Bullying and Autism

Greetings Earthlings πŸ™‚

Bullying- neurotypical and neurodiverse alike, we’ve Β all been there at some point, but did you know that autistic people are bullied nearly five times as often as their neurotypical peers?

Studies have estimated that as many as 46% of people with autism have been bullied at some point in their life versus 10% of the general population.

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Our issues with social awkwardness and interpretation, hypersensitivity, literal thinking, poor motor skills and trusting nature can make autists quite vulnerable to bullies. Sometimes we aren’t even aware that we are being targeting and so the bullying goes unreported.

Navigating school as an un-diagnosed teenager was particularly challenging. My literal thinking meant that I was often unaware that I was being made fun of, simple things said in attempts to fit in were turned into taunts, my expressions of individualism were ridiculed- and I just couldn’t understand why.

When I finally started to realize what was going on, it was devastating. I felt like such a fool that I shoved my emotions down and tried to pretend that I was fine.

Buuuuuttttt there’s only so long you can continue to ignore a full septic tank for before chaos erupts…

Once your peers have seen you have a meltdown, some people will do anything to trigger another one.

So I trudged along quietly everyday blaming myself for the teasing I endured:

Why was I so naiive?

Why did I say that?

Why did I lose it?Β 

Why can’t I be normal?

I sat back and allowed the storm clouds to gather overhead every time I reached the school doors.

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It wasn’t until I burned out and hit breaking point that I realized I had to find a better way through, began to talk and learned, not just to cope, but to thrive πŸ™‚

So what advice would I give to someone on the spectrum who find themselves in the midst of a bullying situation?

Well, as the bullying game has intensified with the spread of social media since my schooldays (rural Ireland had quite limited access to high speed internet in the noughties), this is a tough one to advise, but here are some of my top tips:

  • Ignore the bullies– An obvious one that’s easier said than done, I know (I pretended to ignore for years- it can take quite a bit of practice to truly let words glide off your back), but when you react or meltdown- that’s what fuels them. My reactions made bullies push my buttons all the harder. If you feel a meltdown coming on, take a moment to go somewhere quiet, get some fresh air and take a deep breath.Β  Bathroom stalls were a personal favourite of mine to give me some time to regroup (unless someone had been smoking in there… this added further sensory fuel to the fire! πŸ˜› )
  • Find an outlet for your emotions- We autists experience and process our emotions in very different ways. If you shove things down, the end result will not be pleasant. So run, dance, go on a four hour killing spree on your PlayStation (something that I wouldn’t know anything about… πŸ˜› )- do whatever works for you to deal with your frustrations. I know it’s hard, but finding an outlet will help to quell the dragon inside.
  • Try to think before you act/speak– Again this is quite challenging when you don’t have a filter or struggle with impulsivity,Β but sometimes what may seem like the most simple of sentiments to you can be twisted and misconstrued by bullies. An innocent comment I once passed about the family dog led to years of jeering and implied bestiality…! I still put my foot in it every now and again, but I’ve gradually learned to pause more to assess if my comments will sink or float.
  • Be careful what you post on social media- The online world can be a dangerous, unregulated one. We live so much of our lives online we forget that our peers are always watching. As with your thoughts, take a moment to think through your posts. Something as simple as a picture or throwaway comment could land you in bother both on and offline (a simple lack of an appropriate emoji once caused a rift with a friend). Remember- it’s also perfectly ok to abstain or take some time away from social media. It may seem like social suicide, but we all need time away from our screens- people disable their accounts every day for lots of reasons so don’t worry about what they’ll think at school. Your sanity is far more important πŸ™‚
  • Talk to someone– If you’re being targeted, tell a teacher, confide in a friend or talk to your parents so something can be done. But bear in mind, they can’t alwaysΒ  intervene. Teasing is a natural part of life as much as it may hurt (something that the autistic mind really struggles to comprehend), and not everything can be prevented. What may seem a devastating comment to your mind may mean nothing to an outsider. Intervention aside, by simply talking to someone about how you’re feeling, this will make the load so much easier to bear. Don’t let the quicksand claim you- ask for help!bitmoji2141702869

At the end of it all, just remember what my Biology teacher once taught me- “Whoever said that your school days are the best days of your life lied- college days are the best days of your life!”

So don’t get disheartened Earthlings! It may be hard to see it through the swirling fog in the crystal ball, but life does get so much better (…once you get past the bills, taxes and work-day traffic jams! πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰ ).

Aoife

Autism Management- Concerts

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Ah, live music! There’s nothing I love more than a decent rock concert!

“But wait- wutt?!Β 

You’re autistic! Surely you can’t enjoy a loud, flashy, crowded rock concert?!”

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Plleeeeeeeeeeeeeeease! πŸ˜›

What do I always say? No two autists are alike!!!!

Sure, sudden noises can make me jump, but in actual fact I love the noise! I relish the chaos of alternative rock! The vibration of the music through your body, the bright lights, the pyrotechnics, the showmanship- it’s really hard to beat a decent concert.

That being said, my love for gigs has not come without it’s challenges.

At my very first gig (Paramore’s Brand New Eyes tour, 2009), I suffered both a meltdown AND a shutdown! The crowd made me very unsettled and uncomfortable moshing during Paramore’s opening number, so I spent the remainder of the concert on the sidelines crying and alone! πŸ˜› We subsequently almost missed our bus home, the stress from which brought on a shutdown.

Certainly a memorable and eventful night! πŸ˜›

Indeed, concerts can be overwhelming for both neurotypical and neurodiverse alike, but that does not mean that a concert can’t be an enjoyable experience. It’s all about finding what works for you πŸ™‚

Here are my tips for finding comfort at a concert:

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  • Outdoor vs indoor venues: This is one that I’m learning the hard way. Outdoor gigs, whilst a little easier on the ears than indoor venues, can be a real mixed bag in terms of enjoyment. Crowds are bigger, snagging a good vantage point can be tricky and security have far less control over crowd behaviour. I spent much of my last gig being kicked in the back by a girl sitting on her boyfriends shoulders. Take my advice- choose indoor gigs for your favourite artists.
  • Choose seating– After my first “pit” experience, I have made a point of always choosing to pay a few euros more for a decent seat in large arenas. This way you avoid strangers touching you, claustrophobia, tall people, reduce exposure to potentially unpleasant odours (outdoor gigs are a real pain if you hate smoking as I do) and prevent being unexpectedly hit by stray “balloons”, flying glasses of beer and, on one random occasion, black nail varnish! Don’t you just miss the emo kids of the mid noughties? πŸ˜›

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Alternatively, if you’d rather be closer to the action, smaller venues (< 2000 capacity) generally offer more comfortable standing experiences. Crowds are spaced out more and are better behaved with security always close at hand πŸ™‚

  • Sunglasses-Not as crazy as it sounds I promise! Sunglasses are my best friend as they really help to take the edge off bright lights. I’ve even been known to wear them on a night out in the club on occasion! Don’t worry about what other people think- it’ll be dark and everyone will be too focused on the stage to notice πŸ™‚
  • Earplugs– This one may seem a little bit counter productive, but lot’s of people do it. Loud music is part and parcel when it comes to gigs, but sometimes the noise can be a little excessive. Take my most recent concert just last week. I was standing in front of a girl who insisted upon screaming every 5 seconds for 2 and a half hours- not like your average fangirl, but a murder victim (the kind of piercing scream that makes you jump every time you hear it)! Quite frankly, she’s lucky she wasn’t my murder victim! πŸ˜œπŸ˜‚Β I was rather envious of a nearby concertgoer for having had the sense to bring a pair!

So there we have it, my top tips for managing autism at a gig!

As I always say, you should never allow an autism diagnosis to hold you back- if you can’t climb the mountain, there’s always a way around it πŸ™‚

So rock on dear Earthlings! πŸ˜‰

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Aoife

Eye Contact and Autism

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

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.

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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.

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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 πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰ )!

It kind of looks something like this:

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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 πŸ˜‰ ) can be a great help πŸ™‚

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 actuallyΒ see the world differently too! πŸ˜‰

Have a good weekend everyone! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Change to Schedule

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Just a quick post to tell you about a temporary change to the blog schedule.

I’m really, really busy at present and can’t dedicate as much time to writing this blog as I would like to. So, for the moment I have to change the schedule to one new blog post a week.

Instead of Mondays and Fridays, I’ll be posting once a week on Friday’s at 8pm.

When my schedule frees up again I’ll reassess the situation and start posting more frequently, but rest assured:

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Until then Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism Management- Fidget Spinners

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

So today I’m going to take a look at the latest craze- Fidget Spinners. I couldn’t take more than 50 steps in Dublin the other day without someone trying to sell me one! πŸ˜›

So what exactly are they?

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In case you’ve been living under a rock, Fidget Spinners are a handheld device where the centre is held between your fingers and you spin the device. They come in all shapes and sizes and are designed to relieve stress.

Here’s a video discussing them and some of the crazy things that people have been using them for:

But what have Fidget Spinners got to do with autism?

Whilst they may have only surged in popularity in recent months, Fidget Spinners were actually invented in the 1990’s to help people who have trouble focusing, such as those with ADHD, anxiety and autism, to channel excess nervous energy and stress into the spinning device. The thinking is that by diverting the excess energy into a physical action, this frees up certain areas of the brain from distraction, allowing you to better pay attention. It is also thought that fidgeting can relieve the brain of negative and obsessive thoughts.

But do they really work?

Opinions are polarizing as to whether or not they actually help. There is very little scientific evidence to support these claims. Of the studies that are out there, most focus on general fidgeting such as foot tapping, where it has been shown that movement can help to maintain alertness and improve working memory, but there are no studies specific to the Fidget Spinner itself.

Some experts warn that these toys may actually prove to be even more of a distraction for people with attention disorders.Β In theory, the toys occupy the hands so that you can focus your mind on the lesson (like stress balls), however, experts believe that the visually pleasing spin of the blades could add a further element of distraction.

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For teachers, they are proving to be a distracting nightmare in the classroom with many banning the device.

As opinions are divided, I decided to get one for myself and, pardon the pun, give it a whirl πŸ˜‰

There is definitely something oddly satisfying about holding the device between your fingers as it whirs into life, and there have been several moments where I’veΒ felt the addictive urge to spin it throughout the day.

However, I did not find it soothing from an anxiety perspective. In fact it actually really annoyed me when it would stop spinning and I would have to get the rotors spinning again! πŸ˜› I also found that it didn’t substitute as a calming “stim” and that I still reached to fidget with my necklace whilst I was using the Fidget Spinner!

That being said, autism is a spectrum where no two are alike. The Fidget Spinner may not work for me, but it could still be a nifty little tool to help manage ADHD and anxiety in another autist πŸ™‚

So by all means, go on! Give it a spin!! πŸ˜‰

(I have got to stop with these terrible puns… πŸ˜› )

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Aoife

Autism and Phones

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

So a little bit different today- I know the title is unusual! πŸ˜›

But the prospect of talking on the phone is something that fills many an autist with dread!

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But why does this seemingly innocuous device strike fear into our hearts?

My relationship with phones is complicated.

On the one hand, I enjoy chatting to my family and friends on the phone; on the other, talking on the phone feels soooo AWKWARD to me!

As if reading a person isn’t hard enough, but when you can’t see them? It really adds to your social anxiety. You can’t tell if they’re bored or if Β you’re cutting across them, not to mention dealing with heavy accents, bad signal and awkward silences- the stress is a killer!

Worse still when someone asks you to answer their phone!

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I don’t mind answering too much if it’s someone I already know, but when it’s a stranger….

What do I say?

What if the person on the other end thinks I’m them?

How long will I have to talk until they can take the phone away from me??

AAAAGGGHHHHH!!!!!

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It makes me feel beyond awkward answering someone elses phone!

Not to mention the awkwardness of dealing with telemarketers and scammers…I try to brush them off and don’t want to be rude… but then when they keep pushing their product on you, I feel too awkward not to listen! I just sit there burning up, waiting for an appropriate opportunity to tell them ‘no’ and run! πŸ˜›

Sometimes I just want nothing more than to throw my phone at the wall! πŸ˜›

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I will do everything that I can to avoid calling someone, ifΒ at all possible. I will email, text, Whats App, Facebook etc. before I will ever go near my phone. If the phone rings in the house and I’m closest to it, I have been known to get up and leave the room for the bathroom to force someone else to pick up the receiver! πŸ˜›

This meme is a pretty accurate transcription of actual conversations I’ve had with my mother πŸ˜›

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Over the years however, I have gotten more comfortable with the phone. When I was younger, I never really knew how to act appropriately on the phone. When someone asked to speak to another member of the house, I would freeze up and throw the phone at that person while the caller was still talking! πŸ˜›

Since then, I’ve gradually developed my phone etiquette and learned to relax a little more when answering the phone. Practice makes perfect I suppose πŸ™‚

Making calls can still be a little tricky.

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A lot of it is tied up in the anxiety of not being able to see the person on the other end. When you initiate a conversation in real life, you know if the person is amenable to talking. If I call them however, my brain starts worrying about disturbing them if they’re busy or whether they really want to talk to me or not.

And then there’s the added stress of “I’ll call you back,” and the panic that ensues when they don’t.

“Did they forget?

Did they not want to talk to me?

Oh God, do I need to call them back???!!”

But as you grow older, these worries begin to fade. You just have to take a deep breath, press call and go for it! πŸ™‚

An email is not going to fix your internet (for obvious reasons πŸ˜› ) or secure your hair cut! πŸ˜‰

Top Tip: It helps to remind yourself when calling strangers that they can’t see you, they don’t know you so they can’t judge you if you say something stupid πŸ˜‰

Have a good week everyone! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism 101- ADHD

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

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

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

Yes that’s right, today we’ll be talking about ADHD in autism- also known asΒ 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))-Β This can manifest in a number of ways such as aΒ lack of attention to detail, losing things, organizational problems, making careless mistakes, having trouble completing tasks and struggling to sustain attention.
  • Hyperactive-Impulsive ADHD-Β 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 sometimesΒ 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…

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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! πŸ˜› I suppose my deductive skills must have learned to compensate for my temporary lapses in concentration! πŸ˜‰

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

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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 πŸ™‚

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! πŸ™‚

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!πŸ˜‚

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 πŸ˜‰

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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,Β Autism 101-Sensory Processing,Β 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 functionΒ (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 πŸ™‚

So to conclude Earthlings-

Wait! What was I saying again?! πŸ˜‰

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Have a good weekend guys!! πŸ˜€

Aoife

Autism 101- Shutdowns

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

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

So what exactly is a shutdown?

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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.

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These episodes are much more discrete than meltdowns, and can often go unnoticed by the outside world.Β 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! πŸ˜›

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.

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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! πŸ˜›

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

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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚ πŸ˜‰

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Enjoy the bank holiday weekend! πŸ™‚

Aoife

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