So, meltdowns and shutdowns.

It’s not a shock that it took me forever to recognise my meltdowns for what they were. Whenever meltdowns are discussed in the mainstream, it’s about the inconvenience to parents. They look like tantrums and are characterised by violence.

That’s not to say that meltdowns don’t sometimes look like that, but mine don’t. I just burst into tears…

But if I had known what they felt like from the Autistic point of view, this probably wouldn’t have happened.

So, if it took me forever to figure out what meltdowns felt like from the Autistic point of view, when I was actually having them, how are you supposed to know when it comes to writing Autistic characters?

Never fear, I took to my Tumblr to ask exactly how meltdowns feel to a variety of different people.

Now, bear in mind that not all of these happen to everyone. Think of this like the Emotion Thesaurus. When you’re writing a meltdown/shutdown, just visit this page and pick a thing or two to have your character experience.

Sensory Experiences/Feelings

These are usually experienced in the build-up. There’s still an opportunity here to avoid a total meltdown, but only if the character acts quickly. They will often continue, in a higher intensity, once the meltdown begins in earnest.

  • Senses feel “staticky”
  • Senses feel turned up to eleven
  • Vertigo
  • Disorientation
  • Feeling faint
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Slower processing time (trouble thinking)
  • Feeling disconnected from the world around them
  • Chest tightening
  • Shaking
  • Loss of co-ordination
  • Temperature fluctuations (feeling warm or hot and cold at the same time)
  • Fight-or-flight kicks in
  • Alexithymia
Sound
  • Noises are like nails on a chalkboard
  • It becomes harder to differentiate between different sounds
  • Might sound muffled and/or distorted, as if far away
  • Trouble processing language (people talking becomes meaningless babble)
Vision
  • Vision fills with yellow static
  • Vision turns grey around the edges
  • Vision becomes blurry (especially if the character’s eyesight isn’t perfect)
Touch
  • Skin begins to crawl
  • Character becomes hyper aware of clothing
  • More aware of small pains
Taste
  • Horrible taste in mouth
  • Craving high-energy food/drink

External Responses

It’s important to remember that these are a reactionary response to stress. The unpleasant sensory experiences will build up until they hit a critical point, at which external responses will start. Much like screaming/increased heart rate when startled, they’re reflexive. Some people, with enough disciple, can stifle certain responses or redirect them into others, but it’s extremely taxing to do so and usually reserved for situations where the reactions can put them in danger (near an abusive parent/partner or near a cop, for example) or have severe consequences for them (in front of a boss). Some people simply can’t stifle or redirect their responses on their own or without careful planning beforehand. How you portray your character is up to you, but it’s important to have an idea in place, as it will inform your character’s backstory/personality/willingness to put themselves in situations where they risk meltdowns.

Shutdown
  • Limbs freezing up
  • Going non-verbal (I’ll do a separate post on this)
  • An inability to process sensory information (you’re aware of sound/movement happening around you but your brain won’t turn it into anything useful)
  • Tensing up
Meltdown
  • Stimming (including self-harming stims, which will have their own post)
  • Bursting into tears (often alexithymia will have also kicked in, so they will feel out of place to the character)
  • Defaulting to echolalia/scripting
  • Going non-verbal
  • Running to a safe space
  • Retreating to the fetal position
  • Tensing up
  • Outward expressions of frustration (hitting, screaming, etc. – as these are the most extreme reactions, they are the most often suppressed)

The Cooldown

Eventually, whatever caused the meltdown/shutdown will go away (or the body will simply give up), but that doesn’t mean that it’s over. It can take hours, if not the rest of the day to recuperate. Whereas the build up and meltdown/shutdown themselves have a sense of panicked urgency to them (much like when you’re nauseous and you know you’re going to puke), the cooldown feels more like a hangover. Your body has already been through the worst and you know that you’re going to recover, but that doesn’t make it pleasant.

Sensory Experiences/Feelings

  • Fatigue (often requiring a nap/full night’s sleep to recover – in extreme cases they might pass out)
  • Senses remain heightened (everything feels raw)
  • Hunger
  • Dehydration
  • Trouble processing sensory input, especially detail or nuance
  • Feeling “hungover”
  • Headaches
  • Guilt – feeling like they hadn’t done enough to prevent it or feeling as if they let their family/partner/friends down or ruined their day
  • Feeling worthless/useless (this – as with guilt – is more of a reaction to the frustration of having had a meltdown/shutdown than something directly caused by the meltdown/shutdown itself)
  • Pain if muscles were tensed uncomfortably
External Responses
  • Seeking out comforting spaces (somewhere dark and quiet)
  • Stimming, though often it’s more subdued than in the lead up (probably because we’re tired) – think more playing a single song on repeat for hours than hand flapping
  • If they smoke/drink, they may turn to cigarettes/alcohol to help them through (I’m going to give alcohol/cigarettes their own post because they’re complicated topics when it comes to mental health)
  • Wearing hoods/sunglasses, etc.
  • Hugging pillows/soft toys/hot water bottles
  • Wearing weighted vests/blankets
  • Crying

Now, after reading all of this, you might be thinking “holy f*ck on a f*ck sandwich, Autistic people really go through that much?”

Again, once more, this is a list of many possible feelings/reactions to a meltdown/shutdown. Your character might experience a lot (or even most) of these, but probably not every single one.

And even if they did, the point here is not to elicit pity. It’s also not so that you can write about how terrible your character’s life is.

Meltdowns/shutdowns are irritating. They’re a nuisance. I wish I didn’t have them.

But, like, in the same way I wish I had chill periods (which I know is something only about 50% of you will understand, but I can’t think of a completely universal analogy).

I don’t like them coming around, but I deal with it and life goes on.

You know, this wasn’t even going to be the post today. I was going to write about the technical aspects of meltdowns and shutdowns.

But The Accountant is coming out and there have been social media rumblings, so I thought I would instead wade into the waters of Good, Bad, and Morally Grey characters.

This is gonna be an issue with any minority group. You’re going to be coming up against positive and negative stereotypes that you don’t want your work to contribute to. And yes, positive stereotypes can be harmful as well.

Bad Guys

This is where The Accountant comes in. I see a lot of people rail against autistic bad guys in fiction because of the stereotype that autistic people are violent/dangerous, but I think that’s an overgeneralisation.

The stereotype isn’t just that we’re killers (autism seems to be the new hotness when it comes to explaining violent crimes, such as mass shootings), but that we’re capable of such acts of violence because we lack empathy.

I’ve been meaning to write a revised empathy post, but for now let’s simply say that autism =/= lack of empathy, and lack of empathy =/= tendencies towards violence.

In all honesty, using a lack of empathy to explain why bad guys are bad is just lazy writing.

Bad guys aren’t just “bad”. Evil is not a thing people are born into. But this Key Stage One Reading Level style of writing remains. Lazy writers have just replaced “evil” with “psychopath” (doesn’t exist), “sociopath” (also doesn’t exist), and “autistic”.

Even if someone didn’t care about other people and had no empathy towards them, why would they turn to evil/crime? Why risk prison or getting involved with criminals?

“Because I don’t feel bad about it” isn’t a good enough reason to have a character commit crimes. It lacks motive.

Motive is important. Your bad guys should have it.

What do they want and how desperate are they?

Have they been indoctrinated into thinking that their targets aren’t real people?

“Because I grew up in a society where X type of person wasn’t valued” is a better reason for why they felt it was okay to kill someone than “Just because.”

Or “I was simply desperate enough and they were standing in my way.”

Your bad guys can be autistic, but being autistic can’t be the reason they’re bad guys.

Good Guys

Now, your counterpoint to the previous section may be “Fine, then I’ll just write about pure and innocent autistic characters who never do any wrong.”

Yeah, no, that’s too far in the other direction.

Specifically, there’s a line of thinking about a lot of developmentally disabled people that they have no ability to be consciously bad (if they are bad it’s all the autism – much like the devil possessing a child in a horror film – and isn’t actually anything to do with the autistic person making a choice) because they don’t understand right and wrong/are eternal children and therefore innocent.

If you write a character who is good and pure and who has never had a bad thought in their life… Well, that’s just not very realistic. So, instead of demonising your character, you’ve dehumanised them by denying them human thoughts/feelings.

Even Superman – the best of the good guys – has bad days.

Morally Grey Guys

The stereotype that is probably most likely to fall into the morally grey archetype is the manipulator. The character who, for either good or their own gain depending on their mood, will lie to their friends with no qualms simply because they can.

And I don’t know with this one. It’s definitely not an “avoid with all costs” scenario, because I’ve seen it done well (Sherlock in Elementary springs to mind).

But I also think that it comes back to the autism =/= lack of emapthy and lack of empathy =/= being evil/a dick/having a complete lack of any emotion problem.

This is done well when the reason behind the manipulation is explained. It doesn’t have to be romanticed or brushed aside, but it can’t just be for the lulz. It has to be a reaction to something. An emotion/situation that the character doesn’t otherwise know how to deal with.

This is best done in Elementary when Watson calls Sherlock on his crap and he is remorseful and apologises. It works because it’s a flaw of his character, not an unchanging constant that can never be addressed. It’s not just “the way he is”, it’s a maladaptive coping mechanism.

So yeah, I guess the part to avoid here is simply the “with no qualms” part. At least, in the long run. If your autistic character grows and changes then you’re already ahead of, like, 95% of writers.

Alright, well, I guess that’s it for now…

I might think of more points and do a follow up post, but I think this will do for this one.

I will get to working on that post about shutdowns/meltdowns, and I’m also going to put together a masterpost, including all of the links to my posts and to any other resources I know of.

So, I started my MA two weeks ago.

It’s been… interesting. Mostly because I thought I was over my iron deficiency and stopped taking my tablets. Learned that lesson the hard way…

Anyway, the major feeling I’ve come away with over the past couple of weeks is Bloody Hell Am I Young.

The fact that I wear Yu-Gi-oh t-shirts probably doesn't help...

The fact that I wear Yu-Gi-oh t-shirts probably doesn’t help…

Which I hate. I’ve always hated feeling young. I hate the way people treat you when they perceive you as young. I hate the increased possibility of condescension. I hate feeling left out because I don’t have any meaningful life experiences to talk about.

Of course, whenever I talk about work, it becomes obvious that I do have meaningful life experiences to talk about. I’m a mother-flipping author!

But I hate talking about my work.

I know, right? I’m an author who hates talking about being an author. WTF?

But… It kind of feels like a lie?

I mean, it’s not a lie. I am an author. But people kind of assume things about authors. About the level of success that a published author must have. Now, their assumptions are on them, not me, but it still feels misleading to say “I’m an author”.

Even though I am…

Or it feels like bragging. It feels like I’m saying it to impress them, rather than telling the truth. I’m sure there’s some gendered BS in there somewhere… (says the sociology student)

So instead of talking about my writing, or running a business, I instead sit in silence while others talk about their kids or living abroad.

Maybe I’ll mention something I did in high school or the fact that I play D&D, but that just makes me feel even younger…

But then the question becomes When will I be ready to call myself an author?

Once I’ve sold 5,000 books?

10,000?

Once I have 500 fans on my email list?

1,000?

How many Twitter/Tumblr/Facebook followers before I feel legit?

Maybe I won’t feel legit until some trad-pub gatekeeper is at my door.

Maybe I won’t until I can quit my hypothetical day-job (oh the joys of being a student).

Maybe I won’t until I’ve got a Bestseller title to my name.

But that’s all ridiculous.

I wrote and published a book.

That makes me an author.

Maybe it’s time to stop waiting for the next goalpost and accept the title.

Otherwise, when will I?

I thought, what with there being so many now, that I would do a quick overview of all of the books I have out, as well as the books I have planned for 2017.

Snowverse

The Snowverse is my urban fantasy universe, including all of the books following the Snow family, as well as their friends and enemies.

Freya Snow

Freya Snow is a YA/NA series following an Autistic, bisexual Angel who fights Demons and gets drawn into saving the world every so often. The first five books, as well as a short story collection, are available now.

The ninth book, KINGSGUARD, will be released October 2017.

Other Snowverse Titles

TRAPPED is a novella following Lily Snow, Freya's mother. It's a prequel to the Freya Snow series, though there's no real reading order for it. I wrote it about the same time as WINGS, so that's probably about as good a place as any to read it, but it doesn't really matter.

FATE is a collection of short stories following Alice, Freya's adoptive sister, and is available for free to people who join my newsletter. A new story is added with every new Freya Snow book.

CASTAWAY HEART is a trilogy of mermaid romance novels set around the time of TRAPPED. It's separate enough from the main plot of FREYA SNOW that it's not necessary to read the other to understand one. The entire trilogy is available now!

THE ALMOSTS is a trilogy of paranormal heist novellas which are best described as Saints Row III meets Breaking Bad meets Charmed. The trilogy will be released all at once in August 2017 and the first book is available now from instaFreebie.

The Lady Ruth Constance Chapelstone Chronicles

Anyone who has followed me for any length of time will know the saga of Lady Ruth. A trilogy of steampunk novellas that took me far too long to finish and that were in editing hell for months. But now the entire trilogy is officially out!

FS1FS2FS3

Want to read the first three Freya Snow books for free?

I’m currently doing a giveaway of the Pup Trilogy (the first three books, including the short stories) on Goodreads. Just follow this link to enter.

Unfortunately, due to shipping costs, the Goodreads paperback giveaway is only available to people in the US, UK or Canada.

But if you live elsewhere, or just prefer ebooks, you can get the ebook version for free by following this link.

Both of these giveaways will end on the 14th of October 2016, but if you missed them, you can always get the first book for free here, and you can get access to review copies of my books here.