Autism and Stress

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Stress- it’s hard to escape it in the modern world; even more so for an autist.

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Ordinary day to day life can be very stressful to navigate. Such simple things as responding to an email, dealing with crowds, sensory triggers and social interactions can be completely overwhelming. The thought alone of these seemingly innocuous situations can be incredibly stressful for an autist.

In my case, just the mere idea of driving in Dublin city centre for example majorly stresses me out- I have genuinely told my friend that if his directions landed us there I would get my car towed and grab a taxi 😛 Any unexpected scenarios, detours or maneuvers in my car will leave me hot under the collar, praying out loud for help to keep from freaking out!

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But are there any scientific reasons why autists are more predisposed to stress?

Interestingly, autists show signs of greater biological stress than their neurotypical peers. In particular, studies have indicated that autists have higher levels of stress hormones than neurotypicals. As I’ve previously discussed, stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released in response to stressful situations from the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis or HPA axis. This is a complex interconnecting network that comprises the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal gland (i.e. HPA) to control our response to stress- a network that is hyperactive in autists.

Following exposure to a stressful situation, stress hormone levels should return to normal, however, research has shown that stress hormone levels tend to persist in autists, which can make us more susceptible to stress related outbursts and meltdowns. In other words, we’re constantly living in a state of fight or flight.

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Long term activation of the stress system can lead to a number of health problems such as poor mental health, weight gain, sleep issues, digestive and cardiovascular problems to name but a few- many of which are regularly comorbid with autism.

In addition to this, studies have shown that autists have higher levels of oxidative stress in the body. Oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between anitoxidants and free radicals (unstable oxygen atoms that can damage cells causing illness and aging – not so fun fact, free radicals are thought to contribute to hair greying) in our bodies. Several studies have indicated that antioxidant enzyme levels that regulate free radicals in the body may be altered in autists. As such, oxidative stress has been linked to the appearance of autistic symptoms such as language delay in previous studies.

In addition, as with prolonged exposure to stress hormones, oxidative stress may also contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease and mental health problems such as depression. Worryingly, heart disease and suicide are among the leading causes of mortality for autists, with studies indicating that the average autist lives 16 years less than their neurotypical peers! 😲  In addition to this, research suggests that psychological stress may worsen the symptoms of ASDs.

Therefore, as for everyone, it’s very important for an autist to find ways to manage their stress levels for both their long term physical and mental health.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autistic Burnout

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Leading on from previous posts about shutdowns and meltdowns, today I’d like to discuss the “autistic burnout”.

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So what exactly is that when it’s at home?

Autistic burnout (also known as “autistic regression”) happens when an autist has maxed out their capacity to mask and to socially cope following a period of prolonged stress (such as major change, attempting to be “normal”, poor self care etc.). This triggers a shutdown like state where the autist can become “more autistic” and is often unable to utilize the skills they have learned to cope- the mind is so exhausted that the autist no longer has to energy to try to overcome their difficulties.

Some people have even reported that these skills did not come back at all after recovering from a severe burnout- hence the name autistic regression.

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From a scientific perspective, the autistic burnout has not been explored as of yet on a medical level, however, there is much discussion of burnout within the autistic community.

Thankfully I have not really experienced such a full on burnout, but I have circled the drain a few times. When you’re particularly under pressure from doing too many things at once, sleep deprived, dehydrated, hungry etc., that’s when the mask starts to slip. In times like these I have felt much more symptomatic than normal, causing me to snap or say inappropriate things and act more eccentrically than I ordinarily would. It’s as if a part of your brain switches off to keep from overloading- and that part seems to be the one that controls our cloaking device, like the faulty invisibility booster on Arthur Weasleys flying Ford Anglia!

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So how can burnouts be avoided?

Much in the same way as meltdowns and shutdowns 🙂

As I have discussed in a number of previous posts, the key things to remember are:

  • Self Care– Stay hydrated, get plenty of snacks, get lot’s of sleep etc.
  • Utilize stress busters– Find respite in hobbies, in exercise, specialist interests or relieve stress through stimming
  • Take a break– If a situation is taking it’s toll, take a step back. Leave the room, take a holiday (if work related) or go outside for a walk; time in solitude to decompress and reset can be particularly helpful 🙂

Here’s a useful chart from the Autistic Women’s Network summarizing autistic burnout:

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Remember to make time for you this weekend 😉

Aoife

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