Mentoring and Teaching Neurodivergent Students: Shutdowns, Burnouts, and Meltdowns

A graphic showing the entangled relationships between shutdowns, burnouts, and meltdowns. Shutdowns, Burnout, and Meltdowns are interrelated, as the graphic above implies. But they are separate phenomenon that span different spaces and times. The differences between them are vital to understanding their causes and effects on the autistic bodymind.

This post will cover three interrelated, yet separate, embodiments of neurodivergence that are critical in navigating mentorship processes for neurodiverse students: (1) shutdowns, (2) burnout, and (3) meltdowns. I begin with these three elements; because, they are what I conceive as the most pressing issues that neurotypical people have in understanding autistic and neurodivergent people. 

Grades and feedback on writing can both conceal and reveal worlds (Stefano Harney and Fred Moten talk about and around this in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study). Contrary to many misunderstandings of postmodernism and deconstruction, there is indeed life beyond the text – a living, breathing body built on the structural inevitability of misfires. Because, after all, who was I – a mere sophomore at the time – to tell my instructor that the foundation of J.L. Austin’s performative speech act was built upon such misfires? That writing itself is premised on misfires and misunderstandings, nearly all will never be mended? I had, indeed, read Austin as a sophomore, but I had yet to read Sara Ahmed, who similarly writes, “Communication involves the possibility of mishearing – a possibility that is structuring rather than incidental” (2002, 564). Grading writing, I believe, is an archaic practice built upon the marginalization of Others whose linguistic and material difference rebukes the white, patriarchal foundations of the American university system (see Young 2010). Until we start to navigate the (necessary) tension between assessment and grading, we may never collectively realize that students (and faculty, for that matter) still do not have a right to their own language (see also Heilker and Yergeau 2011). 

There’s a strong move in rhetoric-composition right now, one that refers to itself as an impetus toward “positionality” and “disclosure” in writing acts. On the surface, this seems like an ethical imperative, right? We want our students, and ourselves, to make clear our investments in given situations, I do not debate this for one second. What I do question is the limits of positionality.

For instance, many research articles on autism and neurodiversity are conducted by able-bodied, neurotypical researchers whose embodied flesh is not invested in the material. Should that be a requirement? I’m not one to say, particularly in this space. What I will say is that there are limits to critical self-reflexivity. Instead of merely disclosing one’s positionality, we should encourage ourselves and our students to explore who their positionality informs the topic at-hand. For example, neurotypical researchers and able-bodied scholars doing disability studies research may do well to ask, “how has my able-bodied comportment shaped my understanding of this topic?” and, therefore, a good portion of the essay/text should be dedicated to investigating these limits and comportments. In a similar way, as a white disabled disability studies scholar, I have an obligation to recognize how race and disability are inextricable from one another and how value judgments are not only built upon able-bodied imperatives, but are also built upon the myth of a universal white male body. I simultaneously inhabit a white male body and a disabled body: a multitude of worlds at the ‘limits’ of the skin.

I’ve gotten off-topic (or…have I?). Back to my original point: assessment and value judgments reveal and conceal worlds and the possibility of new worlds. Each time I turn in a writing assessment, my body shutters at the possibility of reading those words again: “This is incomprehensible.” There is a meaning to neurodivergent composition. This is not to say that instructors should not critique what needs critiqued: we can handle it. Rather, it is to say that such critiques should be aware of how the history of the university is built upon the exclusion and expulsion of neurodivergent bodyminds and textual construction. It is to say that once we lay bare our judgments toward a body-text (bodies and texts dance and mingle with/in one another) there is no return. There is no return from judgment or disclosure.

Shutdowns

Shutdowns, for autistic people, are often felt as the slow slog of moving and inhabiting a world full of sensory overload. Shutdowns, I would say, are more of an internal activity that, on the outside, might resemble a withdrawal from the world. Rather than a withdrawal, shutdowns are an attempt to recuperate. When an autistic person has a shutdown, it’s nearly always as a result of environmental harm or environmental “invasions.” Shutdowns are often (inaccurately) seen as an oppositional behavior, as a refusal to do the work at-hand (click here for an example of this). 

Some of the causes of shutdown include, but are not limited to: 

  • Changes in routine or plans,
  • Sensory overload (sounds, lights, touch),
  • A fire alarm can send a day crashing to the ground,
  • Excessive to-do lists that don’t seem to be reinforced with feedback.

What can you do?

  • Minimize sounds and environmental concerns that cause overload,
  • Ensure that all alarms or drills are communicated verbally and textually well in advance,
  • Work toward an occupational mentor for neurodiverse students to meet with regularly to discuss plans (short term) for the week and to check-in about progress.

Lamar Hardwick, an autistic adult, writes about these and other topics related to shutdown here. I’d encourage you to read Lamar’s essay.

Burnout

Burnout is the result of a long-term performance of “masking” or “passing” as neurotypical. Neurotypical valuations of sociality structure the world around us, and autistic people are typically forced to adapt to this structural imperative. Examples of neurotypical sociality include, but are not limited to: 

  • Force eye contact,
  • Rapid verbal communication,
  • Rapid question-and-answer sessions,
  • Public speaking engagements without preparation or warning, 
  • Meetings in public spaces that aren’t accessible to sensory sensitivity,
  • Obligatory follow-up emails after meetings and conferences,
  • Job interviews that rely on rapid Q&As as opposed to practicing the job.

How can you help someone in burnout mode?

  • Minimize sensory input from environment,
  • Minimize shared office space as a requirement,
  • Understand that if a student does not communicate a problem through neurotypical communication methods it doesn’t mean there is not a problem. Many autistic people find it difficult to easily identify a problem. For example, an autistic person might type up and send you a bibliography of scholarship discussing how time and bodily sensation impact writing or composing practice while not emailing you that they need more time on a project. 
  • Reach out to reach out, not only to check-in about a deadline. Reach out to cultivate trust and intimacy: autistic students will recognize the difference between genuine correspondence and obligatory correspondence for productivity’s sake.

Click here to access a post that summarizes burnout in a more comprehensive way than I may have here. 

Meltdowns

My apologies for the language here, but meltdowns fucking suck. No one likes a meltdown. This seems obvious, but too often meltdowns are cast as “tantrums” and not valid responses to harmful environments and toxic spaces that aren’t accessible for neurodivergent bodyminds. You could find a lot of stuff written on meltdowns (I’d recommend going to #ActuallyAutistic on Twitter).

After meltdowns, you can help your neurodiverse students and mentees by understanding that they are embarassed or shamed by what happened and that further expounding these feelings by commenting on them is not helpful. Instead, offer support and encouragement. More than this, try to work with the student to make structural changes that might prevent meltdowns from happening in the future. Though they cannot be totally eliminated, the structural causes can be limited as much as possible through healthy dialogue. And, sometimes this dialogue should be started by the mentor as opposed to placed on the shoulders of the autistic student. Many times, autistics will not begin this process, although disability services requires such a move it’s simply not an accessible embodiment to most autistics. Oftentimes, neurodivergent folx need support to get conversations started and to keep them going. 

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