Autistic Burnout

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

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 maskย 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 ๐Ÿ™‚

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 ๐Ÿ™‚

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

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

Remember to make time for you this weekend ๐Ÿ˜‰

Aoife

Autism Management- Concerts

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

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

“But wait- wutt?!ย 

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

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Plleeeeeeeeeeeeeeease! ๐Ÿ˜›

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! ๐Ÿ˜› We subsequently almost missed our bus home, the stress from which brought on a shutdown.

Certainly a memorable and eventful night! ๐Ÿ˜›

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 ๐Ÿ™‚

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? ๐Ÿ˜›

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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 ๐Ÿ™‚

  • 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 ๐Ÿ™‚
  • 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! ๐Ÿ˜œ๐Ÿ˜‚ย 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 ๐Ÿ™‚

So rock on dear Earthlings! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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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?

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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.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.

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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! ๐Ÿ˜›

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^^^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˜‰

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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.

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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 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˜› ).

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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 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™‚ )

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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.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.

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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 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

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