2

Background

I am currently working on a short science fiction story, and need some advice about writing a pivotal scene for the main protagonist.

The main character of the story is a biologist and alien ecosystem specialist who works on board an Enterprise-style exploration ship, and as part of his job, he works in the ship's biology lab and takes care of the ship's menagerie of animals and alien critters. He is especially fond of the entomology lab that houses the bugs and beetles they are studying, and he visits it every day to care for them. The care of these animals is essentially one of the pillars of stability in his life.

This character is autistic, and one of the major climactic scenes of the story is when he comes into the lab one day and finds all of his beehives and insect nests smashed and all of his beloved creatures killed. He is an incredibly kind-hearted person and cared deeply for these animals, and the murder of his creatures is too much for him to handle; it causes him to have a breakdown.

I am not on the autism spectrum myself, so I don't know firsthand what it is like to have a meltdown - i.e. what kinds of things an autistic character would be feeling and experiencing in this moment. I suffer from sensory processing disorder and have had many experiences with sensory overload, but I don't know how similar the experience would be. A few of my friends who have autism have described it to me and I have a general idea of what it is like; one of my friends put it as, "you feel like a computer who has too many processes trying to run at once, and it just makes your whole system crash." But I don't feel I have enough knowledge to write it convincingly, hence my question.

Question

How would you go about writing a scene like this from an autistic character's point of view? What kinds of things would a person having a meltdown be thinking, feeling and experiencing? If you have personal experience or know someone who does, it would be a great help.

  • 3
    Imho, writing from autistic person's POW is a very challenging task. A meltdown here is just a tip of the iceberg. I would start doing a lot of research here and try to run my ideas by test-readers with autism spectrum disorder. – Alexander Jan 27 at 18:19
  • @Alexander I have made a point of doing a lot of research before writing this story, and one of my autistic friends is serving as my beta reader and giving me advice on the character's personality, traits and interests. I just came across this particular problem where research did not give me the personalized and more subjective answer I was looking for, hence why I asked this question. – Sciborg Jan 27 at 21:38
  • 1
    @Sciborg I can help be a beta reader, as a person on the spectrum. – Kale Slade Feb 5 at 4:05
7

Disclaimer: I'm autistic, but have never had a full-blown meltdown. This answer is based on past experiences with overload which I felt were veering in that direction but may be off-base.

A good metaphor for autistic overload, as I experience it, is this: imagine your brain is a computer. Suddenly, one process begins taking up all the memory available and more. For whatever reason, you're not able to kill the rogue process. What happens instead is that other processes get shut down as your brain frantically tries to free up processing power, the surviving ones get increasingly slower and error-prone, and eventually everything just freezes completely. Some of the ways this may look:

Sensory overload

Is a very good place to start, as filtering of sensory data gets affected and so all sensory input likely gets increasingly overwhelming. This means that even if sensory overload wasn't the cause of the meltdown it probably comes into play as it builds. In fact, there's a vicious cycle that can result where feeling upset leads to more difficulty handling a challenging sensory environment leads to feeling more upset leads to...

Dealing with the unexpected

In the situation you describe, I imagine your character would first and foremost get stuck, mentally. One of the classic autistic traits is difficulty changing gears if you're faced with unexpected happenings, and this is also something that takes cognitive resources he will no longer have. So he might spend a really long time on the "??? the room does not look the way I expect? The hives are broken? There are no insects flying around?" stage. And even once he manages to come to the conscious realisation that all his insects are dead, figuring out what to do next (as in, "what should I do other than stand here and stare") is also something difficult that requires cognitive resources which he no longer has. Long after a neurotypical character would have left the room out for blood, he's still probably searching through the wreckage confirming that yes, this is actually happening.

Stimming

If he suppresses his natural tendencies towards stimming (which I think quite a few autistic people do when out in public), that's going out the window, and the stims will get stronger the more upset he gets. Rocking, flapping, echolalia, all sorts of repetitive movements, all the way to headbanging.

Alexithymia

Even if he doesn't usually have problems identifying his emotions, it's not unlikely they'd crop up here. So he might not actually understand that he's really upset right now, and might not be able to connect the mental and physical effects of the emotion to the situation.

(There is also a vícious circle that can happen when you know you're feeling a strong emotion but you don't know what it is or why you're feeling it and this fact upsets you, which feeds into the strong emotion...)

Loss of skills

Can he usually talk? Understand spoken language? Read and write? All of those might be temporarily lost as overload progresses. Voluntary movement, too, might get more difficult and rougher/jerky.

Loss of internal narrative

This is the one that really makes meltdown meltdown for me. I have, in the past, had most of the above things happen to me, and whenever they do I can sort of feel my ability to think – to actually have a coherent narrative in my head about what is happening and what I am (probably) feeling – being eaten away. The reason I say I've never experienced an actual meltdown is that I have thus far always managed to get myself out of the dangerous situation before it was completely gone. But it is what I'd expect to see in any depiction of autistic meltdown: the character losing their ability to make decisions, to understand things, to reason, to realise that they are losing these things, even their sense of themselves – until all that remains is pain, and overwhelming incomprehensible sensory/emotional input (aka pain), and the instinctive reaction to it.

Writing that is... not easy! But I'd expect short, choppy sentences, increasingly focused on describing basic sensory input instead of lines of thought. A lot of repetition. Alienation in sensory descriptions as your character becomes increasingly unable to process what the things he is seeing/hearing/feeling signify. Alienation in emotional descriptions. Alienation from his own body as well, movements described as happening to him instead of something he is consciously doing. At the same time, it shouldn't be distanced, everything needs to be increasingly immediate and overwhelming.

| improve this answer | |
  • This is an extremely insightful, thoughtful and wonderful answer and I thank you for giving it. I think this will be the most helpful in writing the scene. I am marking it as my favorite answer. – Sciborg Jan 28 at 20:48
2

I must preface this by pointing out that the two autistic people in my life are both non-verbal and so they can't explain in their own words.

As was best described to me, when they have outbursts, it's not because something has upset them per se, but that they can't really compute how to handle the situation and are frustrated by the inability to figure out what needs to happen next. If you code, it's like running a "try" statement, failing, and failing to properly explain the error because the "catch" statement is empty.

The result, from the coder's perspective, is a lot of seemingly non-sense returning at you with errors at line x at line y at line z (and for some time... I've had errors where the initial propblem wasn't logged because there were so many return errors) and unexperinenced readers of the out put will be unable to figure out what went wrong.

In effect, if my input leads to somewhere in the code requesting the value of X/0 and don't anticipate a division by 0 response, the computer is going to barf a heck of alot of words at me that don't tell me that something is wrong... but not "what" is wrong... if I write a simple check that it's a divide by zero, I can have the computer respond "can't divide by zero" though I usually code in a bit more snark than that.

Similarly an autisitic person will be able to tell you something is wrong, but not what is wrong or why it is wrong AND will get frustrated because you don't see the error like they do. The problem is that an autistic person has difficulty processing subtle clues such as a tonal inflection in how one asks "What's your problem?" The "tone" that the question is asked can come off as sincere or sarcastic to regular people... but autistic people don't notice that part and it can be perceived as not caring or not caring that it's upsetting, when in fact you said it in a way that you meant to care.

| improve this answer | |
  • This is an insightful response, thank you. – Sciborg Jan 27 at 18:11
0

Let me give a slightly different way to think about it than numbers or division.

Imagine being whipped for a crime. You may not have this experience exactly, but you must have some experience as a child being inflicted pain. If this does not work for you imagine talking to someone as you are having a fight, or a breakup. Something where you struggle to hold back tears.

Either way you want to keep a face. You don't want to cry, or to be upset, but negative stimuli just keeps coming and coming. The reasonable part of your brain becomes overwhelmed with the animal instinct. You tell your body you don't want to react, but it gets out of your control. You start crying, and the damn breaks. At this point you lose the reason that you have and break down.

Being autistic is not different from this, it's just that the stimuli that breaks you instead of a whip could just be noise, or just a texture. The effect is the same, the reasonable human brain becomes overloaded with the animal instinctual responses that completely don't help in the situation. Instead you just try to shut down.

| improve this answer | |
0

You might look into a distinction sometimes made between meltdowns, which may be thought of as external (and often may be described as 'tantrums' by teachers, colleagues, parents etc.), and shutdowns, which are internal. Here I would suggest (as somebody with asperger's who is typically very good at masking his symptoms) that your character might have a shutdown. If people speak to him, he may be unable to respond, becoming non-verbal for a period - he simply may not have the bandwidth to respond even internally to what is being asked or indeed pick up on the external stimulae. He might "look through" people he deals with every day, for example. Time might be experienced in a peculiar manner. He might to others appear catatonic, sitting, or standing in one place albeit possibly rocking at points as noted above and, at maximum, perhaps doing no more than waving people away when then do so much as ask if he is ok (though he might do the same even if they know him well, are empathetic, understand the situation and his condition and act solicitously). Stimming, for me at least, comes from a different place than this kind of a shutdown, which more or less precludes it (though as I think this through, I can imagine hand flapping and the like, perhaps coming in waves, so perhaps again not). There may be some form of an internal process, looping over the same logical explorations of something he is simply not able to take in - the computer analogy is apt here since a computer may get stuck in an infinite loop: again and again he may go over something he was planning to do which he now, obviously, cannot, but he has set himself up for his day and any change to this routine might take time to process and even minor changes might, depending upon his resilience and strategies to cope with change, provoke a meltdown or simply a bout of irascibility, but this one in particular, for obvious reasons, leads him to an incapacity to absorb reality and so, to such a stuck loop. I'm not certain this process would be in any way comparable to typical forms of thinking as might be explored in third person narration, and I do not know that I could, following such a (for me, rare) event, piece it together as anything like a stream of consciousness-style passage.

I suggest he might have the presence of mind to find a toilet cubicle or corner of a room where he will unlikely be disturbed, face a wall, sit under a table, and here shutdown. People might thereby lose him for a time. It might also, however, be in a familiar space like a sofa or chair he habitually uses. There he might sit in an unfamiliar position such as in the fetal position.

For the above, I am drawing on an analysis of my own experience and, in particular, one such occasion where I had something that could be understood as a shutdown. In the next paragraph I will describe the context for this episode.

I am autistic have ADHD, am perennially underemployed, write fiction which I often doubt I will be able to publish or make any money from, and, while working on a novel while living in a different country than the one I was born in, received a letter from the Student Loan Agency asking me for forms and details I felt I could not provide them with (I am not a gifted bureaucrat). I had failed to provide such details before and so, they accused me of "evasion". I felt they could break me. I was sat on the living room sofa and, after a period of time when I rocked or some such, perhaps emitting a wailing sound, I essentially lost the power of speech. My girlfriend, who understands my condition, came to once or twice to see if she could help. I could not deal with her and waived her away. Later it would all come out of me, in angry short sentences at first and then with increasing (autistic) detail. Perhaps then she could do some of the things which normally work to calm me down when I am upset but not to such a degree: take me out for a walk etc.

That's my two cents. Others' mileage may vary. All told, however, I suspect you are on the right track. Get it down, consider then asking people with autism to give feedback, but also bear in mind that however you do it as somebody who is not themselves on the spectrum, somebody may be upset that it was not written another way.

Good luck!

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.