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The Metaphor I Use to Explain Autistic Shutdown and Burnout

I often say that autistic shutdown is a bit like disk defragmentation. Do you remember that maintenance tool computers had? It showed all the information and code that was mixed up, stored securely and safely but not organized properly.

It displayed on the screen as lots and lots of tiny colored boxes. I used to love watching it run, all the boxes slowly grouping and categorizing into familiar categories of blue, red and green. What was a mish mash of primary color would become a neat set of colors. It brought me a deep sense of joy and calm to think of all the organization happening in the system.

Autistic shutdown, or even just that enhanced recovery time we need after socializing or other activities always makes me think of this. It’s like I’ve taken in all this information, a myriad of chaotic colors that need to be sorted, made sense of. I’m pretty good at retaining information, but sometimes accessing that information takes an immense amount of work — especially if I’ve been “ignoring my maintenance.” We’ve all done it, metaphorically clicked the “remind me in 24 hours” button over and over again. When I push through and “store up” these essential maintenance tasks, the more bogged down, sluggish and prone to error my system becomes. If you have to sort through piles of paperwork to find one piece of information, that’s a lot harder than opening a filing cabinet and navigating to the relevant file!

If I don’t carry out my defragmentation regularly — i.e. spend the time processing, replaying, making sense of and organizing all that information I’ve collected — eventually my system will start to crash. I won’t be able to run essential programs, I might lose data, and eventually even getting my operating system to switch on and respond will become near impossible. That’s autistic burnout, when you enter a shutdown so long and huge it becomes impossible to function for an extended length of time. It’s a very scary place to be in, because all the data is in there rattling around, and the world keeps “pressing the keys” trying to get a response, but you can’t successfully process it in or out. It’s like being lost in a sea of multicolored boxes so vast and overwhelming you feel you may never sort them out.

Self-care is necessary and vital for everyone. But things can reach critical levels faster and more catastrophically for autistic people. Our emotional regulation and executive functioning often looks very different than that of non-autistic/neurotypical people, so our self-care becomes an even more essential part of life, often for longer periods. We are often feeling and processing and experiencing so much so differently, and in environments designed for the predominant neurotype, not ours.

So bear in mind when an autistic person needs more downtime, more self-care, and can engage in less social or other activities than you might expect, these aren’t acts of luxury or indulgence or “special treatment.” We are ensuring we have all the time we need to sort our little colored boxes, so we can run properly, efficiently. Given this time and understanding we can have the best possible outcomes for ourselves, our community and society.

Getty image by Garsya.