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

Autism 101- Shutdowns

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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. 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! 😛

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! 😛

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^^^accurate representation of my “access denied” face 😛 😉

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 🙂

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 🙂

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 🙂 😉

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Enjoy the bank holiday weekend! 🙂

Aoife

Autism 101- Meltdowns

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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.

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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 hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis or HPA axis, a complex interconnecting network that comprises the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and 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! 😛 ) and Hula Hair Barbie! 😉

Anyone else remember her?

One year, I was even asked to give up losing my temper for lent!!! 😛 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! 😛

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 🙂 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 😛 ).

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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 that 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 🙂

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 🙂 )

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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. 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.

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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 🙂 Happy stage 1 meltdown’s, like hearing the Phantom of the Opera overture, can even be quite amusing! 😛 😉

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, guiding me safely past the storm 🙂

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 🙂

Aoife

Does Autism Make Me A Bad Person?

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

So today I’m going to share with you something that I’ve been musing on a lot lately:

Does autism make me a bad person?

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When it comes to autism, there is a very fine line between bad behaviour and autistic behaviour.

To an outsider, meltdowns appear like temper tantrums. Inappropriate statements and behaviours seem to hint at a naughty child.

It can be very hard to discern the difference.

As a child, I spent much of my time being branded as naughty. Growing up in an Irish household, I was no stranger to the dreaded wooden spoon…

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I was notorious for my “temper tantrums”, I always seemed to say and do the wrong things, and I consistently found myself fighting with those around me. In short, I was a nightmare!

Worse still was the nightmare I lived on the inside.

I never could understand why I said or did bad things back then. My sisters never seemed to find themselves in the trouble that I always did. Something simple would just set me off like a rocket and there would be no turning back. After the smoke had cleared, sitting in a pool of tears surrounded by the wreckage of a meltdown, I felt like the worst person in the world.

“Why did I say that?”

“Why did I throw lego at my parents?”

“Why was I so violent?”

I was always left shocked and appalled my behaviour, crying for hours afterwards at the consequences I faced.

Oftentimes I felt as though I were little more than a criminal. My parents even threatened my bad behaviour with the police on a number of occasions- once going so far as to put my PJs in a plastic bag after telling me that they were coming to take me away! 😛

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I tried so hard to behave, but I never could seem to keep it up for more than a few weeks. As I’ve told you before, I even tried running away because I couldn’t be good and felt obliged to leave.

But none of this behaviour was ever intentional.

Autists have no control over meltdowns; the brain is completely overwhelmed. In this state, literally anything can happen. Like Elvis, any trace of rationality has left the building. I’ll explore meltdowns next week in greater detail.

My tendency towards mimicry and my twisted sense of logic also impacted my bad behaviour.

I graffiti-ed a desk in school after perceiving previous samples around me to be the norm, I practiced swearing like a sailor and flipping the bird (I struggled with the dexterity of it) before secondary school to blend in – I even forced the habit of chewing pens as I thought that I needed a “bad” or “cool” habit when I went there!!!! Don’t ask me how I rationalized that one! 😛

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Not good for your teeth kids!

Over the years I’ve better learned to control and prevent public meltdowns and restrict my social faux pas’, but on occasion I will wind up in a spot of bother just like everybody else.

Autism has huge influence over my behaviour, but do my actions make me a bad person?

This is a tricky one.

I’m not perfect. I often say or do things that can rub people up the wrong way, but for the most part, I don’t intend to do people wrong. Having been wronged many times in my own life, the thought of hurting another person greatly upsets me. When I unintentionally put my foot in it, I’ll torture myself for hours, weeks, even years afterwards for my missteps.

But I’ll always try my hardest to make amends and be better.

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Even before I received my diagnosis I made serious efforts to try to modify my negative social behaviours. I oftentimes find that I overcompensate with my friends for fear of being perceived as bad like my childhood all over again. I’ll proofread your project at 2 in the morning, I’m always baking and making gifts, I even overcompensate with emojis for fear of the wrong sentiments coming across. I forever spend my days worrying how others may take me up wrong.

I’m constantly in a state of high alert that I’ll do something bad. In many ways I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to be the sort of person that I couldn’t seem to be as a child, as if by being good now somehow undoes the wrongs, or acts as a safety net in case I meltdown or lodge my foot in my mouth.

Yes, there are times in my life when I can be bad, say or do the wrong things or lose control; but that doesn’t make me bad. Autism can make me act badly sometimes, but it doesn’t mean that the person is bad.

I’m by no means Mother Teresa, but I’d like to think that I’m a good person 🙂

That being said, just because a person is autistic, does not mean that they are entirely blameless if they act badly. Indeed, much of my poor behaviour as a child can be attributed to autism, but there were also times where I knowingly chose to be bad, just like any other child.

Autism can’t always be used as an excuse for my actions.

Some psychologists for example, have theorized that Hitler likely had Asperger’s syndrome, but we couldn’t give him a free pass now could we?

Autism is a spectrum– there are both good and bad among us. We are human, we make mistakes- we just tend to make a few more of them than others 😉

Having autism doesn’t make a person bad, it merely makes us human 🙂

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Aoife

 

 

A Siblings Perspective of Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Going to shake things up a little bit today with an interview!

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When it comes to experiences of living with autism, we hear most frequently from parents and those with the condition themselves. Oftentimes we forget that siblings of children with autism are also living the experience. So today I’m going to interview my sister Órlaith about her experiences of growing up with a sibling on the spectrum 🙂

What am I getting myself into….

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Over to you then Órlaith! 🙂

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Hello everyone! I’m Órlaith, Aoife’s younger (but not youngest!) sister. She’s roped me in today to talk about how life was growing up oblivious to the fact that Aoife has autism… and to provide some lovely anecdotes about some of her finest moments… Muahaha… So let’s get started!

Aoife: Growing up oblivious to the fact that I was on the spectrum, did you ever feel that something was different about me? Did you ever think my behaviour odd?

Where do I start! We always knew that there was something different about you. If you ask mammy I’m sure she will tell you you were born different. I suppose the most stand out things though were your spectacular “temper tantrums”, fantastic lack of tact, and your…amm… preference for always telling the truth…

I never really understood why when you got mad things really escalated like they did, I always thought it was not usual. Aoibhlinn (our other sister) and I would have had our moments but they were nothing compared to yours! Of course now with hindsight it’s easy to see that they were actually meltdowns that you weren’t really in control of but at the time it seemed very odd.

The tact and the truth telling always went/go hand in hand, it definitely wasn’t the norm for someone (in Ireland anyway), to tell you exactly what they think, no sugar coatings. That always struck me as odd. I’ll always appreciate being told that I look terrible… 😛

Looking back on it now, even when we watch old videos of you when you were about 5, it’s so obvious you have autism!

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Aoife: Did friends or other children ever pass comment to you about my “uniqueness” (for want of a better term)?

They did from time to time, which was never easy to hear because it’s your sister that people are talking about.  

Aoife: Did you ever find it hard to relate to me versus Aoibhlinn or other children?

Nah brah, I got your back jack! 🙂 Like, you often took managing but I never had a problem connecting with you, probably because we always liked the same things. And I dunno, you seem to like me or something so I think that helps 😛

Aoife: How did you feel around me when I would have a meltdown? What did you make of my meltdowns?

In general, the initial reaction was “Oh lord she’s at it again”, I think we all just got used to you and thought you were just being dramatic (see that time you threw everything out the window 😛). I’m a pretty anti-confrontation person anyway so when your blow-ups really blew up I really hated it and wanted you to just calm down and see reason, but I now know that when you’re in the middle of a meltdown you can’t see reason! Just having a, what we call, “Aoife Moment™”.

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Aoife: Growing up, even though you’re younger than me, did you ever feel responsible for me, as if you were my big sister?

Now that you mention it, I guess I did. Without being aware that you had autism and that you had to basically be taught how to behave in social situations, I think that I always felt like I had to show you how things work in the world and make you more “streetwise” because those things didn’t come naturally to you. You often don’t see the danger in things so often I feel a bit “big sisterly” and want to try and guard you and take you out of “Aoifeland” (for those who don’t know, this is the magical place Aoife goes to in her head when she zones out and falls down the stairs, spends hours looking at the ceiling, etc.). I still feel like I’m teaching you things every day, so I guess that changes the dynamic, dammit Aoife you’re meant to be teaching me! 😛

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Aoife: What did you know/feel about autism before I was diagnosed?

A hell of a lot less than I know now! Not a whole lot to be honest, I think I thought it was something that’s a lot more of a big deal than it is. I didn’t know how prevalent it is in people, which was a huge eye opener!

Aoife: Did you ever resent me for being different/my behaviours/social faux pas etc.?

A bit because you could have an “Aoife moment” and say something embarrassing about me 😛 Often you could have an embarrassing moment and, sure, that’s annoying, but on the up side, your social faux pas have led to some entertaining moments (“Mammy why is that man so smelly?” (Aoife 1994) Oh and let’s not forget your amazing sense of tact, it would be nice to not be insulted all the time, not that you mean to be insulting (I think…… 😛 )

Aoife: How did you feel about/react to my diagnosis?

I wasn’t in any way surprised because as we already talked about, there was always something odd about you! I think it was a good thing for you because it gave you a huge awareness and understanding about yourself and who you are, and that you’re not JUST an oddball, you’re an oddball with Autism! 😉

Aoife: Thanks for that then Órlaith! I bid you adieu! 🙂

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So there we are now Earthlings, I hope you enjoyed this post!

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

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Aoife (and Órlaith 🙂 )

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