Happiness

Yesterday, I was in the car with my mum, dad and sister. We were discussing all sorts of things and my sister brought up a lot of questions to my Mum and Dad about the who was the best behaved child and other random memories. We were discussing something that I can’t even remember, a memory that we were trying to place in the history of our lives. I threw out an age, “Was I about 14?”, and her response was profound and honest – “No, it was when you were happy.”

It got my mind back onto something I’ve been thinking about for a long time – the idea that I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I can’t recall so many days where I wake up feeling okay and when I don’t, it doesn’t knock me back for weeks. I don’t recall so genuinely content with my life and having legitimate aspirations I can try to achieve. My life isn’t completely ruled by my anxiety but I also know my limits , I know when to push that anxiety and when to leave it. Sitting here writing this I just feel happy. I’ve got the highest grade ever achieved on my college work, I’ve got a job – a fulfilling job that makes me excited to leave the house, and I’ve looked around a University and cannot wait to think about my future there.

I’m genuinely so content that happiness is a realistic possibility everyday. I actually want to leave the house and find myself going crazy if I haven’t left the house before work at 3 o’clock. Now I’ve finished college for the year, I’ve started teaching myself further science because my love of learning is back. I’m comfortable with who I am and I don’t want to hide it, whether that’s emotionally, physically or autistically.

And being so happy just reminds me how grateful I am. Grateful to my family, grateful to my friends, grateful to the medication I take. Grateful that I can live life again when making informed decisions based off my neurotype and my mental health. It’s weird to think that I was so gradually unhappy, but I only noticed it when I experienced the biggest amount of happiness. And that’s why I’m grateful. You can never put things into perspective until you experience something else, and I’m just so glad I can experience this happiness because it means that I will never go back to where it was. It’s too much to lose.

 

A Guide To: Stimming

The flapping of hands, tapping of objects and biting things. The noises from the mouth, repetitive sounds and jumping up and down. These things tend to seem weird to neurotypicals, but for autistic people like me, they’re a fact of life. They – those behaviours that get glares and stares in public – are self-stimulatory behaviours, commonly know as stimming.

What is stimming?

The first – and probably most important – thing to cover in this post is what stimming actually is. If we’re going to be clinical, stimming is “Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypies, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).” That’s a quote from the common autism diagnostic criteria found within the DSM-5. Stimming is way more complicated than that though. To understand stimming, you can’t just hear one sentence, filled with medical terminology. You need to understand the seven senses, along with why we stim.

The Seven Senses

At perhaps the first opportunity in school, we’re taught the five sense:

  • Touch/Tactile
  • Taste/Gustation
  • Sight/Visual
  • Hearing/Auditory
  • Smell/Olfaction

All of these are important in understanding sensory experiences. I receive tactile stimulation from tapping, running fingers along silky fabrics and touching things. Eating smooth chocolate that slides down my throat and drinking tea at the perfect strength give me gustation input. Watching Christmas lights, snow falling and paint mixing provide me with the visual stimulation I need. I receive auditory input by listening to music at the perfect (fairly low) volume and repeating sounds and words just so I can hear them. I smell body sprays, and flowers and food to get olfaction input.

However, there are two more senses that are just as important. We don’t talk about them much, but we really need to. They are called the proprioceptive sense and the vestibular sense.

Proprioception is the sense of where your body is in the space it occupies, the way the body moves, the effort this takes and the force required to do so. My proprioceptive sense is some of what make makes me clumsy; I walk in to everything, misjudging doorways that have been in the house I’ve lived in my whole life, because I’m uncertain – on some level – about the space I occupy.

A lot of autistic people receive proprioceptive input in a similar way – weighted therapy. This is using heavy things – usually specially designed weighted blankets, lap pads or shoulder pads – to help calm down. They help the sympathetic nervous system – the system that determines your fight or flight response (the thing that causes meltdowns in autistic people). If your body is calm, so your heart rate isn’t racing and your blood isn’t pumping way too fast, it’s easier to calm yourself down mentally, to think things through carefully and work things out.

The last sense that needs mentioning is the vestibular sense. This also plays into my clumsiness; it’s to do with balance and movement. The vestibular system is responsible for me fall over at the slightest movement and plays into my somewhat poor motor skills. Vestibular input will come from activities such as rocking and flapping – anything to do with movement, really. This is why the majority of my stims at vestibular – clapping, flapping, rocking and jumping.

Stims aren’t limited to one sense, though. I could be clapping for the tactile input while also enjoying the auditory input.

Why Autistic People Stim

There are many reasons autistic people stim, but here, I’d say, are the top three:

  • To calm or sooth
  • To deal with emotions
  • To cope with sensory input

At the top of the list is calming and soothing. If you’re neurotypical, think of something you do when you’re stressed. You might come home and have a bath, read a book to relax or have a lie down. These things can clear your mind and help you deal with the future, whether that’s later on that day or the day after. Activities like these are forms of self-care and ways of coping with stressful situations. Stimming as self-regulation – soothing if you like – is just this, except it’s a solution in the moment. It’s a behaviour that can have this impact. It feels like a natural response.

Dealing with emotions is a very similar idea to calming – if you’re overloaded with emotion, you’ll want to calm down and thus use strategies. Stimming doesn’t always equal an emotion, it can be a passive activity, but I’d say it is quite often an emotional response. It’s similar to how you’d cry if you’re sad. The thing with autistic people – as I mentioned in this post – is that we have complex relationships with emotions. Whether this is alexithymia or just difficulty in reacting in a ‘typical’ way to a scenario, it’s clear we won’t react the same to neurotypicals if we don’t interpret emotions the same way.

Coping with sensory input comes down to the two common types (within neurodivergent people) of sensory experiences, that aren’t typical to neurotypicals. They’re called hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. They look and sound similar, but they’re polar opposites. Hypersensitivity is being oversensitive to sensory stimuli while hyposensitivity is being under-sensitive to stimuli. Which category a person falls into can vary from sense to sense from day to day, and they may not even have a atypical sensory experience with a specific sense. I tend reside around hypersensitive for most part.

It’s not usually clean cut, someone is hypersensitive and someone is hyposensitive, but for the sake of simplicity, say it is. Person A is hypersensitive and person B is hyposensitive. Person A reacts to loud noises by trying to cover their ears and biting their hand in distress. They are trying to receive input in another way to calm them down. Noises are louder for them than most people around them, and even though their neurotypical friend says ‘it’s not that loud!’, it is to them. Meanwhile, Person B is in the same room. It doesn’t seem that loud to them, so they put on some headphones and listen to music loudly. They’re now receiving the input they need, so they flapping contentedly along to the music.

Like always, no autistic person is the same in this respect, but I hope this example illustrates how sensory input is linked to other senses and how reactions to it vary.

Self Injurious Behaviours in Stimming

For the most part, stimming is completely harmless and should not be stopped at all. If people are staring, it’s their problem. It’s not an embarrassing thing, it’s just a natural part of autistic life. However, if the stims are self injurious then they need to be replaced.

Self Injurious Behaviours – or SIBs – in stimming usually occur during meltdowns and what I said in my post, A Guide To: Meltdowns, still stands here. I talk there about redirection, changing the stim so it’s not harmful.

‘Headbanging on a hard floor or wall can be redirected to a pillow, which will obviously cause a lot less damage. For biting, chewable silicone can be a great substitute. It can be brought in a variety of toughness levels and is often found as jewellery as an on-the-go solution.  Long lasting lip balm, or moisturiser for skin, might helping with picking and having hair tied back are other solutions.’  – A Guide To: Meltdowns

Other than SIBs within stimming, no one and nothing should stop you. Stimming is a helpful coping mechanism that comes naturally to autistic people.


Thank you for reading this A Guide To post, I’ve been working on it for a few months now. I’d also like to thank everyone who’s been commenting on and sharing my posts – it means a lot and is helpful in reaching a wider audience!

A lot of this post came from knowledge I’ve acquired, but below are a few sources from which I’ve found some additional information that proved helpful to this post:

https://biologydictionary.net/sympathetic-nervous-system

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23073629

http://vestibular.org/understanding-vestibular-disorder/human-balance-system

A Guide To: Meltdowns

Meltdowns are a huge part of life as an autistic person. They are often misunderstood, misinterpreted and cited as reasons that autistic people need curing or are childish. In reality, with the right understanding, meltdowns can be understood, remedied and even prevented. All you need is a comprehensive idea of what’s happening, and I think it’s safe to say I’ve got that. To achieve this knowledge, you need to look at a few things: what a meltdown actually is, the causes and triggers to aid future prevention, what can happen during a meltdown and finally, how to cope in the moment.

What a meltdown actually is (and what it isn’t)

I want to say meltdown is a response that autistic people have to a particularly distressing or overwhelming situations, but it feels like a huge oversimplification. During research for this post, I came across a definition that made so much sense to me. It’s not condensed in the way I thought it had to be, but I don’t think you can do that in this case. I found the definition on the autism wiki, and here it is:

Neurotypical and autistic people have the same fundamental response to stressors. When people recognize something as harmful, they become alarmed. Their brains and bodies secrete combinations of chemicals that people typically recognize as emotions. Those emotions, in turn, spur people to take action intended to face the threat. If these emotions are ignored, then they will build until they prompt the person experiencing them to fight or flee the threat.”  (Link)

The particular post then goes on to briefly mention that autistic people can face difficulties in identifying these emotions. This difficulty to identify and understand these emotions is called alexithymia, my post on which can be found here. Without this kind of internal understanding of emotions but feeling alerted to something harmful, I don’t think it’s surprising that we have meltdowns.

Another way to look at this is from the opposite perspective: what is a meltdown not? The easiest way to do this is to look at what it’s usually mistaken for – a tantrum. Tantrums have a goal, are done to illicit a reaction, are accomplished in a way to avoid physical injury and simply, the person is in control of themselves fully. A meltdown is pretty much the polar opposite, a sign of pure distress. I spent a long time not knowing that I’m autistic and even I mistook meltdowns for tantrums. I wondered what was wrong with me, why I couldn’t control myself. Now I understand more, I realise that it’s a natural fight-or-flight response, similar to that of a panic attack, really.

Additionally, there is another ‘type’ of meltdown called a shutdown. A shutdown is the same as a meltdown in the sense that it is a reaction to distress and they can be dealt with in a similar way. However, it’s a more inward reaction. Common things that happen during shutdowns are not being able to make sense of what’s going on, wanting to communicate but not being able to, staring straight ahead, not moving or responding and finding a place to be alone and lie down or curl up.

Causes and triggers

Learning personal causes and triggers can make life a lot easier, as it increases your likelihood of being able to prevent a meltdown. Causes and triggers vary from person to person so it’s best after a meltdown, whenever you feel ready, to look at the situation that caused it. For me, it tends to be a combination of factors that build up and up to the point where something that seems much less severe pushes me into having a meltdown. Here is a list of some common triggers and why they might be overwhelming:

  • Sensory issues –   over or under sensitivity can be very distressing for an autistic person. Being oversensitive means that seemingly quiet noises and lights that aren’t too bright to a neurotypical person could be overwhelming to the point of triggering the fight-or-flight response. I can’t speak from personal experience about being strongly hyposensitive, but I think it’s a similar experience but in reverse.
  • Changing routines, or at least what is expected –  These changes can vary in size, from changing an entire day’s plans for whatever reason to changing the order an autistic person gets ready in the morning, but they can be equally distressing.
  • Communication difficulties – if an autistic person cannot communicate their feelings aloud or are being misunderstood when they communicate in the way that feels comfortable (verbally or not) can cause frustration that ends up triggering a meltdown.
  • Anxiety – these can cover both anxiety disorders, something fairly common with autistic people, and the feeling of anxiety. Again, it’s a case of not being able to deal with what’s going on.
  • Passing as neurotypical – also called suppressing autistic traits, this is where so much energy goes into not behaving in a way that feels natural, often to avoid uncomfortable responses or bullying. It’s exhausting, and being exhausted is so likely to lead to meltdown, because the resources to deal with it are naturally depleted.
  • Illness – being ill is horrible for both the mind and body. Dealing with pain – in relation to sensitivity to it – or the feeling of everything being different to normal are just a couple of reasons why being ill can lead to more meltdowns.

Knowing that these are causes means that it’s possible to deal with these specific issues in the future before they escalate to the point of meltdown. This could mean bringing ear defenders everywhere to ensure if it gets too loud, there is a way to cope or allowing time away from people to act as autistic as possible or preparing in advance for potential changes.

And it’s all trial and error. You might find that one communication method makes things worse or a certain type of sensory equipment isn’t right for you. It’s all about working things out as you go along, but having a starting point, for example a personalised list of things you want to try, is important. When you find things that work – keep them, and use them again and again.

What can happen during a meltdown

The behaviours that occur during a meltdown can be difficult to actually explain. I’ve seen them described as a range of things including “extreme”, “dangerous” and “repetitive”.

By “extreme”, I think people mean that the behaviour can look that way to an outsider. Again, meltdowns are often confused with tantrums thus we do see similar behaviours involved. Meltdowns are a personal experience but some common behaviours seen during them are:

  • Kicking
  • Screaming
  • Shouting
  • Biting
  • Crying

The repetitive part presumable refers to stimming, the self regulatory behaviours autistic people use to cope with the world around them. Most of this stimming is harmless but some of it falls under the category of an SIB – self-injurous behaviour. I struggle with head-banging, hand biting, hair pulling, skin picking (involving my lips mainly), aggressive jaw grinding and arm scratching. During a meltdown my brain is overwhelmed and cannot make sense of my surroundings. This means my awareness of safety is reduced greatly and I do harmful things without thinking about the impact.

Self-injurious behaviour during meltdown is not the case for everyone, but it’s not uncommon, either. A way to overcome this is to find tools for redirection and try to put them in a place they’ll be useful. Headbanging on a hard floor or wall can be redirected to a pillow, which will obviously cause a lot less damage. For biting, chewable silicone can be a great substitute. It can be brought in a variety of toughness levels and is often found as jewellery as an on-the-go solution.  Long lasting lip balm, or moisturiser for skin, might helping with picking and having hair tied back are other solutions. Overall, redirection is time-consuming and difficult, so reducing meltdowns through the identification of triggers is probably more effective in the long run. However, redirection will reduce the damage done by individual meltdowns.

There is a raw and personal account of a meltdown from blogger Cynthia Kim, which brilliantly shows the confusion and difficulties experienced during meltdowns. It can be found here.

How to cope in the moment

Coping in the moment is actually incredibly difficult. I think the first step is knowing that it’s okay, and that nothing’s wrong with you. Having this knowledge, for me, was important in terms of personal acceptance. It made me realise that if a meltdown has started, don’t try and stop it, just ride it out as safely as possible. How to cope can be split into two categories: coping as an autistic person and helping an autistic person cope. Here are some strategies for both:

Coping as an autistic person:

  •  Try calming stims – flapping, rocking – whatever works for you.
  • Find a place with the right sensory environment for you – it might be a dark, quiet room you can lie down in.
  • Listen to some music, it doesn’t have to be traditionally calming – once again, whatever works for you.
  • Do something related to a special interest – reading, writing, drawing, talking.
  • Try to breath regularly, especially if you’re crying.
  • Use deep pressure, a weighted blanket if you have one.
  • Afterwards, have a shower/bath, a drink, a snack and sleep for a while if you need to.

Helping an autistic person cope:

  • Their verbal communication might be reduced, if you need to communicate, ask simple yes or no questions to which a nod or shake of the head can be the answer – “Can I touch you?”, “Would you like to go to a different room?”, “Would you like me to leave you alone?”, “Would you like me to get you anything?”
  • Don’t physically restrain them. The fight-or-flight response is triggered and they may fight without intending to.
  • Offer solutions to harmful stims, for example, give them a pillow to bang their head on.
  • Try to find somewhere else to go if it happens in public – a quiet room is best.
  • Remain calm. They might be shouting and screaming but they don’t mean to. It’s a natural response and being surrounded by someone who is calm might help them feel calm quicker.
  • Try to help with things like calm breathing, but if this makes the autistic person more distressed, stop and try something else.
  • Afterwards, discuss what happened and how to avoid it in the future, but don’t push the conversation until they are ready. The actual meltdown can be traumatic or embarrassing and might take a while to be discussed without distress.

So that’s my guide to meltdowns! It’s one of my longer posts, but an important one, I think. Thank you for reading it, and I hope it’s helpful. You can follow this blog via a wordpress account or email to be informed when I’ve published a new post. I’m hoping to be doing this weekly with Sundays being the day where I publish them. Thank you for reading and supporting this blog.

Rollercoaster: My Experience with Alexithymia

The past week has been an absolute rollercoaster of emotions for me. This due to circumstances both expected and unexpected but this doesn’t necessarily make it easier for me to deal with them. I have alexithymia and I don’t understand my emotions very well.

The word ‘alexithymia’ stems from three Greek root words. The first root is the prefix ‘a’, which means ‘no’, ‘not’ or ‘without’. This is followed by ‘léxis’, a word meaning ‘speech’ or ‘language’. Finally, it ends with “thymia” –  a word used in the formation of names, specifically when talking about mental health disorders, concerning emotions. Etymologically, it means something close to “no words for mood”, which is close to the actual definition – “difficulty in experiencing, expressing, and describing emotional responses.”

Alexithymia is different for every person who has it: some people cannot understand any emotions at all, while others can’t express or understand them well enough when compared to a typical standard. The exact statistics vary from study to study, but there is a confirmed link between autism and alexithymia. People can have alexithymia without being autistic and can be autistic without experiencing alexithymia, but a lot of autistic people do. This seems to be where the cold and inexpressive stereotype of autistic people comes from. However, it’s inaccurate in a variety of ways, mainly because autistic people do feel things but the difficulty in experiencing, expressing and describing these feelings leads to inaccurate perception of something internal from neurotypical people. Simply, the feeling are there, but the response is different to what neurotypical people might expect.

Alexithymia, for me, means that I can easily identify strong emotions, like anger and excitement, but others are harder. I understand the divide between being happy and sad, but the grey area inbetween is really confusing for me. Growing up, I learnt words like ‘stressed’ and ‘worried’ but I never fully understood them in a way that could make them applicable to me, personally. I used them when it seemed applicable, namely in situations where I’d heard other people use them. This doesn’t mean I identified such emotions, it was more of a stab in the dark and hoping for the best. Dictating emotions is something that general society seems to believe is a simple task but for me, it’s like speaking a language I don’t understand. I’ve heard someone else use it, so I will, but I doesn’t mean I believe nor fully grasp the words I’m speaking.

Knowing about alexithymia means I’m far more likely to be honest about what I’m feeling these days. Having a name for not having the words to discuss emotions means I can discuss them in a way I’ve never been able to. It seems like an oxymoron, but stick with me. If my mum asks me “How are you feeling?”, I realise it’s an option to respond with “I don’t know.” Instead of using specific words, we’ll look at the scenario together and assess it carefully. This means I’m not using words that don’t work with how I’m experiencing things and my mum can help me understand things. It’s not me suddenly understanding what specific emotive words mean, but understanding my mind and using that to my advantage, an advantage other people have in identifying their emotions.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, there’s been a lot happening recently, which means I’ve spent a lot of time in the grey area of emotional confusion. Significantly, I’ve left school, which meant I said goodbye to people who’ve supported me for over a year and helped me grow as a person, and just a day later, my sister got ill and she’s not been herself. I can’t talk for every autistic person, by any means, but I feel at least part of my issue surrounding change is the emotions it provokes. I don’t know how change ends up making me feel thus I begin to struggle with understand my own mind more than usual. Differing from what seems normal – to me – confuses the ‘balance’ of my mind. I can’t realistically control my thoughts in the way I want to because emotions that I fail to fully understand get in the way.

Another problem I have with emotions is that they heavily depend on the situation. What is classed as a ‘sad’ response, can appear in different ways and be a response to different situations. It’s difficult for me to recognise and coherently comprehend that two events could have occurred, one made me cry and the other I didn’t, but they can both be classified as things that have made me ‘sad’.

In reality, putting names to feelings can be useful but I don’t think they should be heavily depended upon in general. I started a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or CBT, last year to help alleviate anxiety. It seems to be the most common form of therapy for anxiety and depression so I was hopeful that it would work out. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work for me because of the core principles. It is based upon the idea of the link between thoughts, emotions and behaviours – without a full understanding of emotions, I couldn’t work with the therapy, so it couldn’t work for me.

This is a shorter post that normal, but I hope it’s given an insight to what alexithymia is and how it impacts me.