How We Approach Reducing Meltdowns with a Variation Budget

The following article was written by writer and public autistic advocate Jamie Knight. Many autistic individuals speak of the fatigue they experience navigating a neurotypically-dominant society on a daily basis and the stress sudden changes can cause. In this post, Jamie offers a unique representation of how he handles the stress that comes with the inevitable changes and unpredictability of life. This post was originally published on his blog Spaced Out & Smiling on July 6, 2017 and is reprinted here with his permission.

How do I reduce anxiety field meltdowns?

Baseline all things.

The basic idea is that I live on a very tight variation budget.

For example, I have, let’s say 100 ‘variation’ points per day to use before my body will react. My body is not disordered, I simply need more structure and predictability than most people.

If I spend 80 of those variation points on my day-to-day life, then I only have 20 variation points left for new things. If something new (even something I like or want to do!) is using 25 points, it’s going to push me into meltdown.

If I change my daily life to be more consistent and predictable, then I have more variation points to use for new things.

For example, if my daily usage was only 60 variation points, then I could perform a 25-point task without a meltdown.

We tend to focus on the cause of change (the task) because that’s the big thing. However, as that’s unpredictable and not reproducible, it’s extremely hard to change it to use less variation points.

Focusing on daily life is easier. As it’s repeated daily, it’s easier to experiment and easier to build something sustainable.

For me, this means I keep to a strong routine. Awareness that I am living on a variation budget enables me to spend the budget where it is most beneficial for me to do so.

For example, I eat the same food everyday. I prefer it that way as this then saves my variation budget for things I enjoy more, like seeing my friends or doing different activities.

Importantly, I describe my routine as strong, not rigid.

Rigid is one of those judgement terms which sneaks into autism stuff. A bit like how many people say ‘oversensitive’ when they just mean ‘very sensitive’. This sort of judgement language is not useful because it changes the tone of the discussion without understanding the reasons why we may do something. Anyway I digress…

I am not rigid, I just live on a much tighter variation budget than most other people do, so I have to be much more careful.

For example, if I have a budget of 100 Variation points and I overspend by 10, that could ruin my day. If someone else has a budget of 1000 and they overspend by 10, it probably won’t matter.

This approach works extremely well for me. I hold down a job and take part in activities. This wasn’t possible until I started to think in a more ‘budget’-like way.

At the end of the day, I don’t care about varying my food. I’d rather use that variation budget in other ways.

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