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Why I Experience Autistic Shutdowns on Fridays

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It’s just past 6 p.m. on Friday and I’m starting to clock-off work for the weekend. I wait a moment for the “Friday Feeling” to arrive. I turn off the computer, take a deep breath, and then… deflate. Talking becomes difficult, sensory input frazzles me, and I feel an overwhelming urge to cry.

Whilst others might just be getting started on their weekend plans, I make a beeline for my bed and curl up in total darkness under the covers. Grateful for the silence and not having to speak, I shut down.

Shutdowns are what can only be described as my body’s defense against total overwhelm. Whether it be sensory overload from a chaotic, loud environment (hello, London rush hour), or a disorienting last-minute change of plans, my shutdowns have all sorts of triggers. But why would signing off for the weekend be one?

In short, the “mask” comes off. The traditional working world caters best to neurotypicals. Take the norm of working in-office rather than remotely – this poses challenges all of its own. Bustling commutes attack the senses, and lack of control over ambient noise and temperature causes discomfort, not to mention the elusive, unwritten rules of workplace relations. The championing of neurotypical behavior and modes of communication pressures autistic people to mask for the duration of the working week.

By “masking,” I mean a process of altering and camouflaging my behaviors in a way that best serves my non-autistic peers. Having unwittingly started to mask as early as primary school, it is now so second nature that I rarely even recognize I’m doing it. I mask by devoting energy to consciously communicating nonverbal signals (such as nods, little smiles, and conversational “mmm-hmms”) during long meetings. I mask by policing my body’s way of regulating itself (like bouncing my leg up and down, gently swiveling side to side in my desk chair, and fiddling with my sleeves). I mask when I rack my brain for relatable tidbits to talk about so that I won’t be an outcast for being “too quiet.” All of these things take energy, and I have precious little of it.

Just like an introvert’s “social battery” might deplete quicker than an extrovert’s, I simply lack the capacity to camouflage for long periods of time. This means that for the duration of the working week, between navigating social situations (the rulebook for which I’m piecing together as I go), and completing thought-intensive work tasks, I’m treading gently along an ever-narrowing tightrope.

Come Friday when I switch off the laptop and my performance is over, I crash like a marathon runner whose legs turn to jelly at the sight of the finish line. I stagger towards 6 p.m. until going kaput as soon as sustaining high levels of mental intensity is no longer strictly required of me.

I could try to push through it, but trust me, it would only make things worse. What I really crave is a moment to lie down in the dark with as little stimulus as possible. I affectionately call this a “factory reset” — like switching myself off and back on again. I used to view shutdowns as a complex and hard-to-explain part of me, but now I know it’s simple – I need to listen to my feelings and do what my body is telling me to do.

In an ideal world I simply wouldn’t mask, and the little dance that I do with my mind every Friday might be avoided entirely, but we’re not quite there yet. There is, however, some hope to be found in the small tweaks that can be made to regular working life that make it more accessible – not just for autistic people, but for anyone with a condition under the neurodiverse umbrella, people with physical disabilities, caring duties, and so on – a topic I look forward to delving deeper into soon.

In the meantime, now you know why I experience autistic shutdowns on Fridays.

Photo by Lux Graves on Unsplash

Originally published: July 9, 2022
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