more shutdowns during the following three weeks. It takes that long for the BLA to “come back down” from its hyperaroused state. It’s pretty easy to see how quickly things can take a bad turn if the brain is not given time to heal. This is the low-detail version of why I have a medical discharge from the Navy and why I was able to hold a series of minimum-wage jobs before the military but unable to get a job at all afterwards. When I signed up for the Navy, I didn’t understand my neurology. It was a devastating blow to not only fail at boot camp but come out of it so debilitated I couldn’t even keep a roof over my head any more.

This is why I speak so strongly about helping Autistic children to build low-stress environments that nurture rather than damage their neurology. This is why I warn so often against shaming Autistics for not “pushing the envelope” the way you think they ought to instead of the way that protects them from damage. Of course it’s healthy to step out of one’s comfort zone from time to time. What you need to remember is that the entire world is outside of an Autistic’s comfort zone. We live our whole lives outside that zone. Please recognize and honor that. I just can’t say that enough: we are trying and the obstacles can be as massive for us as they are invisible to you.

Treat shutdown  as the medical situation it truly is. Help us get away from bright lights and loud noises. Help us find a quiet space to re-regulate our nervous system. And be gentle with us as we recover from a neurological episode, understanding how delicately balanced our brains are after marinating in the biochemicals of stress. We need support, not blame. We need peace and stress-relief, not punishment. And, always, we need love, understanding, and acceptance.

How to Wage Love


image description: a deer, visiting my campsite to eat the nuts falling off the trees. She is standing just across the road from me, looking at me with fearless curiosity. She stands in the grass and behind her are trees, poised at the cusp between summer and autumn.

Enough with the war on autism. Enough with the war on Autistics. Enough with the war between adult Autistics and parents of Autistic children. Enough with internal bickering and blame. Enough.

It is time to wage love.

Autism Acceptance demands love.

The world is starving for love and your pantry is full.

The same oppression that is visited upon a marginalized minority from without is enacted within that same marginalized community. I’ve seen it again and again. Every group yearning to breathe free eventually eats its own. No group of oppressed people is immune to self-immolation.

Do not mistake the oppressor as “them.” the oppressor is always “us.” The oppressed are always us. Take this knowledge and convert it to a stance of inclusive love from which to call for justice. Wage love. Always wage love.

When you can see the mass of humanity as one heart wearing many faces, you are ready. Assert your boundaries. Protect the vulnerable. Press for justice. But do not fool yourself into thinking you are battling them. There is no them.

Wage love, for there is only us.

How Having Savings Saves You

emergency fund

[image description: a red fire alarm box that says in emergency break glass but inside the glass instead of a handle to pull for the fire alarm there is a stack of hundred dollar bills.]

Welcome to the new, permanent location of my blog. I own this domain and have, effectively, done the online equivalent of moving out of the dorms and into my own place. What better way to celebrate than writing what I’m about to write about financial independence.

I’ve written a good bit about preparing your children for the world. It’s especially important if your child is Autistic to prepare them for the world with specific advice about how the world works. So often, we need to have things spelled out for us. We need step-by-step plans. We need to get a peek into the future and know what to expect. I know some of my Autistic friends are great at spotting patterns and protecting themselves, but I, as you probably already realize if you’ve been reading my writing for more than about two minutes, was not so lucky. I learned a lot about how abusive the world can be and I learned it in what they call the School of Hard Knocks. I’m still learning it. I still get knocked up against pretty hard by a difficult world.

Being on disability, I’m not permitted to have savings. I’m going to explain to you now why that is so dangerous. It’s going to scare you. It should scare you. I hope it scares you into action. The ABLE Act is great and will help a lot of people, but there are restrictions (and that’s why I wrote last year about the importance of saving every scrap of documentation of disability while your child is young.) The ABLE Act is a new law that allows disabled people to have savings accounts (a single 529a savings plan of up to $100,000, permitting donations of up to $14,000/year), to be used for specific purposes, without losing disability benefits. That’s huge and could affect nearly 6 million disabled people, although it’s only begun being implemented in a few states so far. But the catch is that you have to have a disability onset before age 26. And, more than that, you have to prove that date of onset and get the government to agree with your proof.

My age of onset is long, long before age 26 and I have documents from age 19 that prove it…or should. The government has looked at my paperwork, documenting institutionalization for the same disability I’m currently collecting SSI for having, and declared that it doesn’t count. So I can’t use the ABLE Act to build a savings account to save me in case of disaster and I can’t switch to SSDI Adult-Child benefits (which would increase my income and put me under a much less draconian set of rules than I currently live under on SSI.) I’m working toward becoming self-supporting, but I’m nearly 50 now and still barely earning any income. There’s a strong chance I may never achieve my goal of self-sufficiency and may never live at or above the poverty threshold.

But I digress.

Today I want to talk about why it’s so important to create a world where disabled people are able to have savings. Everyone needs money, so people with a disability shouldn’t be treated any different when it comes to having their own savings account. Making sure that you have emergency money should be your top priority – you never really know what could be waiting around the corner. I recently found out that with a tax free savings account, you can choose what you want to put in this account, like your savings accounts, stocks and bonds. If you are not familiar with this idea, make sure you do your research. It is quite interesting to learn about. When it comes to having a savings account, I want to start with a Reddit thread that’s in the process of going viral.

A friend on Facebook shared this link. I’ll give you the link but I’m also going to summarize it for you because it’s a long link (and I do recommend reading every single comment on it if you do go there. And I do recommend going there. It’s both instructive and amusing–that schadenfreudian amusement of watching an abuser in distress about getting what’s coming to him.)

My Girlfriend Elaborately Made Me Homeless

Here’s my summary of what transpires on that thread: A man hit his girlfriend. She went away for a few days but came back. He apologized. She accepted his apology but lost trust in him (as well she should have.) When they moved from their apartment to a nicer apartment owned by the same landlord, she gave him airy dismissals when he asked about signing the lease and he accepted them because he liked letting her deal with the numbers and money and stuff. She had good credit and his was trashed so her credit got them the apartment in the first place. He didn’t think much of it when he asked about signing the lease and she said, “oh, that’s all taken care of” or something equally breezy.

Fast forward and he’s getting angry again, they’re having “spats” (his word for it) in which the police arrive to settle things. Then one day he goes to work and comes home to find all her stuff gone and a lawyer serving him a document requiring him to move out within 45 days and not contact his (former) girlfriend. He’s distressed and outraged but can do nothing – she has played her hand well and he will be gone and she will get the nice apartment back and go on with her life minus one abuser.

People are, justifiably, applauding this woman’s bold move. She is, quite understandably, a hero in her own life story and a role model. She got out of an abusive relationship without putting herself at physical risk to do so. There’s just one thing: this smooth and bloodless self-extraction is not available to most people in situations of domestic abuse. The woman had a lot of resources available to her that Autistic adults often do not have. And one of the biggest ones? Savings. And we have tried a bunch to save like reduce our car insurance with great quotes from Money Expert but the government will seize any excess by stopping our support payments. Some might even be able to get an account of a loan from some where like Komplett Bank or any other bank out of fear of what would happen.

This is why I keep telling you to work harder to extend the ABLE Act. It’s great that it helps millions of people. That’s not enough. This is also why I keep telling you to teach your children how to say no and mean it and back up their no with action.

I have a book coming out very, very soon. I don’t have a specific release date, but it’s teetering on the threshold even as I type. It’s called The ABCs of Autism Acceptance, published by Autonomous Press, and I have a whole chapter about the abuse that Autistic people cope with every day. The statistics are so huge, even my jaw dropped when I was researching it and I am hard to shock when it comes to the knowledge that Autistic people are vulnerable to victimization (yes, it’s chapter V in the book. How did you guess?)

Not having financial resources is one of the things (not the only thing, but a huge thing) that keeps us so vulnerable. Even with all my experience and all my knowledge and all my determination for self-determination, I still ended up in a situation in April of this year where I needed the police to come supervise as I left someone’s house to make sure I was able to leave with all my possessions and without being physically harmed. It could have been a lot worse than it was. And I was lucky that I already live in my van because otherwise I might not have even tried to leave, knowing I had no money and no place to go.

In the Reddit thread I’ve linked above, one person wrote a comment in which they included a link to a sort of “choose your own adventure” story about a young professional woman who gets trapped in an abusive relationship and an abusive job due to financial pressures. The story then “rewinds” and tells itself again with the young woman choosing to build a (pardon the language) “Fuck Off Fund” so that she doesn’t get stuck in a sexually harassing job and with a verbally and physically abusive boyfriend because she has savings. She has a minimum of $3000 savings, which is more than I’m allowed to have. The government would cut off my benefits if I had $3000 in savings and I’m not an up-and-coming young professional so that’s a pretty big deal for me. Here’s the story. I also recommend reading it, even though I’ve just given you a pretty good summary of what you’ll find there:

A Story of a Fuck Off Fund

No matter what you call that savings account, it’s a lifeline. It’s a way out of abuse. Autistic people get abused every day: by romantic partners, by landlords, by bosses, by neighbors, by family, by roommates, by caregivers. The list goes on. We are incredibly vulnerable because we live in a world that has kept us incredibly vulnerable. So many of us live on disability income that functions under legislation that keeps us in a child-like state our entire life, stripping our autonomy and self-determination. Another large slice of our demographic are chronically underemployed, struggling to get by on minimum wage or less — and I’m talking about young people with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in this group. The super-successful among us who get held up as cultural icons (I don’t actually have to name their names, right? You know who I’m talking about.) are the exception, not the rule.

We Autistics deserve something better. We deserve a better life. And we deserve a savings fund. Sure, some people will fritter away their money like the first example in the “Fuck You Fund” article I’ve linked above. But for so many disabled people, for so many Autistic adults, it’s not a case of frittering anything away because we don’t even have it to start with.

When you are preparing your child for the world and preparing the world for your child, think about these things. No matter what future you envision for your child, make sure it’s one with an emergency savings fund and protected access to it — protected from victimizers who would try to take it for their own and protected from those who would try to deny your child access to it in times of genuine need.

And beyond that, educate your child to protect them from abusers. Teach them that no means no. Teach them to own their bodies and money and minds and lives. Teach them to be strong and proud. Whether they’re headed off to college and a career or headed into a life of round the clock support, teach them. These are scalable skills that can be tailored to any life, any life situation. The way I use my skills of self-protection as a traveling vandweller will look different from the way an Autistic university professor uses skills of self-protection and different from the way an Autistic living in a group home uses skills of self-protection, but we can all be taught how to own our power and defend our boundaries and protect our lives from the predators that all of us are going to encounter in our lives because Autistic vulnerability does not respect these apparent differences and strikes hard at all of us.

There is so much more I could say about this, but I have a lot to get done today, so I’ll just stop here. I encourage you all to discuss these things in the comment section. Share resources with one another. Get to know one another. I have a wide variety of readers, from fellow Autistic adults to parents of Autistic children and parents of Autistic adults to professionals who work with Autistic people and our families in many different capacities. Get to know each other and talk about this important issue and help all of us move forward when it comes to protecting Autistic lives without removing Autistic autonomy and self-determination.

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