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. 

Neurodivergent College Students: Some Strategies and Resources

For quite some time, I’ve read a number of popular press pieces – and several academic articles – that discuss autistic college students through the lens of the future. For example, many of these articles characterize the presence of autistic college students as a “wave” that universities should “prepare for.” While I sympathize with the intent behind these articles, what they overlook, either consciously or unconsciously, is the fact that autistic college students are already here

First thing’s first: If you have an autistic college student in your class (trust me: you probably do and will), the best thing you can do in terms of accessibility is ask, listen, and reciprocate the intimacy of disclosure. Listening means flexing the curriculum to meet autistic bodies halfway. Meeting autistic bodies halfway means unlearning chrononormative and chronospatial constructions of knowledge. Autistic bodies move and tic outside bounds of straight, linear time and space. This isn’t just theory; it’s an embodied reality that exceeds learning outcomes and goals. How can we meet autistic bodies halfway in our pedagogy? First, we can co-construct an outcomes-based curriculum that is reciprocally built by and for the individual autistic person. What do they want from the course, and how can we help them shape that desire?

More specifically, if you have an autistic graduate student, know that they are professionals. Do not feel as if you cannot give them feedback. Constructive feedback and critique are essential in educational goals, and autistic people can – and should – hear your feedback. Here are some tips that might help you along the way, for both undergraduate and graduate autistic students.

Strategies

  1. Silence is not necessarily a form of disengagement. Particularly in seminars or more intimate settings, the compulsion and requirement to be constantly participatory relegates many autistic students to the margins.
  2. However, since autism is a multiplicity, many autistic students may participate excitably, particularly if the topic is of interest. One possible method here is to develop a system of participation that values autistic perspective while also carving space for other voices.
  3. A potential method (one of many) might be to pass out three or four visual cues (sticks, laminated cards, etc.) that all students use to self-regulate participation. This isn’t to limit participation, but to maximize rhetorical listening and community collaboration. Shout-out to Dr. Charlotte Hogg at Texas Christian University for doing this in the Fall 2018 semester!
  4. As with any method, this one could limit autistic participation – which isn’t what we want to happen. Again, communicate to students and ask *how* they prefer to participate. Text-to-speech apps? Blog comment sections? Tweets? Online forums? Index cards? Ask. Listen. Reciprocate.
  5. Incorporate autistic and neurodivergent authors into your syllabus. There are many, many #ActuallyAutistic authors and scholars whose work is instrumental in a number of fields and genres. Representation matters on a bodily level. Melanie Yergeau’s Authoring Autism is just a start. See also work by Lydia X.Z. Brown. Embedding autistic people into the curriculum is vital and it starts with us. 
  6. Office hours: Be sure to clearly label your office hours in multiple locations. Departments: it would be great to offer a list of all professors/instructors and their office hours at the beginning of the semester in an easily accessible location. Office hours should be posted in a centralized location online and offline.
  7. Autistic students are, like all students, here to learn, grow, consume, and produce knowledge. We are people with emotions, and we do express ourselves through language and our bodies. Autistics are excellent communicators if allistic or able-bodied people listen.
  8. If you are requiring office hours visits, make sure that your office is sensory friendly. I couldn’t possible encompass all that is encompassed by this, so what do you do? Ask your autistic student. Listen to them. Respond by making sure the environment is friendly.
  9. Feedback on written work: be honest, direct, and aware of autistic rhetorical tactics. Echolalia goes beyond bodily tics and vocalizations…repeating phrases, quotes, and images in papers is also another example of autistic echolalia in action.
  10. Autistic composing is, again, a multiplicity. There are no for sure linguistic markers of autistic writers. In feedback, communicate what needs to be revisedwhat needs to be withheld for future projects, and what needs to be expanded on and how in this particular project.
  11. How are you providing this feedback? If you are someone who prefers handwritten comments, please (at least) scan this feedback and email it to the student to ensure receipt and recall. Describe these comments if they are in hard copy. An accessible digital file would be best. Also, be open to facilitating a face-to-face meeting to verbally go through your comments if they are lengthy and/or the student/colleague requests such a meeting. But, please, do not solely rely on autistics to start this process. Feel free to reach out yourselves first. 
  12. Multimodality isn’t just a fad in composition studies. It’s the foundation of autistic possibility. Embracing multimodality means embracing multiple ways of knowing, producing knowledge, and representing that knowledge. See Jay Dolmage’s essay “Universal Design: Places to Start.” 
  13. Classes should be autistic friendly in both the curricular sense and in the spatial-temporal construction of the space. A general, anonymous survey at the beginning of the semester sent to *all* students, inquiring about sensory preferences, would be a good practice to incorporate. I say ”preferences” but this is not optional. If the environment isn’t friendly to autistic folks, then chances are autistic folks won’t be in the room or will not be fulfilled in their participation. Be open to what disability studies scholar Alison Kafer calls “flex time” or “crip time,” which is another way of saying that disabled and autistic bodies inhabit the materiality of time differently than neurotypical or able-bodied people.
  14. Try not to write isolated question marks or other symbols in the margins, even though this might help you. Un-contextualized feedback or markers can cause anxious reactions or confusion. If you are confused by something, say that and say what confuses you.
  15. Campus activism: does your university have an autism advocacy group? If so, who is running it? Are they autistic people? Are autistic people in their space? If not, work with autistic self-advocates to develop an autistic-led university advocacy group. For reference, Texas Christian University has an organization that is led by non-autistic people. Their work focuses solely on “relieving” burdens caused by autistic people on their families. This is a place to start. 
  16. Self diagnosis is valid. If your student doesn’t have a slip from disability services, know that disclosure is a form of intimacy and they trusted you with that information enough to tell you. Respect this form of emotion, and reciprocate in the form of radical accessibility. If you need literature to back you up on this, see: (1) Nicolas, Melissa. “Ma(r)king a Difference: Challenging Ableist Assumptions in Writing Program Policies” and (2) “Creating a Culture of Access in Writing Program Administration” by Melanie Yergeau. 

Additional Resources

Consider reading and assigning the following texts to your students, as part of the coursework curriculum and as part of the comprehensive examination lists circulated in your department(s):

12/19: College English (82:2)

I thought I was finished featuring pieces related to or on #AntiAbleistComposition, but with the recently released 82nd volume and 2nd issue of College English, I have two additions to make.

The first is a review essay by Patricia Dunn titled, “Disability in Higher Education: How Ableism Affects Disclosure, Accommodation, and Inclusion.” The review essay focuses on three (relatively) recent books:

  1. Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education (2017) by Jay T. Dolmage
  2. Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness (2018) by Melanie Yergeau
  3. Negotiating Disability: Disclosure and Higher Education (2017) edited by Stephanie L. Kerschbaum, Laura T. Eisenman, and James M. Jones.

The second is an article by Lauren E. Obermark titled “Making Space for the Misfit: Disability and Access in Graduate Education in English.”

Featured image description: the background is a dark gradient blue. From top to bottom: “Anti-Ableist Composition” is in all caps, bolded, white sans serif font. “College English [line space] Volume 82, issue 2, 2019” is in yellow sentence-case serif font.

Rhetoric, Composition, and Communication Journals and Their Organizational Affiliation