In our culture, at least here in the United States where I live, being busy is the name of the game! Downtime or “unproductive” activities are often seen as things to do on the weekends, but only once you’ve been productive and done things like clean the house, do laundry, made food for the week, etc.
While that idea sounds great in theory, it’s not so great in practice for someone like me. Why? Glad you asked—read on!
You see, as an autistic person, the world is pretty exhausting most of the time, so much stimulation and people-ness. The executive functioning required to keep up daily life and work a full-time job is a lot, even when I don’t leave the house and have to deal with the outside world. (See my post on adulting here!)
This is not to say that the world, daily life, and adulting aren’t exhausting for a lot of people—I know they are! I think overall, we’re too far removed from the natural world and rhythms of life, which isn’t helping, but more on that another time…
So what does this all mean? Well, basically it means that taking time to do absolutely nothing, like sit on the couch and watch tv, or do something that isn’t deemed “productive,” like going for a walk or even coloring, can be the most productive thing imaginable, for everyone at some point, but especially true if you have autism like me.
Part of being autistic means that I get overstimulated easily. Basically, think of all of the sounds, smells, sights, etc that you encounter on a daily basis. Most of it you tune out if it’s not important. Your brain automatically knows what to focus on and what to ignore. If you have autism, like me, your brain can’t do that.
So, daily life is truly overwhelming as my brain is trying to process all of the stimuli and actively determine what to focus on, an exhausting task if you think about it, right?
When I get overwhelmed, I can no longer concentrate and do what I need to do, whether it’s work or just daily life, even finishing my shopping at the grocery store. When this happens, I have two choices. The best option is to do something “unproductive” like I mentioned earlier, something that requires very little mental energy, helps me tune out the outside world to the best of my ability, is low-stress, and enjoyable.
The second option, if I don’t choose the first one, is that I keep trying to stay on-task or productive, my brain gets overloaded, and I have a meltdown. This can manifest in various ways, such as overreacting, yelling, stomping around, and basically throwing what some may call a temper tantrum; crying uncontrollably sometimes for a reason I don’t consciously know; or basically becoming totally mute and unable to communicate or function.
So, how do you know if someone with autism is having a meltdown or just a bad day? Well, if they are doing what they’re doing, like the way a meltdown happens for me, but are in no way trying to get attention, it’s a meltdown. In other words, sometimes people, even adults, will do some of the behaviors I mentioned until someone notices or they get what they want. That’s throwing a temper tantrum. In the case of a meltdown, there is nothing other than time that will get me to stop.
So, to prevent this from happening (when I can), I need that downtime, whether for a few minutes, hours, or even a couple days. If you’re autistic too, you probably know exactly what I mean.
If you’re not autistic, here’s what’s important. If you see someone you know and love who’s autistic and they are able to tell you that they need a break from whatever it is that they’re doing, let them take it. Don’t ask if everything is ok or do anything else that causes them to use their brain.
Speaking from experience, if you’re right on the edge of a meltdown and someone asks you a question that you have to think to answer, the meltdown could happen. Just let the person with autism in your life do what they need to do, and they will come back when they are ready and better able to handle what they need to do.
I know we all need downtime, and I think we as a society are just beginning to understand this. However, not to take anything away from all of my neurotypical (not autistic) readers out there, us folks with autism need it just a little bit more, and I promise you that we will be better friends, kids, partners, spouses, coworkers, roommates, etc. if you let us have our downtime and breaks when we need them.
If you have any tips for avoiding meltdowns, please comment below so we can help each other out. Thanks for reading!