Overload thresholds really are pretty relative to the person.


I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time. I don’t know why I never ended up doing so, but I remembered today, so I am writing it today. I guess it falls under, useful things to know if you’re an autie and dealing with other auties. It’s stuff I’ve been figuring out myself. This may be stating the obvious for all I know.

Approaching dangerous levels of overload looks different in different people. Something important I’ve noticed, is that the signals for it are entirely dependent on the person, and on what their normal abilities are, and what their thresholds for certain kinds of shutdown are.

I’m remembering in particular a conversation I had with a friend once. She said… something like (I could be getting this wrong, I’m picking what I think was the particular trait that changed), “I’m starting to get to the point where words, spoken or written, are just running together and making no sense.”

I replied, “Yeah. That’s how things are a lot of the time for me. But in you that would mean trouble.” And we kind of laughed about it.

I remember, once, reading someone talking about an utterly horrifying experience he had. He described his mental state at the time in terms that are usually reserved for people who have no mental state. And then he told me what he meant by it, and it was something I experienced on a regular basis.

I still don’t agree with the words he used to describe it, but I’m starting to understand why it is that he would find it a lot more alarming, and a lot more of an “imminent danger” signal, than I would. It’s not part of his normal, it’s part of mine.

Likewise, I was at one point experiencing a great deal of pain with typing to the point where I strapped a bent stick to my arm and typed with the stick. The reactions of a woman who knew me, and a man who worked in the facilitated communication field, were very different. The woman who knew me was commenting on the frustration I was probably experiencing because of the speed issue, and the man was congratulating me on how well I typed compared to people who use more FC than I do. (Although I’ve seen FC users type way faster than I was typing that day.)

Meanwhile, I’ve seen people talk about dangerous (to them) levels of overload and shutdown, when losing skills I’ve never had in the first place.

This isn’t meant to be one of those vacuous statements about looking at how fortunate you are in comparison to someone else. It’s more the opposite. I can see a potential for auties to say, “Well I never had that, so losing it isn’t a big deal, I live without it all the time.” And I keep thinking “No, this is one of those things that really is relative to how someone is doing normally. For some people, losing the ability to talk signals a big crash, for other people it is commonplace. The fact that it’s commonplace for some of us does not negate the fact that it signals a big crash for others.”

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

7 responses »

  1. This post and the previous one exactly cohere with Charlie’s Saturday—-overloads of anxiety and gastrointestinal distress, over and over.

    It was good to read this one especially.

  2. I remember, last summer, posting a very long and emotional account on WrongPlanet about one of my first in-person experiences with autistic overload, and you replied to it with “Sounds like fairly ordinary shutdown to me”. I misinterpreted it exactly as you described, as one of those vacuous statements whose hidden meaning is “Shut up, quit whining and pretending like your thoughts are a big deal”.

    I remember sitting there and trying to feel grateful for being knocked down. Society’s conditioning can be too pervasive.

  3. Yeah. When I said that, I didn’t mean anything like shut up and quit whining. I did mean, though, that it’s a fairly standard (as in, standard for an autistic, not necessarily standard for me or any particular autistic) kind of shutdown, and not necessarily (as the poster before me, not you, said) a seizure, and definitely not requiring (as you came up with) a psychological explanation such as a flashback to a certain time period in someone’s life. Since people seemed to be trying to figure out exactly what had gone on, and it sounded more like shutdown than anything particularly exotic. I wasn’t even writing in reply to the first post, but the later conversation between people trying to figure out what could cause that.

  4. Wow, this is an excellent post! It really does make a difference for where the “normal” baseline is for an individual. My hubby is finally beginning to understand that my pain threshold is way higher than his, but my social chit-chat threshold is way lower, et cetera ad nauseum. Mostly ad nauseum.


  5. This is so interesting. I don’t know what else to say but “another lightbulb”, as usual…
    I think it’s not stating the obvious, but rather stating the “should-be-obvious”, the “why didn’t I think of that?!” sort of thing.

  6. Pingback: Bridge Load Limit « Andrea’s Buzzing About:

  7. In re-reading this post today (after following a link from somewhere else), it occurs to me that there is a certain rough parallel here to one of your posts on asthma: a certain level of functioning (whether lung capacity or neurological functioning) may be perfectly normal for one person but dangerously unsafe for another. Which is why it can be risky to assume that the “warning signals” or symptoms for some kind of crash (whether asthmatic crisis or a shutdown/meltdown etc) are necessarily going to be universal for everyone prone to similar types of crash downs.

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