Autism and Light Sensitivity

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

As twinkling Christmas lights are rapidly being erected around me, I’ve been thinking a lot about autism and light sensitivity this week.

Light sensitivity, also known as photophobia (although the phobia part has never really made sense to me! ๐Ÿ˜› ), is quite common for autists.

Image result for the light it burns gif

We are hypersensitive to other sensory stimuli such as sound, so naturally, light too can cause sensory issues for many autists. The wrong lighting environment can cause a whole host of problems that can exacerbate behavioural issues.

If lighting is too bright, this can distort vision, cause headaches andย sleep disturbances, and of course, sensory overloadย andย meltdowns. Equally, some autists can be hypo or under sensitive to light. This can cause issues with depth perception, coordination and clumsiness in addition to blurred vision.

In my experience, I have some minor sensitivities to light. Bright lights don’t bother me as such, but I find that I sometimes need to wear sunglasses to take the edge off of a sunny day- sometimes even on a grey one. There exists many photos of me climbing a mountain in the midst of a rain storm wearing my sunnies without a care in the world!๐Ÿ˜‚

rain sun.png

Getting to sleep can also be a minor issue for me if the lighting is wrong- a past trip to Norway during 24 hours of light was an absolute nightmare! (it’s just not right!! ๐Ÿ˜› )

So why are we more sensitive to light?

Well, as with many aspects of autism, there has been little research into this particular trait. One study has shown that the pupillary light reflex (the reflex that causes our pupils to either shrink or dilate in response to light) is noticeably different between autists and neurotypicals. Results from this study indicated that this reflex is delayed in autists, where the pupils constricted at a slower velocity and a smaller amplitude (i.e. the maximum size the pupil could constrict to) to neurotypicals. If our pupils are not regulating the entry of light into our eyes as efficiently as our neurotypical peers, this could explain why light can sometimes overwhelm us.

Optic nerve hypoplasia (a condition where the nerve connecting the eyes and the brain is underdeveloped) has also been indicated in a number of cases of autism, with photophobia being one of the main symptoms. So perhaps the development of the optic nerve may be impacted in the autistic brain.

So what can you do to help navigate this sensory issue?

  • Wear sunglasses– Ah, my best friends! I carry a pair in my handbag at all times as you never know when the sun might unexpectedly peep out- even in Ireland! ๐Ÿ˜› For night time, why not try an eye mask (although if you’re as fidgety as I am at night, this could end up on the floor before dawn! ๐Ÿ˜‚)!
  • Install a dimmer switch– A useful tool to help optimize light levels to suit the individual (and loads of fun to play with! ๐Ÿ˜‰ )
  • Coloured Filters (overlays or lenses)– These are designed to block specific wavelengths of light which a person may be sensitive to in order to manage visual stress; however, there is no real research to support this claim. But as I always say- if it works for you, give it a try! ๐Ÿ™‚

sun.png

Hope you enjoyed this post Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Have a great weekend! ๐Ÿ˜€

Aoife

 

 

Autism and Anxiety

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Did you know: People with autism are five times more likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder?

bitmoji551804739

Autists are highly strung individuals. Our brains move faster than 10 speeding trains as we process the world around us; so naturally, we have a greater capacity for worrying. Imagine you are in the car approaching a straight road- you would just drive straight on without much further thought right?

In the autistic mind, you’re thinking about future bends that may (or may never) pop up, the condition of the road, idiot drivers you may encounter, stray animals or pedestrians, road works and diversions. What if I get lost? What will I do about parking? What if I get caught behind a tractor (a legitimate reason for being late for anything in Ireland! ๐Ÿ˜› )?

What if this, what if that!

We over-analyse every single aspect of the most routine of ventures, twisting ourselves into anxious knots about an array of ‘what ifs‘ that may never come to pass.

621415c6C9yjMW

In my experience, social anxiety can be quite an issue. Most of the time, everything is hunky dory when I’m socializing- I listen, I engage, I laugh, no problem at all.

Buuuttt sometimes, if I’m in a particular group or struggling to get to grips with the topic of conversation, I feel so awkward that I start to get anxious.

“Am I talking enough? Am I saying the right things? Oh no that came out wrong! Aggggghhh!!!”

Annnnnd then I sort of slip back into my shell… ๐Ÿ˜›

giphy (6)

Most of the time, it won’t get much worse than this, but other times…I start to burn up, I can feel the sweats, my mind starts going into overdrive “Oh God everyone is staring!! They think I’m a saddo! What is wrong with me?”

My chest tightens up and it can be difficult to breathe.

Taking deep breaths usually helps to calm me down long enough to snap out of it…but sometimes it all starts to crumble in on top of you an then….

6ab77aef8ef6c487bda48f077d9d3aae.gif

MELTDOWN!!!! (^^^usually the flight instinct kicks in for me!)

Other times, anxiety has been known to wreak havoc with my digestive system. I once threw up on my own shoes from the stress of minding a drunken friend (who ironically did not get sick! ๐Ÿ˜› )

Image result for mean girls throwing up gif

But I did get some new shoes following my gastric excursions, and some entertaining stories out of it! ๐Ÿ˜› Oftentimes my anxiety incubates into productivity to force me to get things done so every anxious cloud has a silver lining! ๐Ÿ˜‰

So what does the scientific community make of our anxious antics?

Remember how I’ve discussed Alexithymia in previous posts (Discussion-Emotions and Empathy;ย Autism and Music)? Researchers believe that our struggles to correctly identify and understand our emotions (and those of others) to be one of the driving forces behind anxiety disorders in the autistic community. A desire for emotional acceptance and an intolerance for uncertainty are also considered key players in the anxiety debate.

In addition to this, a number of biological factors have been identified in the development of anxiety. Some people are thought to have a higher biological response to stress for example- something that is quite likely in the case of autism, as we are known to have higher levels of stress hormones.

Dysregulation of levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain are also thought to contribute to anxiety such as GABA, dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline. As I’ve discussed in numerous posts- many of these bad boys are indeed dysregulated in the autistic brain. Changes inย activity levels within the amygdala or “fear centre” of the brain may also contribute to anxiety- and yes, you’ve guessed it! Similar changes in the amygdala have been linked to a number of autistic issues (skin sensitivity, sound sensitivity).ย 

So it all links back to a few simple physiological changes in our brain! ๐Ÿ™‚

Image result for awkward yeti brain anxiety

Hope you enjoyed this weeks post Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Have a wonderful weekend! ๐Ÿ˜€

Aoife

 

Autism and Sound Sensitivity

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Leading on from my previous post on sensory processing, today I’m going to expand a little bit on sound sensitivity.

bitmoji-849393090.png

Many autists have a higher sensitivity to certain volume ranges and frequencies of different sounds. Also known as hyperacusis, this sound sensitivity can make encounters with seemingly innocuous every day noises a struggle.

For many, the wrong sound can even cause physical pain!

Sometimes autists can also be hyposensitive or under sensitive to sound, meaning that they may not react to certain sounds, or may even enjoy noisy environments- which would explain my preference for rock music ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

Luckily, I am only mildly sensitive to sounds, but I have my moments. Popping balloons, the unexpected blare of a drivers horn, a sudden change in the music I’m listening to- I may overreact to such sounds juuuuuust a teensy bit! ๐Ÿ˜›

I recently physically jumped at my desk after an unexpected change in the soundtrack to Phantom of the Opera!

Mortified! ๐Ÿ˜›

Sometimes it’s not just the volume of the noise, but the frequency or how it sounds to me. A person was recently whispering a rosary behind me at mass and the pitch of that whisper nearly drove me insane- inside my head I was silently screaming! ๐Ÿ˜›

Image result for covering ears gif

A neurotypical mayย be able to ignore irritating noises like these, but I just cannot keep from focusing on it- it’s like I can’t concentrate on anything else.

For the most part I can keep my screams on the inside, but if a particular sound persists it can be quite upsetting, especially if I’m already stressed and on edge. A piece of lab equipment that kept backfiring with a giant pop one afternoon triggered a meltdown for example.

But why are our ears really so sensitive?

One study suggests that autists experience stronger autonomic reactions to noise (these are unconscious reactions triggered by the autonomic nervous system which controls a number of bodily functions such as heart rate, respiratory rate and digestion- i.e. “rest and digest”).

Another study, which examined the brains response to different sounds, found that certain areas are hyperactive in children with autism versus their peers. For example, there was increased activity in the Amygdala- an area of the brain associated with social and emotional behaviour, in addition to the cortices which process sensory information.

In other words, the autistic brain has an entirely different physiological response to sound!

So try to bear that in mind the next time you sneak up behind us to whisper in our ears! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

Image result for sneak up behind gif

Aoife

Eye Contact and Autism

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today I’m going to discuss one of the most common autistic traits- difficulty with eye contact. This can be particularly troublesome when it comes to situations such as job interviews where good eye contact is important to success.

Image result for eye contact gif

Growing up, I was often told by my family that I had trouble with eye contact, but I never really noticed much myself until I was older. On some level I knew that making eye contact made me feel uncomfortable, but I never really gave much thought as to the reason. We just sort of assumed that I cast my eyes away for lack of self confidence.

In my experience, making eye contact just feels awkward and weird to me. I’ve never really been able to explain why, it just does.

Image result for eye contact gif

Over the years, at my family’s insistence, I gradually learned to force myself to make eye contact. There are still times when I find eye contact uncomfortable (if I’m mid or teetering on the edge of a meltdown, any attempt to lock eyes goes out the window!), but I’ve found ways to get through it.

Since receiving my diagnosis, I’ve noticed that I seem to have automatically adopted a coping system for making eye contact in close quarters. I make the contact, hold the gaze for an appropriate amount of time, then look away briefly before returning to centre. Other times, I move my gaze around to focus on different group members, breaking the contact just enough to remain comfortable without coming across as weird (I hope ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰ )!

It kind of looks something like this:

eye contact.png

Top Tip: If you feel uncomfortable making eye contact as you’re walking along the street, I find that wearing sunglasses (provided the weather is somewhat appropriate ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) can be a great help ๐Ÿ™‚

So what does the scientific community make of our struggles with eye contact?

One study suggests that the reason we avoid eye contact is actually related to how we process visual information. In this study, children with autism were shown images in both the centre and periphery of their vision. In a neurotypical brain, a large portion of the brain’s cortex is dedicated to processing information in the centre of your visual field. In the autistic brain, a larger portion of the cortex was engaged when the image was shown in the child’s peripheral vision.

In other words, we have more neurons dedicated to processing peripheral visual information, hence why direct, central eye contact is often avoided.

We’ve known for a while that autists perceive the world in a unique way, now we know that we actuallyย see the world differently too! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Have a good weekend everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Skin Sensitivity

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

So today I spent much of my time screaming inside my head- “Why does this outfit itch so much???!!!” ๐Ÿ˜›

Image result for itchy gif

This is a fairly common complaint for autists when it comes to clothing.

A single sharp fiber in your skinny jeans, an irritating label on your neck, a twisted bra- the niggling is a killer to the autistic brain!

When my skin is irritated, I find it very difficult to concentrate on much else until the offending stimulus is removed. It drives me insane- especially if I’m not in a position to remove or adjust the offending item of clothing. I’ve often had to find creative ways to navigate clothing irritation when out in public such as well placed blister plasters (I did this to the irritating clasp of a lanyard once!) and toilet roll to create barriers against the fabric!

Needs must after all! ๐Ÿ˜‰

bitmoji1326577628

But is my skin really this sensitive?

According to science, the answer is yes!

Research suggests that gene mutations cause problems for the sensory nerves in our hands, legs, arms, fingers and of course, the skin covering them. Mutations cause these nerves to be excessively sensitive- described by scientists as having the volume turned up to the max setting. When these nerves relay sensory information back to the brain, the brain feels the touch of certain stimuli at a heightened, exaggerated level.

Hence my internal screams! ๐Ÿ˜›

Another study, which tested the response of autists and neurotypicals to sensory stimuli (e.g. a scratchy wool jumper) in a brain scanner, found that the autistic brain reacts more strongly. The primary cortex of the brain (involved in sensory processing) and the amygdala (involved in emotional regulation) were both hyperactive during this experiment, suggesting that autists a) process sensory input differently, and b) struggle to regulate their emotional response to stimuli.

So what can you do to help an autist with sensitive skin?

This is a tough one to advise. Sensitivities vary from person to person. Some may favour loose clothing, others enjoy the comfort of tight clothes which provide calming deep pressure. In my experience, the best tip that I can offer is to use a seam ripper to properly remove labels (the remnants of the tag can be just as irritating). After that, trial and error is the best way to find out what works for you/or your child ๐Ÿ™‚

Some days, sensitive skin can be a pain (especially where undergarments are concerned ๐Ÿ˜› ), but hey- it also makes puppies all the fluffier! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Image result for petting fluffy puppy gif

Enjoy the weekend everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Sleep and Autism

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Did you know that between 40% and 80% of autists reportedly have sleep problems?

bitmoji-1207141827.png

I have spent many a restless night tossing and turning whilst my mind races. Like a washing machine on the highest spin setting, my mind keeps going round and around when I turn out the lights.

This is a fairly accurate (and cute) representation of my efforts to sleep at night:

gif.gif^

I struggle to get comfy and start thinking and stressing about my day, about tomorrow, about that embarrassing time when I got an answer wrong in class and everyone laughed at me…and it keeps rolling on in a similar never-ending loop. The pillow starts heating up (did you know that thoughts produce heat? ), I start stressing about not sleeping and how soon the alarm will go off, get frustrated and inadvertently end up even more awake than before!

Eventually I pass out, and when the sun comes up the next morning…

ugh.png

….I wake up feeling like deathย in a tangle of bedclothes, wearing my sheet as a scarf! ๐Ÿ˜›

It doesn’t happen every night, but on occasion, especially if I have to be somewhere important or catch a bus early the next morning. I spend so much time thinking about needing sleep that I end up chasing away any tiredness! ๐Ÿ˜›

But why are we prone to disturbed sleeping patterns?

As with many aspects of autism, it’s unclear why exactly we struggle with sleep, but the experts have a few theories on the subject:

  • Melatonin, the hormone which controls sleep and wakefulness, is thought to contribute to sleep issues in autism. The amino acid tryptophan is needed for the body to produce melatonin, an amino acid which research has shown can be either higher or lower than normal in people with autism. Ordinarily melatonin is released in response to darkness (to induce sleep) with levels dropping during daylight hours (to keep us awake). However, studies have shown the opposite in some autists, whereย higher levels of melatonin are released during the daytime and lower levels at night. So that explains why I’m often inexplicably dying for a nap in the middle of the day! ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย ย sleepy.png
  • Sensory issues are also thought to contribute to these sleep problems. Many autists have an increased sensitivity to such stimuli as touch, light, noises, etc. During my first year in college I became somewhat of an insomniac due to city noises, late night fire alarms and paper thin walls…
  • A number of autists, such as myself, are night owls. Recent brain imaging scans have shown that there are physical differences in the brains of night owls and morning larks. Night owls show signs of reduced integrity in the white matter of the brain (fatty tissue that enables brain cells to communicate with each). This compromises the speed of transmission between neurons which can cause insomnia, daytime sleepiness, antisocial personality disorder and interfere with cognitive functioning. Differences in the integrity of white matter have been linked to ASD’s, so this could explain why we struggle to sleep at night. But it’s not all bad- some studies have shown that night owls are more productive, have more stamina and can display greater analytical and reasoning abilities than morning larks! ๐Ÿ™‚
  • Anxiety problems are also thought to contribute to troubled sleeping

So what can you do to improve your sleep?bitmoji-330321839.png

Weighted blankets are often recommended to help manage autism. As I’ve discussed previously, autists have higher levels of stimulatory neurotransmitters and lower levels of calming neurotransmitters. Weighted blankets contain metal or plastic beads in the quilted layers to apply deep, calming pressure to the user- like simulating a hug. This pressure is designed to stimulate the release of serotonin (which helps regulate the sleep cycle and temperature) and dopamine to relax and calm the mind and to better help us to sleep.

Some studies have shown that weighted blankets do not noticeably improve sleep for autists, however many people, neurotypical and neurodiverse alike, have found that they get a much better night’s sleep from using them- so it’s worth a try!

I’m dying to try one myself, so I’ll let you know how I find it if I do! ๐Ÿ™‚

Personally, I’ve discovered that using screens too close to bed time can make it harder for me to nod off at night. Scientists have found that the blue light emitted by most screens can interfere with the production of melatonin, making it more difficult to fall asleep. If melatonin disturbances are indeed contributing to your sleep issues, it would be wise to decrease screen time in the night time.

Aoife’s Top Tip: Ditch the laptop before bed, read a book instead! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Experts also recommend avoiding caffeine, getting more exercise, establishing a routine and taking measures to manage stress.

In my experience, stress management is key to getting a good nights sleep. My memories of being an angsty teenager are littered with sleepless nights spent fretting about everything! Once I got on top of my stress, peaceful sleep was quick to follow ๐Ÿ™‚

Sleep will come, you just have to find what works for you.

Goodnight dear Earthlings, I’m feeling a nap coming on ๐Ÿ˜‰

Enjoy the weekend!

bitmoji1631749140.png

Aoife

Autism 101- ADHD

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

So today I’m going to be talking a little bit about-

squirrel-up-dog-gif.gif

Haha! Sorry about that! ๐Ÿ˜› Although fun story- genuinely stopped mid conversation to cry “SQUIRREL” when out with a friend recently! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Yes that’s right, today we’ll be talking about ADHD in autism- also known asย attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

ADHD is commonly diagnosed in autists (in the region of 29-83%), causing such difficulties as impulsiveness, over-activity and poor attention.

There are 3 main types of ADHD:

  • Inattentive ADHD (formerly known as ADD (attention deficit disorder))-ย This can manifest in a number of ways such as aย lack of attention to detail, losing things, organizational problems, making careless mistakes, having trouble completing tasks and struggling to sustain attention.
  • Hyperactive-Impulsive ADHD-ย Signs of hyperactivity and impulsivity include restlessness, excessive talking (Guilty!) fidgeting, interupting others, impulsive descisions and activities etc.
  • Combined Inattentive and Hyperactive-Impulsive ADHD

Personally, I would have really mild combined ADHD tendencies. In addition to my sometimesย impulsive nature, I have a habit of zoning out of lessons and conversations, sometimes even films, books and TV shows for brief moments, completely lost in my own thoughts.

I can be pretty easily bored and distracted!

Half the time I’m not even aware of it happening. I could be reading a page in a book one minute, and suddenly find myself halfway down the next page, without any idea of what I was supposed to have taken in! Other times I find myself in a room in the house unsure as to why I came in as I hopped onto another train of thought mid action! I often have to repeat tasks over and over in my mind to ensure I don’t forget them.

My mind just completely wanders off…

Image result for homer brain gif

But somehow I’ve always managed to hide my inattention. It never really posed a problem at school. Teachers knew I was away with the fairies, but could never seem to catch me out when pressed! ๐Ÿ˜› I suppose my deductive skills must have learned to compensate for my temporary lapses in concentration! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Top Tip: Studies have suggested that playing video games may be beneficial to improving concentration in ADHD.

sdgsd.PNG

Just because concentration can be a struggle however, does not mean that you can’t concentrate.

Interestingly, there occurs a concentration paradox in ADHD and autism known as hyperfocus- an intense form of concentration where you are completely absorbed by a task, something that I like to call “The Zone”. I’ll write a separate post on hyperfocus at a later stage ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife’s Top Tip: Applying specialist interests to tasks can encourage concentration. Last year I was struggling to write an essay for college, I found an angle that allowed me to write about Eurovision and suddenly I couldn’t stop writing! ๐Ÿ™‚

In addition to my lapses in focus, I can also be a little bit hyperactive. Now, hyperactive doesn’t necessarily mean bouncing off the walls like a child high on sweets, it can also mean abnormally active.

I am quite a restless individual. On the outside, I may look like I’m staring at a wall, in my mind I could be designing a cake, a knitting project, writing a story or drafting a hypothesis. I once spent a train ride visualizing, staging and arranging a musical based on the music of My Chemical Romance!๐Ÿ˜‚

I always have this need to be productive, even if it’s as simple as building my trophy collection on the Playstation or binge watching a TV series.

My brain never turns off!

If I’m excited enough, I do bounce around the place on occasion too ๐Ÿ˜‰

Image result for wild child bouncing gif

But what’s going on in the brain that interrupts our concentration?

It is not clear what exactly causes ADHD in the brain, but remember neurotransmitters? (Inside the Autistic Brain,ย Autism 101-Sensory Processing,ย Autism 101- Digestive Problems)

Most current models point to low levels of the neurotransmitters Dopamine and Noradrenaline. Pathways involving these chemical messengers project to the striatum and prefontal cortex of the brain- areas which are responsible for executive functionย (i.e. memory, planning, organization, behaviour control etc.). If these neurotransmitters are out of sync, this will have an effect on these functions. As neurotransmitters are also dysregulated in the autistic brain, this would explain why ADHD so commonly occurs in autism.

ADHD, like autism, can’t be cured, but it can be treated with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and medication in severe cases, however, the side effects of medical treatment for ADHD have been controversial, and long term usage studies have yet to be completed.

However, like autism, ADHD need not hold you back in life. Some of the most successful people in the world have ADHD, such as Sir Richard Branson, Justin Timberlake, Simone Biles, will.i.am, Russell Brand, Ryan Higa, Jamie Oliver, Jim Carrey and Solange Knowles ๐Ÿ™‚

So to conclude Earthlings-

Wait! What was I saying again?! ๐Ÿ˜‰

adhd no transparency.png

Have a good weekend guys!! ๐Ÿ˜€

Aoife

Autism 101- Shutdowns

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Leading on from the previous post, I’d like to talk to you about shutdowns and autism.

So what exactly is a shutdown?

rfffffff

A shutdown is basically an episode where the brain briefly stops processing and making sense of information in response to stress or sensory overload.

The lights are on, but nobody’s home.

bitmoji710932570.png

These episodes are much more discrete than meltdowns, and can often go unnoticed by the outside world.ย Sometimes meltdowns can turn into shutdowns and vice versa.

So what does a shutdown feel like?

Like meltdowns, shutdowns can manifest differently among autists. Some people go completely limp and unresponsive, some withdraw completely from those around them, some even become really sleepy and nod off.

For me personally, a shutdown is like entering a state of shock. You might struggle to move (as discussed in my diagnosis story), formulate sentences, or even think. It can be a completely overwhelming experience. When I first started to become aware of them as a teenager, I had no idea what was going on; I just knew that I felt, for lack of a better word, “wrong”.

Like meltdowns, in my experience, shutdowns can be either mild or severe:

Mild shutdowns tend to happen in social situations, especially in confrontation. Someone throws me off or says something that I hadn’t anticipated…aaaannnd my mind freezes up. I go limp and say nothing, whilst the other person talks on oblivious. To an outsider it looks like I’m just listening or defeated by an argument; in reality, my brain can’t formulate the words to respond.

The minute the conversation ends my brain reboots and suddenly all that I could or should have said comes rushing back- great timing! ๐Ÿ˜›

Severe shutdowns, like meltdowns, are brought on by serious stress, or a shock. Think of your brain like a computer that’s been attacked by a virus. The system get’s overwhelmed by the attack and needs to shuts down to recover. When this happens, it feels as though I’ve been locked out of my own brain.

bitmoji669112089.png

However, unlike a meltdown situation, I’m locked out yes, but the brain hasn’t been hijacked. I’m not in a state of total control, but I’m not out of control either- a little bit purgatorial in nature.

It’s a very odd sensation.

I find myself in an overwhelming situation and fail to react. I know that I don’t feel right about the situation, so I try to break down what happened and process. However, when I go to think about the event, it’s as if a firewall has gone up and all of the files in my brain have been encrypted. You keep trying to access your files so you can run a scan to diagnose the problem, but your brain keeps locking you out.

It feels sooo weird, like my mind is flashing this giant ‘NOPE’ sign at me every time I try to think! ๐Ÿ˜›

bitmoji642446296.png

^^^accurate representation of my “access denied” face ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

During a particularly bad shutdown, I once spent about 5 minutes of going “um…ah… what it is… er…you see…uh” down the phone to my mother before I could coherently form a sentence to tell her what had happened. My mind simply refused to let me go there!

But why do shutdowns happen?

There’s not a lot of information out there as to the biological cause of shutdowns, but experts seem to think that it is the result of an abnormal stress response like the meltdown, possibly linked to the high and persistent levels of stress hormones in autism. Some have theorized that the shutdown is almost a preventative form of meltdown wherein the autist shuts down to prevent further sensory input and injury- like playing dead to avoid a fight.

Shutdowns can be difficult, but you just have to give them time to pass ๐Ÿ™‚

Top Tip: Like a meltdown, you can sometimes speed up a shut down through music. Animals are also particularly good to release the hold of a shut down. My dogs always seem to sense when something’s wrong with me- a concerned look from them will often get the waterworks flowing ๐Ÿ™‚

Remember- your brain needs time to recover after a stressful incident- there’s a reason you need to leave your computer a few minutes rest after a reboot ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ˜‰

sfgf.PNG

Enjoy the bank holiday weekend! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism 101- Meltdowns

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Leading on from Friday’s post, I’d like to place the autistic meltdown under the microscope today.

So what exactly is a meltdown?

To an outsider, meltdowns appear like temper tantrums. You see a petulant, naughty child that didn’t get their way. Screaming, throwing things, violent behaviour- it seems like a tantrum, but the reality is very different.

bitmoji-1905262164

Meltdowns are described as a temporary loss of behavioural control in response to an overwhelming situation or stimulus. This can manifest physically (lashing out, kicking, biting etc.), verbally (shouting, crying, screaming) or both.

So what’s happening in the brain that causes these outbursts?

The human body increases secretion of what are known as stress hormones (e.g. adrenaline, cortisol) in response to a stressful situation. Studies have shown that autists have higher levels of these stress hormones than their neurotypical peers.

When a stressful situation passes, stress hormones should return to normal levels. In the case of autism however, these hormones persist in the body for some time afterwards. The autist is left with residual levels of biological stress which make us more susceptible to stress related outbursts.

Release of stress hormones is controlled by the hypothalamicโ€“pituitaryโ€“adrenal axis or HPA axis, a complex interconnecting network that comprises the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland andย the adrenal gland (i.e. HPA). This system controls how the body reacts to stress. Research suggests that this system is hyper-reactive to stress in the case of autism.

In particularly stressful or harmful situations, our bodies enter a heightened state of physiological stress which triggers the “fight or flight” response. High levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline increase the release of glucose (to give a burst of energy) and increase blood pressure (to divert blood to the muscles) in order to prepare you to either fight the danger or run away from it.

This response is triggered in the case of a meltdown.

Excessive stress hormone release pushes the brain over the edge. The brain thinks it’s under attack and instructs the body to protect itself at all costs. The autist is in instinctual fight or flight mode at the mercy of their stress hormones.

Meltdowns manifest differently from person to person. When I would meltdown, it appeared as though I were throwing temper tantrums as I stood and fought my corner; other times I would run away from my trigger somewhere quiet. Sometimes I fought and then ran away.

 

My parents tried everything to get me to control my “tantrums”. Taking away toys, sending me to my room, bribery, guilt, you name it!

Bribery was perhaps one of the more successful tactics they used. My meltdowns were at their worst around the age of 6, so my mother implemented a sticker reward system. If I behaved myself, I got a sticker for the day on the calendar. At the end of the month if I had a full set of stickers I would get a present.

It didn’t really work though…I only managed maybe two months without incident, and I doubt that they were consecutive. I still think fondly of that hard earned Monkees greatest hits tape (such a Hipster child! ๐Ÿ˜› ) and Hula Hair Barbie! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Anyone else remember her?

One year, I was even asked to give up losing my temper for lent!!! ๐Ÿ˜› I lasted about 4 weeks, had a meltdown and subsequently felt like the worst person in the world for letting Jesus down!

It seemed biology had a different plan- how naive we were! ๐Ÿ˜›

So what does a meltdown look like for me?

I like to classify the severity of a meltdown on a scale from 1 to 3:

Stage 1: These are very mild and normally pass within a few minutes. Usually these entail getting a little bit overwhelmed and starting to cry unexpectedly- often mid sentence! Think of these moments as opening the steam valve to cool the system ๐Ÿ™‚ Maths classes for example triggered many of these mini meltdowns- I wouldn’t understand a concept or problem, get frustrated, aaaannnnd suddenly find myself choking back tears while my exasperated maths teacher attempted to break things down for me (or if this happened mid-homework I’ve been known to throw my book at the wall ๐Ÿ˜› ).

bitmoji177867876.png

Stage 2: This type of meltdown is a little more intense spreading out over several minutes, hours, and if particularly overwhelmed, on and off again over days. A situation, rumination or accumulation of stress tends to set these guys off. If wound particularly tightly, something very simple may tip the scales in this case- “You don’t want to play with me? FINE!” **Core meltdown activated**! Tears flow, your chest gets tighter and breathing can be difficult. This tends for me to be a “feeling” or cathartic stage. You’re in overload and need to feel, think and process the triggers until the storm passes.

TIP: I find thatย reasoning and music (songs that relate to the emotion or trigger) often work well to calm you and speed up the process. Hugs are also greatly appreciated as deep pressure calms and eases stress ๐Ÿ™‚

In this stage I find that shutdowns can also happen, wherein I struggle to speak, think and even act (an experience I’ll delve into further on Friday ๐Ÿ™‚ )

rfffffff.png

Stage 3: Enter the dragon! These are full scale, out of control meltdowns. Fight or flight is triggered and you are working on autopilot. The brain has been pushed too far and launches all out war.ย These tend to be brief, (gradually abating to a stage 2 meltdown when the adrenaline wears off), but are highly destructive. You can literally say or do anything in this heightened adrenal state. Your mind believes it’s at war and will act accordingly to protect itself. Reason is useless; scolds are futile. The real Aoife is locked outside her brain, banging on the door desperately trying to re-enter the cockpit. I’m aware that I’m out of control and want it all to stop, but am powerless to do so. Nothing can be done but wait until the door is unlocked once more.

bitmoji-641126129.png

TIP: Anger and attempts at restraint are useless in this situation, it only fuels the fire. Remaining as calm as possible until the mist passes is key.

I know these can sound a little scary, but they do decrease in frequency with time and stress management. It takes a significant stressor to trigger a stage 3 for me anymore ๐Ÿ™‚ Happy stage 1 meltdown’s, like hearing the Phantom of the Opera overture, can even be quite amusing! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

Meltdowns are tricky, but easily managed when you understand them for what they are. In the years leading to my diagnosis, without knowing it, I developed methods to help ease these passing hurricanes. Deep breathing, writing out my emotions, hugging a pillow or giant teddy, talking, and praying, but most importantly music. Music is key for me personally. The melodies, the riffs, but especially the lyrics; they soothe my soul. They verbalize the emotions I’m struggling to identify and process,ย guiding me safely past the storm ๐Ÿ™‚

A meltdown is not a tantrum; it is not attention seeking behaviour; believe me- no one wants it to stop more than I do.

It is a biological response to excessive stress. We have no control over it. Punishments and judgments will only make things worse. Growing up would have been so much easier had my friends, family and (most importantly) I understood this.

Love, support and understanding are critical to meltdown management.

So try not to judge that kid crying hysterically in the corner at a party- there may be far more to it than you realize ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑