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What Actually Helps Me When I 'Shut Down' as Someone on the Autism Spectrum

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As someone on the autism spectrum, I can have a difficult time with executive functioning and making sure I get things done. I have trouble prioritizing. Sometimes, things build up so much I don’t just get overwhelmed — I begin to mentally shut down.

When I mentally shut down, I literally can’t think about the things I need to do. Imagine a power outlet being overloaded with plugs until it blows the circuit. That’s what happens to my brain. I’m so overwhelmed I stop thinking. It’s also why when I say that I’m “shutting down,” and people respond with “try prioritizing” or “just do one thing at a time,” it isn’t really helpful. I can appreciate they’re just doing their best to help. However, I’m not able to think let alone do something. My brain has no power to it, and no matter how many plugs you pull out, it’s not going to start working again until you flip the switch.

So what helps to “flip the switch”? First, I need a break to relax and not think about anything. This helps me to gain the energy I need to face the tasks again. Once I’ve had that relaxing time, someone needs to help me. If they help me to prioritize and possibly get the first thing done, then I can start thinking on my own again. Starting off with simpler tasks also makes me feel like I’m capable of doing more. (This whole process is sort of what flips the switch back.)

Mentally shutting down is not simply being overwhelmed. It’s being overloaded to the point that I’m not able to fix the situation on my own. But that doesn’t mean that the power is out. It just means I need help to flip the switch and get going again.

Originally published: April 24, 2016
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