Hi, Dale here,
Neither of us have written a blog post in a while, so I though I’d write about a topic I alluded to in a previous post, namely: stimulation overload, and social burnout.
From my own experiences, and I am far from expert, I don’t have a huge amount of experience with these topics. The best umbrella definition to give though is that people on the autistic spectrum generally experience certain senses to a much higher degree. They may (and this is common) have a high tolerance of pain, but also have very sensitive hearing, particularly to certain sounds. It’s worth noting, that next time you see a child or an adolescent – or even an adult – with noise-cancelling headphonider that it may not be their, or their family’s intention to be rude or antisocial, but simply they feel the need to block out loud noises and prevent stimulation overloads or meltdowns.
But what are “meltdowns”, “stimulation overload” and “social burnout”?
This is where speaking from my own experience may helpful. First I’ll tackle stimulation overload, although really this goes hand in hand with meltdowns, at least it does so for me. Stimulation overload is where sound, light, or even touch, taste and smell becomes too much for the person to handle and process. For myself, this is the case when I am in a very crowded room, perhaps a nightclub or a busy pub, with people milling about, dancing, talking, music blaring all around the place, and flashing lights. That situation is a one way ticket to overload for me, and in such a situation my first and only instinct is to GET OUT. There have been instances with corporate functions in my workplace where we’ve gone to nightclub and I’ve had to make an excuse and leave – usually being the first to do so, because my flight instinct has far more precedence over any desire to mingle, make friends, and network. This can seem very antisocial, but it isn’t intended in such a way.
Meltdowns are often a consequence of stimulation overload, but could also be due to an information overload, which is a topic I know less of, or even an emotional (especially negative) overload. In a child, this can take the form of what looks very much like a “temper tantrum”, and the child may not listen to reason or explanation, nor may they understand that what caused the meltdown could be dangerous. This is why I take it very personally when a child is having a “tantrum” and a completely random stranger comments on what a “naughty child” the person is. This has actually happened in my presence and I had to fight the urge to tell this very rude woman that the child may well in fact be on the spectrum and be dealing with a meltdown that is far more distressing and unpleasant than it is for the parents or the onlookers. So please, readers, don’t make assumptions like that.
That is neither your place, nor your privilege.
In adults, meltdowns can vary. Some adults I think still experience more violent and emotional meltdowns such as may look a tantrum. I don’t get that particularly, but I do have a different form of meltdown. Mine tend to be quiet but no less explosive. I immediately go quiet and withdrawn, I may speak in short sentences, become far more excessively polite and formal than normal for me, and in some cases my grammar may break down a little as I try not to get emotional. These meltdowns, as with all things can vary on their own spectrum in a way, from a very mild “anxiety attack” to a full blown “episode” that can take a whole day, or even longer, to recover from. How to deal with a meltdown varies from person to person, so I cannot give a “this is what you must do” to readers of this blog, but what I will say is that in my case there are a select group of people who I trust and feel safe with, and can talk me out of a meltdown eventually, although it may be hard for them to do so initially. Yes, Alli is one of those people.
This is more tricky to explain adequately. For those on the spectrum, social skills do not come instinctually, nor are they easily acquired as for most people. It varies, but typically spectrum people have difficulties reading body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, humour, sarcasm, lies (including white lies), and any kind of language that may be ambiguous. This is the case for me, although I do find myself improving on the ambiguous language bit (not sure whether some others would agree).
As such, socialising with people can be extremely exhausting as the Aspie has to process everything deliberately, involving a lot of heavy thought, and calculation. Anyone who has been to high school, college or University will remember how stressful and tiring a 2 hour exam was. Imagine that, but on a regular basis for some people. Is it therefore any wonder, why some of those on the spectrum may want to leave a party early, or in the middle of a group conversation, decide to play on their phone. They’re not being antisocial, at least not in a rude sense, but rather they need time away from all these taxing social mathematics and recharge. I call this “social burnout”, and I get it sometimes.
I’m fortunate that I have some people in my life who understand this, and might ask if they or I need to leave, without any judgement on me for doing so. If you know an autistic person in your life, I’d heavily recommend you do likewise.
So anyway, that’s a basic run down of these social difficulties. If you have any questions for me, feel free to put them in the comments, and I may answer them in another post. In fact, I’d like to do a Q&A post some time soon, so any questions you would like an Aspie answer to, just throw them out there in the comments!