Loud Hands: Avoiding Autistic Shutdown and Sensory Overload

Normally on a Tuesday, I’d be posting about crafts, fashion and DIY, but surprise–April is Autism Awareness Month! I’ve decided to post more “Loud Hands” series throughout this month for two reasons: 1. it will help me integrate my former blog onto here and 2. it will spread awareness and acceptance. April is a hard month for many autistic folks. There is lots of ableist rhetoric floating around, and I’d like my blog to be a safe space where they can avoid that.

Let’s take a look: what is autistic shutdown? It’s basically the autistic version of getting no sleep and not enough nutrition or water for several days. You know how you feel when you’re running on 3 hours of sleep for work, you didn’t take the time to eat breakfast or drink a glass of water, and you’ve already been sleep deprived for weeks? You don’t remember things. Where do you usually park? Who knows. Was that big project due today to my supervisor? Who knows. Maybe. You forget things. You’re unable to concentrate. Lights seem brighter and you can feel your eyes closing; your body wants to shut down.

Autistic shutdowns are like this. Basically, cognitive functions decrease and it can cause the person to completely shut down. They may have exacerbated autistic traits or heightened executive functioning problems.

Executive functioning includes:

  • cognitive processes, such as attention or production of language
  • working memory
  • reasoning
  • task flexibility
  • problem solving
  • planning and execution

Autistic shutdown begins with taking in too many stimuli and other changes at the same time, especially if things seem to be ‘all happening at once.’ Autistic people are most at risk for shutdown during times of great stress, such as a new move, transitioning to a new school or job, the loss of a loved one, or any major life change.

When I’m going through shutdown, I first lose my ability to understand what people are saying and respond effectively. It’s usually the first thing to go if I’ve been too tired for too many days or if I’m going through a huge sensory change. For this reason, I often appear to be a passive participant in social circles when I first move back to college or back home. I do a lot of listening, but I don’t always grasp or remember what people are saying.

If you know enough about shutdowns and take the time to monitor your lifestyle and your body, you can try to prevent shutdowns or make them easier on yourself when they happen.

Try to recognize the stress risk factors. If you’re going to be moving next week, that’s a risk factor. Any life change factors in, especially if it involves lots of new sensory stimuli–new job, new house/apartment, new relationship. Even taking a vacation, although it’s a positive change, poses a risk for shutdown.

If you know you’re entering a period in your life with many risk factors at once, try to take note of that and be aware.

Plan for some of the changes, if you can anticipate them. My roommate uses a wheelchair to get around, and every semester before she officially attends her classes, she checks out the rooms they’re being held in. I suggest autistic people do something similar–try to plan ahead and take note of what environmental changes you may be experiencing, so you can be well-prepared.

When I’m moving back into college, for example, I’m usually aware of the physical features of the place I’m moving in to. If I can’t check out a place I’ll be moving to or visiting ahead of time, I ask as many questions as possible and look for virtual research. It can be helpful for me to map it out: Google maps can help me see what kinds of landmarks something is near, and a simple search tells me if there are restaurants nearby, or somewhere I could sit and relax for a minute if I need to.

Planning for changes can mean that you’re able to accommodate yourself or ask for accommodations properly in advance. For example, I’m very temperature-sensitive, and I take note of what a person’s house will be like before I pack. If it’s winter and they keep the heat at 60 degrees, I bring my heated blanket to accommodate for that sensory change.

Bring something familiar with you. It can’t hurt to try to have a ‘virtual’ or ‘carry-on’ familiar space when you’re traveling or otherwise experiencing sensory changes. It’s helpful for me to be in my own car when I’m traveling, because if the sensory stimuli around me are overwhelming, I can retreat into my car for a quick break. Often, autistic people can eliminate or lessen symptoms of shutdown by retreating someplace more comfortable and familiar.

Sometimes, you can’t bring a physical ‘ place’ with you, like if you don’t have a car, don’t drive, or will be traveling some other way. This is where a virtual safe space can come in handy. A virtual safe space can be anything, from a person you feel safe with to a favorite necklace to a security item. When I’m traveling or going through sensory overload, I like to have my girlfriend with me. My girlfriend is a virtual safe space for me. She provides physical comforts, such as hugs and back rubs, as well as she’s aware of my needs and can deal with me when I’m experiencing symptoms of shutdown. When I can’t speak, she helps speak for me, such as if I need to get a beverage somewhere.

Take time away from the environment to stim. Self-stimulating, or stimming, is a common behavior autistic people use to cope with sensory overload. If you feel like none of the above tactics are working and you’re losing necessary executive functioning too quickly, simply remove yourself from the environment as much as possible. Go to a secluded area and stim. Take a mental and physical break from the sensory overload.

Stimming can help autistic people combat shutdowns, and may improve our executive functioning if we’re being overloaded. At the beginning of new semesters all throughout college, I was typically either on the verge of a shutdown or in complete shutdown by the second or third day. The combined sensory overload of making a 2 hour drive to my campus, moving my things in, buying my books, spending social time with friends, and attending the first few courses was usually too much at once. I needed a lot more alone time to stim in those first weeks than the rest of the semester. Sometimes, even hours of a day were dedicated to me just relaxing my mind, stimming, listening to pleasing music, and asking my girlfriend if she was able to rub my back or stroke my hair. All of these things helped me cope with my shutdowns and regain some of the executive functioning I’d lost.

In general, take note of how you respond to situations. Autistic people are all different. We don’t all experience shutdown or overload from the same things. For example, most noises don’t bother me, such as roommates or housemates playing TV, animals making noise, or people talking or singing. But noises bother a lot of autistic people and can cause sensory overload. Next time you’re feeling overloaded, although it may be hard because of the lacking cognitive functions, try to think about what stimuli caused that overload. Was it the physical surroundings? Too much social interaction? The fabric of your clothing? Make a note of what stimuli often trigger overload, so you can be better prepared in the future.

And if you’re non-autistic and you want to understand, just try to be patient with an autistic person during a shutdown. Be aware that their lack of memory, attention or inability to speak is not their fault. Try to help accommodate them–if they can’t seem to speak at the moment, offer to be the one to ask the cashier a question they need the answer to. It’s the same thing as helping hold the door for someone on crutches. Just ask what they need, and try your best to help out.

Love Always,

Alaina

Keyyyyysmall

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