Managing Energy Levels: Spoon Theory And Energy Accounting
There are two concepts that need to be mentioned that help to explain how autistic people experience energy.
Spoon Theory applies to anyone with a chronic illness, which many autistic people also live with. Some chronic conditions that are comorbid with autism are:
- Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome
- Ehler-Danlos Syndrom
Spoon Theory says that you have a number of spoons to use each day, less than your average person, and that you need to choose wisely what you do with your spoons.
Energy Accounting explains that you can make withdrawals and deposits into your energy account. Some things drain you, and some things give you energy.
While that picture above isnt my own, pretty much everything on the left are things that zap my energy.
When A Meltdown/shutdown/elopement Happens
- Stay calm yourself. Even if they are lashing out at you, stay calm. Many autistic people will feed off your emotions too, so you getting upset will make them more upset. Try to keep your tone of voice as normal as possible as changing that might make a crisis point worse.
- Try to remove anything that may have triggered the crisis point that you can see – if possible, try to change the environment to make it easier to cope if possible, and encourage others to move away.
- Give them space but ensure they are safe. Forcing them back into the classroom they have ran out of will be traumatising. If possible send a PSA to keep an eye on them so you know where they are, and get some help from someone who can either cover the class or support your autistic pupil.
Different autists will need different responses, but some strategies that may help are:
When any of these things happen, the autistic person is likely to be physically and emotionally drained. It can take a long time to recover from them, sometimes days or even weeks, especially if they have reached a crisis point several times in a short space of time. No matter how distressing it is for you to see, it is much more distressing to feel that way. Remember that your pupil is not doing it to give you or anyone else a hard time, they are having a very hard time themselves.
What Causes A Shutdown
Sensory overload is a common reason for a meltdown or shutdown. Kids with autism tend to experience lights, sounds, smells, and sensations differently than neurotypical children. Many struggle with hypersensitivity, which means they experience their senses more intensely, sometimes to the point of physical pain.
If you were surrounded by blinding lights or piercing noises, you would become overwhelmed, right? For some autistic children, a loud school cafeteria or a crowded store can cause just as much anxiety. Too much sensory input can result in a shutdown.
Children with autism also tend to be very attached to routines. Unexpected events or sudden changes in plan may cause a lot of stress, leading to a shutdown.
Autistic people may find themselves shutting down in social situations. They dont navigate the unspoken rules of conversation as naturally as neurotypical people, so their brain has to work extra hard. The six-year-old girl in the case study only shut down when pressured by others, never when she played alone.
The root of a shutdown wont always be obvious. Sometimes, whatever happened might seem minor. But have you ever had bad days when the smallest thing was enough to send you over the edge? Thats what meltdowns and shutdowns can be like, and they can be worsened by something called autistic burnout.
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Is There Something Wrong With Me Understanding Autistic Burnout
March 10, 2021 by Dr. Tasha Oswald
Many individuals, especially women, with high-functioning autism receive a diagnosis after going through autistic burnout and having a neuropsychological evaluation. As with many things regarding autism and neurodiversity, autistic burnout is often misunderstood. So, today I want to take a moment to discuss autistic burnout in more detail.
Support And Treatment For Autistic Shutdown/catatonia
When dealing with a distressing shutdown or a challenging bout of catatonia, there are very few steps that an autistic person can take from the inside out except maybe ride it out and hope for the best. However, for those who are on the outside, there are one or two techniques which can be implemented to support and comfort an autist entering a shutdown.
In many cases, moving an autistic person toa place of safety or a sensory-friendly room should often be your first port of call but do keep in mind that interrupting any flavour of an autistic shutdown could result in a switch to an autistic meltdown, which can cause involuntary violent actions.
Under these circumstances, speaking to the autistic person and trying to ease any thoughts around what may have caused the shutdown is a great way to offer reassurance, without putting yourself in harms way. But remember that a shutdown can often be about finding self-imposed sensory deprivation, so dont push us further into ourselves by bombarding us with new information.
Over in academia, the overwhelming lack of research behind shutdowns and autistic catatonia does mean that psychological solutions are not exactly fool-proof. Yet, for those who are seeking to limit lengths of episodes, theres no harm in booking therapy sessions to try and locate and eliminate what an individuals triggers may be.
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Causes Of Meltdowns Shutdowns And Elopement
Fear, anxiety, fatigue, stress, and sensory overload are some of the major factors that contribute to meltdowns, shutdowns, and elopement. When feeling too much of any or all of those, its possible that an autistic person will reach a crisis point and either melt orshutdown, or run off.
These accumulations of feelings can happen very quickly, or over an extended period of time. Sometimes the thing that has triggered the crisis point doesnt need to be huge one noise too much, or one demand too many.
Meltdowns, shutdowns and elopements always happen for a reason. It may not be what happened immediately before the crisis point, or it is possible it was the last straw that broke the camels back, but autistic people do not meltdown, shutdown or elope without there being a cause.
What Are Autistic Shutdowns And Why Do They Happen
When everything around us becomes a bit too much to handle, we all have ways of reacting to it. Some of us try to bottle up our feelings, whilst a few peoples first instinct would be to go somewhere quiet. For autistic children who become overloaded, anxious or unable to cope with whats going on around them, there tends to be one of two reactions.
One is going into a meltdown. They vary widely from person to person, but they generally develop as a result of anxiety reaching a point where it cannot be contained. Shouting, screaming and ranting can occur. With some people, meltdowns also have a physical side throwing, kicking and lashing out often happen.
The other reaction to overload is a shutdown. They arent nearly as easy to spot as a meltdown, but the impact on an autistic person can be just as big. In this post, we explore what a shutdown actually is, how it happens and what you can do to help someone experiencing one.
The silent treatment
Shutdowns are a more muted response to extreme overload or stress. When an autistic person goes into shutdown mode, there are a few common signs. These are:
- Being completely silent
- Not being able to communicate in any way
- Withdrawing to a quiet, dark space to get away from the cause of their shutdown
- Not being able to move from where they are because theyre thinking too much about the cause of their shutdown
- Lying down on a flat surface, being completely still
Time to recover
Shut everything out
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How To Handle A Meltdown In Public
This can happen to anyone. Parents and caregivers could be low on patience while also hurting for their struggling child.
Remember that autistic children do not have meltdowns and cry or flail just to get at you.They cry because they need to release tension from their bodies in some way. They are overwhelmed with emotions or sensory stimulations.
There are some ways to effectively support your child when they are having a meltdown in public. Here are some of them.
Equip them with coping skills: Meltdowns cant be helped at that very moment. But afterwards, you can teach your child how to regulate their emotions. Try relaxing activities like going for walks. These calming activities will help them calm down even before the meltdown happens.
Feeling safe and loved: Trying to talk a child down from having a meltdown is not a great strategy when it comes to calm an autistic child. Be there for them. Let them know that they are safe at that moment. Stay close as much as their comfort allows. Dont leave them alone to be out of a meltdown and find no one in the room. This could send a message that they dont deserve to be around the people they love when it gets tough.
Empathy is key: Listen and understand their situation. Tell them expressing emotions is okay, and sometimes it can get overwhelming. If your child with autism can feel like they are being heard, they will feel that their experience is validated. Try to give them tools to express themselves in a safe way.
What Is Autistic Burnout
Autistic burnout is a relatively common experience that many high-functioning adults with autism experience when they go to extensive lengths to mask their autistic traits and fit into the neurotypical world around them. After pushing away their emotional and physical reactions to uncomfortable sensory stimuli, their body and mind become overwhelmed and they shut down. Oftentimes, this causes a loss of skills as well.
Bear in mind that autistic burnout and the events that trigger it are unique to the person experiencing it. However, there are some common hallmark behaviors that indicate autistic burnout. Some common signs of autistic burnout include:
- Feeling like you can no longer cope
- Increase in common autistic behavior
What Are The Different Types Of Autistic Shutdown
Autistic people may appear cool as a cucumber when in shutdown mode . However, not all is how it seems as, unlike an autistic meltdown which sees the mind reboot our bodies, a shutdown will see our minds rewire our senses, to protect us from what is causing the distress.
According to Autism: An Inside-Out Approach, this can result in one of two autism shutdown subdivides:
Both of which may seem preferable to the destruction that is a meltdown, but dont let this deceive you into thinking that they dont have strengths and weaknesses of their own. For example:
What Causes Burnout
Burnouts can be triggered by major life changes, like moving, a death in the family, attending a new school, etc. But oftentimes, burnout, as well as short-term shutdowns and meltdowns, can be the culmination of daily life stressorsespecially masking.
Masking is when a person with autism tries to hide that theyre autistic. The majority of the people in the AASPIRE study listed masking as a significant contributor to burnout. One said: The metaphor I use is that long-term masking leaves behind a kind of psychic plaque in the mental and emotional arteries. Like the buildup of physical plaque over time can result in heart attack or stroke, the buildup of this psychic plaque over time can result in burnout.
The participants also said that a lack of support can cause or worsen burnouts. Sometimes, the support needed was formal, like disability services or therapy. Others felt like they just needed more understanding from loved ones.
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How You Can Help
Having a person with us is extremely helpful. Some people need helpers. Some luck out by having friends who understand and can help when were showing signs of overload. There are plenty of examples of spouses or partners who lean in and help when their partner is starting to show stress.
Help can come in different forms. I have been given help, and I have helped others. I have also observed a helper with a person.
A simple way to help is to just keep a person company. Even though the person with autism may not show it, they appreciate the helper. The company of another person gives someone validation. It also gives a sense of safety and security. If you are with me and helping me, I feel like I have significance in this world, and I do not feel as lost. I have seen helpers leave the presence of a person with autism when the person is not ready, and the person expresses anxious behaviors. It is great to check with the person first before leaving their presence.
Another strategy for overload is to take a time out. Sometimes taking a minute to be away from stimulus calms the brain. The brain does not have to take in as much information, and all those brain activities can chill and sort themselves out.
Being an adult with autism, but teaching teens with autism, I am learning to be vigilant of not only my own needs, but of the needs of others. I am hopeful that this information is helpful to both people with autism and caregivers of those with autism.
What A Shutdown Feels Like
Ive been in constant pain recently due to my hypermobility. Im recovering from my third calf tear in a year, I have a ligament injury in my hand, and have lower back pain thats been with me for as long as I can remember. Im usually quite tired, but have been feeling extra tired for a few weeks. Work has been demanding, and with that plus lockdown and my pain and injuries I am starting off with less spoons than I would normally have.
Yesterday, I went on a bike ride and a long walk with a friend and we talked the whole time. It was great and I loved every minute of it, but it left me exhausted. I was meant to have dinner with my bubble buddy last night, but by the time I got home I knew I didnt have any energy left to do that and that I wouldnt even be able to speak to them. It would not have been possible for me to take a phone call, have a conversation, go to the supermarket, or do any tasks that required brain power. It meant I had to cancel dinner, and I couldnt play video games or DJ or organise my music collection. There was just nothing left. I went into shutdown.
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How To Calm Down An Autistic Child During A Meltdown
A meltdown is generally a reaction by the individual as they are overwhelmed. The first thing in learning how to calm an autistic child is to identify what is actually overwhelming for them.
By identifying the trigger, the meltdowns could be prevented later on. Keep a diary to see if meltdowns occur at particular times or places.However, there are also things to try while the autistic child is having a meltdown to calm them down. Here are some tips and strategies:
Can Shutdowns Hurt Your Child
What is a shutdown?
A shutdown is a particular sequence of behavior which we observed in a child diagnosed as high-functioning within the autistic spectrum.
In academic settings when pressured by an adult to perform tasks that were difficult, she became unresponsive, sleepy, immobile, and limp to the touch for several minutes, and then fell asleep in a chair for as briefly as 10 min. and up to 2 hours. These shutdown states were always triggered by social stress of a certain kind and they became more severe and frequent over a period of about a year.
Do shutdowns worsen the symptoms of autism?
During this time the child had entered a mainstream kindergarten class after spending her preschool years in a special education classroom. Soon after entering kindergarten she developed fears of the bathroom which interfered with normal toileting and bathing, she woke in fear several times during the night and was afraid to sleep in her bed. She would only wear clothes of a certain type and color, became socially withdrawn, highly emotional, and had difficulty remembering previously mastered academics. Her drawings became illegible blobs and she colored in large strokes ignoring the lines. She also began exhibiting refusal behavior at school and in speech therapy. While at school she spent all of her recess time on the swing and she craved that activity at home as well.
Shutdowns and stress
Are shutdowns actually avoidance behavior?
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What To Do If Your Child Has Shutdowns
The best thing you can do for your child is provide patience and support. Shutdowns are nerve-racking for you, but also for the person experiencing them. Do what you can to be a source of comfort instead of more stress. Dont panic, ask too many questions, or go overboard trying to comfort him/her.
Watch out for what triggers your childs shutdowns and avoid it as much as possible. If its something that cant be totally avoided, like social interaction, try to find a way to make it less stressful. For example, you can keep socializing brief and gradually work up to longer visits. Provide an opportunity for your child to take a break and alternate the trigger activity with a fun one.
Some kids show a specific sign before shutting down, so watch out for that, too. The girl in the case study, for instance, rubbed her eyes when overwhelmed.
If you see a shutdown coming on, or if its started, remove your child from the environment if you can. Go to a side room, outdoors, out to the caranywhere thats calmer and quieter.
What you do next depends on what your son or daughter wants. Some kids want to hold hands, hug, or chat while they recover from overload. For others, any extra sensory input is too much, and they would rather have space to be alone while they process.
Sometimes, special interests can be helpful. A favorite stuffed animal, fidget toy, book, or other belonging might comfort your child and redirect his/her thoughts.