Updated: Oct 24
More often than not, it seems to be all of those easy “little” things that seem to cause burn out or shut down over time. Accumulative usually, and it varies in terms of how swiftly the burn out or shut down sets in and escalates. But nonetheless, it remains hugely debilitating at times. My name is Liam and I'm a neurodivergent adult who likes to share their own neurodivergent experiences of the world. And today, I'm going to tell you about neurodivergent shutdown, what caused me to shut down, and what we can all learn from it.
It doesn't tend to be the hard or big things that burn me out or cause me to shutdown. Indeed, it can be, but I can also have the perhaps expected neurodivergent tendency to focus for hours non-stop on a task or project, especially if it's one I see sense in or find to be creative. I can also take on too much work and make it happen.
People often urge me to work less, or less intensely, but actually as again one may expect to be the view from a neurodivergent adult, work is more structured, usually with clearer expectations, boundaries and definitions. Usually that is. What is it about the little things, the perceivably much more simple endeavors that causes me to experience neurodivergent shutdown? The perceivable inefficiency, the needlessly pedantic, the undefined and undeclared, the unnecessarily complex; as well as the perhaps more stereotyped social demand, sensory load, and degree of routine. But also how much everything aligns to what is expected. I think we all have those brief few seconds when we wake up in the morning, lying in bed, before we orient ourselves into our bodies. These times are maybe 2 or 3 seconds, where there are no senses, no thoughts, and no emotions. The absolute calm and blissfulness of just being aware but with seemingly no link to the body or the conscious mind. Then the raw tingle of my skin as it shoots signals to my brain that something is touching it, indeed lightly brushing against it. I flinch, or at best clench still before I realise myself in my body again. I feel foggy, heavy and dehydrated as I whip the covers away, trying not to fall over as I orientate myself to stand. I am yet to gain full control and so my balance fluctuates as I sway and put my hand against the wall to steady myself. The dry sensation in my mouth is not the only sign I need to drink something, as I seem like an alien to my own body.
I clumsily walk through the bedroom door, clutching the door frame as I sway through. My eyes open, but quickly shut again due to the influx of light. Thankfully, I know the route to the kitchen with my eyes shut. I grab the pint glass from next to the sink where I had left it the night before. I fill it up, before drinking the whole thing in a matter of seconds. I take a breath. In and then out again. The relief. You see, it's not only my external sensitivity to sensory information that is high, but also my internal sensitivity too. Any sensation is felt rather intensely, including thirst, hunger and needing the loo. And at this moment I feel all three which at times has a short circuiting effect whereby I have to again force the cogs around to “function my way through” as it were.
As a consequence, I am very susceptible to neurodivergent shutdown early in the morning. The influx of everything all at once, alongside the odd combination of not quite feeling that I’m in my own body, whilst experiencing hypersensitivity to every function in, of and coming at my body, as I come to orient myself into it. The initial fogginess caused by the intensity of the thirst, whilst my stomach screams at me with a burning hunger. But the pint of water usually takes the edge off of this.
I make a coffee, although this is more of a routine with purpose, as I don’t particularly enjoy the experience of drinking coffee. But it serves a purely functional purpose if “waking me up”. The whole time, my senses remain super hypersensitive as my hand brushes against the coffee packet, or the plant in the hallway, my leg against a cupboard door handle and my eyes still not able to open properly. All I need to do is make the coffee and sit at the table; then everything will be "fine". I sit down at the table as the feeling of the chair against my skin seems like electrified prickly ice. My heart beats faster, then gradually calms as I try and re-gauge how I feel in my body. I am fuzzy, my glands seem slightly swollen and I have a light headache. There’s also an ache in my tummy that peaks in my lower left abdomen and I am oddly bloated. But all seem to scream at me, as the buzzing of the electricity in my home plods through my head as a yet to be identified humming droning magnetic-like noise also continues. I bring the coffee cup to my mouth, very carefully and yet never fully sure that I won’t hit myself with the cup. All through misjudgment of the force of my own movement: another topic of discussion for another time. But I will say that strength and brute force coupled with a disorientated clumsiness are often a combination to be carefully navigated.
I sip. I swallow. All the while the intense smell and taste of the black coffee join the mix of noises and my own sense of the air around me, making my skin feel exposed and raw. Oh how I miss those 2 to 3 seconds of bliss when I first woke up…
I sit tense and rigid. I know I’m already shutting off. I wish to feel normal. I sit and continue to intermittently force myself to sip more of the coffee. But by now my hand covers my closed eyes as I face down at the table and gently but with a certain firmness press my hand into my forehead and squeeze. Oddly enough the only inkling of relief that I get is this. I can’t take anything else in and whilst I want to be ok, I'm simply not. I begin to feel defeated as the neurodivergent shutdown continues to set in. I sink into a state whereby I start to feel nothing, think nothing and yet the super hypersensitivity continues, as I wish to look up and move, but can’t. I hear a voice. I understand it but I can’t speak to respond. I can’t look at the person either but through willing my own response, I force a word out. Just a word. I think I might have just snapped at the person speaking to me…But I’m not sure. Maybe I need some time to focus… It remains important to understand that none of this has anything to do with the person talking to me, nor to do with the inputs or stimuli around me. But rather everything to do with the succession of seemingly “little” or “easy” things which had already built up, mixed with my own predisposition toward processing errors or challenges when in a state of overwhelm. Or at least this seems a more accurate description of the root cause, perhaps. Who knows.
I remain at the table for some time, before I raise my head, stand, then proceed to get ready, I notice that my trimmer hasn’t charged...
The tension in my body peaks as the mind fog takes over and my energy seeps away a bit more. But no, I have to continue to get ready. I have a quick wash in the sink as it’s better than having to handle the sensory experience of showering on top of everything else this morning. I usually shower in the evening for this reason. I skip wet shaving altogether, as this is entirely awful. But perhaps this too is the subject for another time. In any case, experiencing even a partial shut down means that none of these things are an option this morning.
I notice that the clothes I usually wear aren’t in the "work clothes drawer", likely as I hadn’t washed them in time. A surprisingly common and yet stressful executive functioning error and why I have an average 3 copies of preferred clothing items. Nonetheless, I eventually find the “copies” of the clothing items I wanted, all of which have a completely different feeling to the “primary items”. But I tell myself that it will be fine. Although, in truth it wasn’t fine, it did matter, and no amount of “convincing myself” helped in accepting the equivalent. Needless to say this “little” thing also took its toll.
Much of the time, it's about the cost of re-calibrating, or rather, integrating a change or pushing forward through the anxiety and stress caused. But also the frustration at the overcomplexity of what should surely be a very straightforward matter. The toll on energy, tolerance, and nervous system as a whole. So it emerges, how many matters or events that “cost the most” should arguably be the most straightforward, but oftentimes this seems not the case.
In one morning alone, before I had even left home, I seemed to be fast approaching physical exhaustion, have "brain fog" leading to unclear thinking and working memory, have sensory overload and seemed to be socially exhausted; all while becoming increasingly more tense at the thought of arriving at work later than usual. Needless to say my anxiety and stress levels were already heightened. I tell myself it's fine, despite knowing that it’s really not. And of course amongst all of this, the anxiety of the growing risk of leaving later than usual builds and starts to take over.
I finish getting ready but continue to feel drained, foggy headed and tense. So a 30 minute walk to work becomes an absurd option, whereby the sensory input and inefficiency of the crossing and walking, then walking then crossing etc. would only serve to make everything that much worse. Moreover, high levels of anxiety along with increasing increments of shutting off seem to make calculating distance against speed of movement in relation to when I should or shouldn’t cross the road, a rather doubtful endeavor. This has in the past resulted in my having stood there for minutes on end waiting for an “opportunity” to cross. When really I am awaiting a vehicle to stop and flash its headlights, so as to give me clear indication that I can cross.
In any case, I hadn’t gotten food for the day yet. A very specific trip for very specific items. But more about this another time too perhaps.
I always force myself to make it all work in the end, but sometimes things do get the better of me. Other times, I begin the day already exhausted, with little tolerance or processing capacity left. But this is why I aim to arrive early so as to have time to detach and reset from the neurodivergent showdown that was my experience prior to arriving. The seeming "showdown" I had against numerous and successive “small” things had led to neurodivergent shutdown and before the main part of the day had even begun. All at the cost of my processing power, tolerance, stress and anxiety levels, energy and leaving me with continued sensory oversensitivity. There we have it. My neurodivergent adult experience of shutdown and how I got through it.
Maybe then, if you are or have a neurodivergent colleague, peer and/or student, perhaps even at the beginning of the day you or they need time and space to rest and reset, before anything else happens. Meaning any talking, questions, tasks or demands; implied or otherwise, should be put on hold. They say the first hour of the study or working day is usually one of "finding the rhythm" anyway. In any case, we're all different and so the snapshot I describe above, remains a snapshot of one person only: there remain many others.
But perhaps the showdowns and shutdowns described here, prove insightful in some way. Maybe too, it all puts the often noticed anxiety, stress, rigidity and irritability of everyone's mornings into context.
There’s a lot going on for all of us, of course. Neurodivergent or otherwise. But I suppose some of us have vastly different experiences of those “little” things, which maybe aren’t so little after all. Do you relate to the experiences described here? Have you experienced or know someone who has experienced shutdown? Or perhaps you found this blog entry informative, insightful or useful? Sign-up with an email address to comment below. You can also share and spread the neurodivergent love too.
Until next time, it’s been a pleasure to have you.
Founder & Director
Liam The Teacher Neurodiversity Services