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Autism Thoughts

Autistic meltdown when you think its just depression

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My wife and I spent the weekend away a while ago with some friends. On Saturday we went for a long walk with them around the coast line of the island, in torrential sideways rain. It was a fascinating trip that really got me thinking about anxiety, depression and all that fun stuff. This was before I recieved my ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) diagnosis. I was unaware of who I really was at the time of this trip, which may have contributed to it.

I had no idea how long the walk would be or where we were going. I tried to plan for it. Planning is good. Present me has to make all the decisions, know all the variables and account for everything that future me might run in to so that future me doesn’t have to panic. But I didn’t know the plan and my social anxiety made it impossible for me to ask what the plan was.

5 minutes into the walk and I felt like I was wearing the wrong gloves. I had on a pair of thin gloves so I could use my camera. My thicker and warmer gloves I’d left in the house. I could have grabbed them. I had space in my bag. I didn’t. Why didn’t I? This is exactly what past me was supposed to have done to protect myself from panic.

10 minutes into the walk and I wasn’t doing great. I kept thinking “I’m wearing the wrong top. I shouldn’t be wearing a cotton hoodie. It’s not breathable. I’m too hot. I’ll be covered in sweat by the time we get to the pub.” My anxiety was growing.

15 minutes into the walk and I’m getting worse. “I should have bought my Fuji XT2. It’s weather sealed and a bigger lens meant I could get closer to those waves crashing over the rocks without actually getting close to them.”

20 minutes into the walk and I regretted wearing the lovely socks my wife knitted for me. The mud and rain would surely ruin them. I’m an idiot.

I was beating myself up over everything I could. This wasn’t supposed to be happening. I was supposed to have account for these thoughts and enjoyed the walk with friends.

I distanced myself from the group so I could take photos. That’s what I would tell them if asked but maybe I was distancing myself from people because I was unknowingly having an autistic meltdown? The weather had changed and I wasn’t prepared. The camera gear I bought was “wrong”. I was lagging behind the group so I couldn’t often get the photos I wanted. They were on a walk. I was on a photography adventure. Everything was wrong. It was all just wrong.

Could I have walked along side them and gone “Wow look at that?” click and carried on being sociable? We’ll never know. My choices created anxiety and my depression removed me from the group. I was alone in torrential rain on cliff edges. Thankfully my depression never presented any of the really bad thoughts while I was on those cliffs.

After a while, and maybe because his work flashed up on social media recently, I had this whacky idea. If someone dropped Daid? Moriyama into this setting what we he do? He is known for bucking the trend, using any camera because it’s just a tool and doesn’t really matter and for gritty black and white image. So I put myself in that mindset. “What can I do with this Leica?” instead of “This is the wrong camera.” Chase Jarvis is known for coining the phrase “The best camera is the one you have with you.” While I get what he’s trying to say there it’s hard to shake off the feeling that the better camera is the one at home. So in sideways rain with a non-weather sealed camera and just a 50mm lens I started doing landscapes however damn well I pleased. Rain on the lens? Fine. It’s part of the story. Just make something.

About 40 minutes into the walk and something had changed. I was actually happy and oddly talking to myself. My head moved from depression to some hybrid of Daido Moriyama and Leveson Wood. My gloves were so soaked I was used to the cold. I didn’t care if my back was sweaty from wearing the wrong top because my trousers were soaked anyway. My anxiety was gone. The worse the conditions the more I enjoyed it because it added something to the images. This is the kind of adventure walk I’d been longing for. Someone else was leading the way. All I had to do was walk and make photographs. Just me and a camera against the weather. It was fantastic. I felt like I was finally doing something instead of pondering it.

After about 1hr 20mins we reached the pub for lunch and I crashed hard. I walked into decisions to make and complex socialising. I was starving but we had a big tea planned. The only thing on the menu I could eat was a burger and chips. A big meal to fill myself up for the 2 hour walk back but would I be too full to enjoy the tea we had to eat because we had defrosted food? I couldn’t answer that. So I was stuck in a loop.

I had been looking forward to discussing this experience and instead my mind shutdown because there were too many social situations to deal with. I removed myself from the situation by sitting in the corner and tried to do Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). If your brain is telling you something negative then you counter it with positive evidence.

Negative: “I’m going to die alone.” Positive: Can I see the future? No? Then how do I know I’m going to die alone. Silly brain.

In this situation though everything my brain was telling me was sort of correct. I could backup the negative thoughts with evidence. This wasn’t good. I retreated into a shell and accepted what my brain was telling me. “I’m a burden. I’m just in the way. No-one cares.” When you’re in that mindset you just want out of the situation entirely because you feel so on edge like a glass about to fall and smash. It’s awful.

Here’s where I failed again. I was trying to fight autistic meltdown with CBT therapy for depression. This wasn’t what I needed. I didn’t need to fight negative thoughts and force myself to chat to people. I needed… I’m not sure what I needed. Meltdown isn’t something I’m good at dealing with yet because I’ve only had about 1 year to analyse who I really am and how to handle that. I think in this situation what I really needed to do was be honest with my wife and say “I am not doing good. I don’t need to go. I just need space.” Maybe what I needed was noise cancelling headphones and space. This was a busy pub filled with dogs barking, people talking, bar staff to negotiate food orders with and decisions to make. I needed to sit outside and reboot. Maybe I should take up cigar smoking? It’s a good reason to be outside on your own.

I power walked home ahead of the group. I didn’t want to feel like I was burdening anyone by slowing them down while taking photos. I also wanted to get my blood flowing to see if the reason why I crashed was biological. The fast pace did nothing to help. I arrived back at the beach for sunset and tried to talk things over with my wife. Eventually my brain relented and let me return to “normal”. We bought some local beer and headed back to the house.

What I thought happened on that trip was that the depression was caused by external forces. Maybe the fact that I’d lost the connection to the group, so I couldn’t have a meaningful conversation about my discovery meant I had no control over the situation. I thought I was just dead weight.

This trip happened a few months before I recieved my ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) diaganosis. My thoughts on this trip were not from an autistic perspective but from a depression perspective. I do not believe this could have been fixed by socailising in a community of like minded people. I think little things quickly built to big things and meltdown. Here’s a list of classic triggers that can cause meltdown;

  • Sudden changes
  • Being taken by surprise or caught off guard
  • Not understanding why something has happened/is happening
  • Other people failing to explain adequately what is or will happen in a given situation
  • Having too many tasks to complete at once
  • Feeling rushed
  • Feeling overwhelmed by too many questions or people
  • Use of non-concrete language such as ‘maybe’ ‘I will see’ or ‘If you have been good’
  • Transitions, for example moving between classes, leaving home, school holidays or moving between activities at home such as mealtimes or bedtimes.
  • Being given too many choices
  • Being given vague or too open ended instructions

Meltdown vs shutdown

  • Meltdown may present externally as anger and lashing out
  • Shutdown may present internally as non-verbal and isolated

Most of those can be applied to this trip. It’s possible I was closer to having autistic shutdown than meltdown. I blamed depression but I was way off. How was I supposed to know? No-one told me at school that I was like this. The psycologist my parents took me to as a teen because they were trained to spot autism didn’t spot this. He thought it was dyslexia. How am I supposed to fix depression when it’s autism causing the issue? How are you? Johann Hari’s book ‘Lost Connections’ suggests nine causes of depression and anxiety. A book I respect for its indepth discussion on the issue backed by scientific information.

  1. Disconnection from meaningful work
  2. Disconnection from other people
  3. Disconnection from meaningful values
  4. Disconnection from childhood trauma
  5. Disconnection from status and respect
  6. Disconnection from the natural world
  7. Disconnection from a hopeful or secure future
  8. The role of genes
  9. Brain changes

On this walk you could argue I had disconnection from people but I was in the natural world which he and science suggests is a way to overcome depression. I had it all wrong. Totally wrong. I wasn’t to know. I’ve been to a number of therapy sessions for depression over 10 years and I don’t know how much of that advice is valid anymore. It was all from the wrong perspective. I need a new one.

For all the talk of super powers and acceptance of being different there’s this down side where I just want to fly off into the sky and be away from the world. This is autism and it’s hard. It’s really hard. I have to learn to notice when something is autistic meltdown and when something is depression caused by one of the 9 things above. I have to do that while I’m in a state of distress so I can properly resolve it. That is exceedingly hard.

Here are some resources on meltdown if you want to learn more;

By Pete

Photographer and part time Spider-man.