#TakeOffTheMask: Stimming

I’m a stimmer. I stim to calm and to self-regulate. It is (and always has been) necessary for my mental health well-being.

One of my favourite-ist ways to calm myself as a child was to twirl myself around until the ‘butterflies dance’. Why? Because it blocked out all the shit stuff. While I was spinning, I couldn’t think of anything else except the fluttering sensations in my body.

Those few minutes allowed my brain to reset itself.

I didn’t know that I was autistic.

I didn’t know that I was stimming.

My ‘stimbox’ includes rocking, spinning and stroking tactile materials. It also includes me picking at my skin until I bleed. Then, come the scabaroonies which I will pick off time and time again. Scabs are the gift that keeps on giving, right?

If you happen to see me manically ripping the skin off my lips, I’m probably mega-anxious.

If you see me rocking gently, I could be happy, excited or apprehensive.

If I’m rocking like a psycho, it’s best to assume that I’m experiencing brain-snap, so I’d back away s-l-o-w-l-y.

When I stim, my brain overrides some of the stimulus that makes me anxious.

When I suppress my stims, stimulus (and anxiety) becomes amplified.

Lets get one thing clear: EVERYBODY STIMS. If you’ve ever chewed your nails, hair, pen-top, or shoved your finger up your nose and left it there longer than is necessary – you’ve stimmed. The difference is that non-autistic people’s stimming is more socially acceptable. Nobody gives a toss if someone bites their nails, right? Hand-flapping? Tosses are very much given and people turn into judgemental @rse-holes!

I used to be semi-successful at suppressing my stims. Just as I was semi-succesful at camouflaging myself, but since I burned out, I’m not so good at it because I don’t have the energy to suppress anymore. That and I can’t take medication for my anxiety disorder because I have Fibromyalgia – a condition which can affect how your body reacts to medication.

Stimming keeps me sane – literally.

I stimmed recently at my son’s school presentation day. It was necessary because the stimulus levels were THROUGH THE ROOF! It was a sensory nightmare – which is ironic considering the event was for an ASD specialist school.

I rocked gently, back and forth or from side to side. It calmed me enough for me to be able to remain in my seat. Plus, I fixed a mini-fan to my phone, which went down quite well with the lady who was sat next to me. However, the room was full of autistic students and their parents – some of which will have been autistic too, so I doubt that I stood out at all, but even if I did, I doubt that any shits would have been given.

When you mask, you suppress or adapt your stims. On top of having to think about what to say and when to say it, you have to suppress the urge to stim naturally. Maybe that will give you some indication of how social interaction can be so exhausting for autistic people?

With the controversial ABA approach, stims are literally shouted ‘out’ of autistic children.

‘But it works! Little Jimmy no longer flaps his hands!’

It works for you, but little Jimmy has turned into a robot. He’s been trained to obey.

You don’t ‘cure autism’ – you suppress an autistic person’s need to be themselves which could potentially result in mental health disorders.

“We’re not trying to deny kids the right to be who they are,” Dr John McEachin, co-director of the Autism Partnership, an ABA service provider,

Denying autistic kids the right to be who they are is EXACTLY what you are doing, mush!

Often, autistic people are unable to communicate verbally how they are feeling and parents/carers are too focused on trying to eradicate their stims to understand that stimming gives a clue as to how a person is feeling/coping in a situation. A change in stimming frequency (or intensity) might indicate that a person’s anxiety levels are rising and it would be wise to remove them from the situation. Understanding the role of stimming could help to prevent a full-blown meltdowns and improve an autistic person’s overall well-being.

What would people rather see. A child flapping his/her hands or a child running out into the path of a car because their anxiety has hit the danger zone?

Your homework for this week is to go out into the community and observe people stimming. Foot-tapping. Finger drumming. Doodling. Stroking hair. All self-stimulatory behaviour, but it’s only autistic people who get called out on stimming. The problem is that our stims are generally more visible and it makes people feel uncomfortable and we can’t have that, can we?

Some stims are simply not acceptable in public and in those cases it’s necessary to encourage more appropriate ones. For instance, some people firk with their crotch area when anxious. Nobody wants to see people firking around in their crotch areas unless it’s by mutual agreement, you get me?

Other stims are harmful, as with head-banging and other self-harming behaviours. To understand this behaviour, you need to know that when a person self-harms, it’s because their anxiety is overwhelming them to the point of requiring pain to block things out. I’ve never self-harmed in this way, but I’ve seen it many times and I understand that it’s a total loss of control due to severe anxiety. If it makes you, the onlooker, uncomfortable to see this. Can you even imagine what the person who is in pain feels like?

“Stimming is rarely dangerous. It can, however, be embarrassing for parents and siblings, disconcerting for teachers, or off-putting for potential friends and co-workers.” (somewhere on the internet, but I’ve closed the tab on the page and cba to trawl through my history)

I’d argue that stimming can be dangerous. Banging one’s head against a brick wall isn’t exactly soft-play, is it?

As for the second sentence in this quote..

This is the problem.

We make ourselves mentally ill so we don’t embarrass our families or make our teachers, peers and co-workers feel uncomfortable.

The worst it’s going to get for these people is to feel uncomfortable?

The worst it’s going to get for autistic people who suppress their stims is to be mentally ill.

Actually, worse case is premature death.

Instead of trying to force autistic people to conform to the detriment of their health, how about society adopts a more tolerant attitude to stimming?

OOH LOOK! A FLYING PIG!

 

Christmas and the Autistic Child

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Most children like Christmas right? For many on the autistic spectrum, Christmas is a stressful time of year. The inevitable changes to routine are enough to send some children spiralling into one meltdown after another..

Same for autistic parents.

The Boy’s anxiety has been climbing for weeks. As soon as things change at school his behaviour deteriorates. He’s on a VERY short fuse and the simplest of requests, like taking his coat off, has him throwing stuff and stomping off upstairs screaming that he wants to DIE. He’s eight going on thirteen only this is him BEFORE the hormones kick in!

Can you imagine when they do?

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Trip hazard? Or my son when the testosterone kicks in?

The Boy’s need for me is ever greater as he battles with a brain that struggles to cope with Christmas. He likes Christmas but struggles with it just as he struggles with a lot of other things he likes.

There are no decorations up at our house yet as we’re trying to keep stimulus to a minimum and my anxiety is so bad that the mere thought of them makes my heart race. The control freak within me struggles to allow other people to do it and in the past when I have let the kids, er, ‘help’, I have stood there fighting the urge to rugby tackle them to the floor in order to prise the baubles from their clammy little hands. *whispers* I re-did it once they were in bed. It’s something I don’t like about myself but it’s a pathological need for certain things to be aesthetically pleasing in my eyes.

When it comes to visiting Santa, forget it. It’s a sensory nightmare.

Queuing = Hell.

Noise = Hell.

Migraine inducing fairy lights = Hell

Sitting on Santa’s knee. Do they still do that? = Hell.

I hated it as a child. The Boy managed one minute in a queue once and we had to leave. Do your child and yourselves a favour and go to an autism friendly session where the visits are timed, you can take your own present. Visiting Santa should be a pleasant experience for every child, no?

There are things you can do as a non-deranged parent to make things a little easier for your autistic child.

Decorations

  • You can involve your child in buying decorations or letting them help you to put them up.
  • Introduce the decorations gradually. It’s probably best not to have it looking like Santa’s Grotto if your child gets easily overstimulated.
  • Give some thought to your Christmas lights. If your child is very sensitive, a migraine inducing strobe effect probably isn’t the best idea. Static or gentle fade in and fade out lights will be more appropriate.
  • Use countdowns for putting the decorations up and taking them down.
  • Use social stories and visual calendars.

Visiting Santa

  • Check your local papers/social media for autistic friendly Santa-sessions

Presents

  • Mountains of presents will overwhelm most autistic children so it’s best to limit how many they get or don’t put them all out on Christmas Day.
  • If your child has sensory issues pay attention to the paper you use to wrap the presents with.
  • If unwrapping make them anxious then don’t wrap them at all.
  • Place a familiar toy next to the new presents.
  • Try some gentle classical Christmas music in the background especially if classical soothes them normally.

Family

Don’t feel under pressure from your family. If you know your child can’t cope with a big family get together on Christmas Day, then don’t be afraid to tell them to sod off – albeit politely. Your child’s well-being has to come before Great Aunt Ada parking her arse on your sofa all day scoffing the Quality Street eh? Life is different when you have an autistic child. If people get it, great. If they don’t, educate them until they do get it. Maybe give them a book on understanding autism as a Christmas present?

Familiarity

Christmas Day is just the three of us. There are no visitors. There is no Christmas dinner with party hats and other such paraphernalia. The Boy has his usual food and bedtime is the usual time with the usual ritual of a story and his Classic FM.

The Rules are that there are NO rules when it comes to autism. Each person is different. Some love Christmas, some don’t. All autistic people are affected but not necessarily in a negative way.

Me? I find Christmas stressful BUT it’s also the season of fairy lights and I BLOODY LOVE fairy lights!!

As a child I used to lie on the floor under the Christmas tree and stare at them for hours on end. My Nan, having downed a few brandies, would say, “You’re a funny little girl” I used to wonder why she was calling me funny when I hadn’t said or done anything funny. Now I know she was calling me weird. MY OWN GRANDMOTHER!!

Christmas is difficult for me in ways which most people wouldn’t understand. I’m not a Christmas hater – it’s just that there is too much going on and that sends my anxiety orbital. Social media is crammed with Christmas. TV is bombarding us with adverts/mini-movies for the hard sell and it gives me a headache. If I could cherry pick bits of Christmas it would be lights, carols and the act of giving. You can keep the crowds, commercialism and my pet peeve, ‘Secret Santa’.

I don’t suppose it helps matters that my father decided to shuffle off his mortal coil on a Christmas Day. To lose someone you love on any day of the year is bad enough but to lose them on Christmas Day is epically crap. The image of Dad’s lifeless body while Noddy Holder screeched “IT’S CHRISSSSSSSTMAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAS” is forever seared into my memory and while I fight to bring forward the memories where he was the life and soul of Christmas, this one always wins.

As regards The Boy, we try to keep things as close to normal as is possible. Whatever ‘normal’ is.

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Panic Disorder: When The Fire Isn’t Out

 

Panic disorder is like a fire.

At worst – a raging inferno.

Your body becomes sensitised and responds to everything as if it’s a threat and each fearful response releases more stress hormones into your body. It’s like throwing petrol onto a fire that’s already out of control..

So, you work your backside off to get better and in time those do flames die down. The panic attacks reduce and are less severe or they stop altogether. You’re no longer in fight or flight mode 24/7. You sleep better. You feel better. You think you’ve recovered.

So, you stop doing the things that helped you to feel better..

This is where you make a big mistake because those embers are still burning away..

The fire isn’t completely out.

The way it works is this: Your body has been sensitised for a long time and even though you feel better, you still have a higher than normal level of stress hormones knocking around in your body. These are the burning embers, if you like. Meaning that it doesn’t take much for the fire to be rekindled. Then a few months down the line you wake up at 4am with your heart thumping in your chest. You feel sick and dizzy and the full weight of despair punches you in the face.

There’s Fear, suitcase in hand, with a big smile on it’s fugly face.

HEY HEY HEY!! I’M BAAAAACK! DID YOU MISS ME?

Fear doesn’t wait for an answer. It’s already pushed it’s way past you and before you know it the little shit’s sitting with it’s size 10 feet up on your imaginary sofa.

WTF?! How did this happen?!

Here’s how..

You went back to your old habits and for a while your body tolerated it because you were less sensitised, but when you have been nervously exhausted it really doesn’t take a lot for things to get out of control again. The good news is that there are signs that let us know us that our stress levels are increasing.

  1. Increase (or return) of addictive behaviours
  2. Increase in obsessive compulsive behaviours.
  3. Rumination
  4. Tensed muscles
  5. Inability to complete tasks.
  6. Seeking reassurance.
  7. Completely losing your shit over trivial stuff.
  8. Living in the past or the future, never in the present.
  9. Avoidance behaviour.
  10. Insomnia.

These are all signs that anxiety is flaring up. Those embers are now flames but it doesn’t have to escalate into a full-on inferno. Recognising these warning signs gives us the chance to address our stress levels BEFORE things get out of hand.

The Fab Five.

Five important steps that will put you back on the road to recovery.

  1. Diet
  2. Relaxation exercises
  3. Thoughts
  4. Sleep Hygiene
  5. Acceptance

Diet

Have you lapsed back into poor eating habits by eating crap? By crap, I mean sugar-laden or fatty foods? or caffeine? The foods that made you feel shite when you were poorly?

A reminder.

Eating such foods releases CORTISOL into the body. Cortisol is a STRESS HORMONE.

If you want to get your cortisol levels down – you have to watch what you eat and drink. Boring, I know, but it depends on how much you want to kick this anxiety shit out of your life?

Relaxation

When was the last time you did some relaxation or meditation? Chances are you’ve gone from doing it religiously every day to when you can be arsed or never at all. It’s good practice to do some kind of relaxation EVERY DAY, even when when you feel better because it helps to keep the stress hormones down. Mindfulness lowers cortisol levels. FACT.

Thoughts

Be aware of your thoughts. Are your thoughts in the past or in the future? They should be mostly in the present. Thoughts about the past can produce pain if your dwelling on painful events whereas thoughts about the future can produce fear because the future is unknown. Fleeting thoughts about either are fine, necessary even in order to make plans. The problem is when you are living in the past or the future (or both) instead of the present.

Sleep Hygiene

How are you sleeping? If it’s poorly. What are you doing differently? Are you on social media before bedtime? Or watching stimulating TV? If so, remove all the electronics and read a book. A really boring book and aim to be asleep by 10pm.

Are you ingesting caffeine (inc chocolate) after 3pm? If so, stop. Caffeine is a stimulant. All you are doing is ramping up the stress hormones.

Are you lying there thinking about problems? If so, try mentally put those worries into imaginary balloons (or whatever you like) and watch them float away. You can address them the next day when you can actually do something about them. You can’t do much in your rollers and nightie, can you?!

Acceptance

Acceptance is the most important of them all.

You must accept every bewildering symptom.

You must accept every bewildering thought.

You must accept that you will have crap days.

You must accept that you will have some monumentally crap days.

You must accept that the road to recovery isn’t short.

You must accept that you need to keep doing the things that made you feel better EVEN WHEN YOU FEEL BETTER.

It’s called MAINTENANCE.

As long as you fight against your anxiety, you will never beat it and I do mean, NEVER. Those embers will keep on glowing with the potential to flame up at the slightest bit of stress.

Fear is the firestarter – the twisted firestarter. Deprive fire of oxygen and it will be extinguished. Deprive Fear of stress hormones and it becomes powerless. Make no mistake, Fear will try to knock on your door again and again but each time you will become more adept at seeing him coming..

The day you no longer react WITH FEAR to Fear, is the day you’ve well and truly beaten that nasty little shit and with time (and effort) you will put that fire out completely.

 

 

Autism – Life After Diagnosis

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The BBC is currently running a series called The A Word which is based around a little boy who has autism and his family’s struggle to come to terms with it. So far, his mother has struggled to come to terms with the diagnosis and while I can understand why some parents might feel like that – it wasn’t my experience..

Autism was suggested as a reason for his behaviour when he was 3 years old but prior to that we hadn’t considered it as an option. I knew very little about autism so I researched it and soon realised that he ticked all the boxes. One year later he was diagnosed.

The formal diagnosis came via a phone call. The pediatrician had told us unofficially that our son was autistic but she needed the full report before she could make it official and she was waiting on the speech therapist who hadn’t yet seen him in clinic. A change of plan on the day of his speech therapy appointment threw The Boy into a major meltdown to the point where the therapist was unable to work with him. As distressing as the meltdown was – we were quietly pleased that this would be going in her report. A few days later later the consultant phoned and gave us the official diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder with Sensory Processing Disorder.

How did we feel?

Relief, mainly. We had concerns for the future, but what parent doesn’t? Before that I was more worried about him not receiving the diagnosis or having to wait because that meant he wouldn’t get the full support that he needed.

Having read a lot of blogs from autism parents it’s clear that we’ve been lucky. We’ve had no problems at all in getting an assessment, diagnosis and subsequently the right support. I know that many parents are not so lucky but each of us can only speak of our own experience as we find it.

Why Go For A Diagnosis?

Some people live their entire lives knowing they are autistic but never getting assessed formally. When you look at the figures for the amount of people in the UK who have autism, I would suggest that the actual figure is much higher. For some people, they know and it’s enough.

Early intervention makes a massive difference. The Boy copes in mainstream school with one to one support. Without it life would be very different. When I was a child, Leo Kanner’s narrow opinion of autism still influenced attitudes and my son would have been labelled a troublemaker and most likely expelled.

A diagnosis can:

  • Provide relief to the person and their family.
  • Allow access to services only available with a diagnosis.
  • Give better understanding of how to cope with any problems.
  • Provide access to financial support.

How To Get a Referral

Our journey was different to a lot of families as our son’s nursery manager approached us with the suggestion of autism. The child psychologist observed him at nursery and agreed that he should be assessed whereas most parents start with their GP. The one thing I would urge all parents to do is to document unusual behaviour when it happens and note what was happening prior to it.

If you suspect your child has autism:

  • Make an appointment with your GP. Prepare notes on what you want to say in order to get the most out of your ten minutes. If you feel you require a longer appointment, request one.
  • Keep a diary to log unusual behaviour.
  • Not all GPs understand autism. If you are not satisfied, ask to see another one. Trust your instinct!

Diagnosis and its Effect on the Family

Every parent/family reacts differently to diagnosis. For some it brings a sense of relief, for others they grieve for what they feel they have lost. It’s important to understand that your child is still the child that you’ve always loved. The only difference is now you understand that they have a condition and it’s down to you, with support, to ensure that they reach their potential in order to live their life to the fullest.

Siblings

Caring for an autistic child can be all consuming but you need to make time for your other children. Remember that autism affects the family as a whole.

Looking After Yourself

Caring for an autistic child can be mentally if not physically exhausting. It’s important to take time out for yourself in order to re-charge the batteries. Don’t be afraid to ask for support and accept it when it’s offered.

Talk

The one thing that’s kept me from going completely doolally is being able to talk about how I feel with other autism parents and sympathetic friends. Being able to talk (or type) things out can make all the difference in those low moments that we all experience. I’ve also phoned the NAS helpline a few times and they have been helpful and informative.

The helpline number is 0808 800 4104

Autism doesn’t begin with a diagnosis. It’s been there from the start and it will be there in the end but the right support can make all the difference. The difference in The Boy after three years of support is nothing short of amazing. He is loved and accepted for who he is because he goes to a wonderful school with people who care. More importantly, he is happy.

I gave some thought to potentially burdening him with a label but the benefits of diagnosis outweighed the negatives, especially with him being so young. Hopefully when he comes to leave school in twelve years time- having autism will no longer be an obstacle to employment thanks to programmes like Employable Me which highlighted how valuable an autistic person can be to the workplace when given a chance.

Ours is a relatively positive story but it’s not the case for everyone. There are some children whose autism is so severe that there is little hope of an independent life and that must be absolutely devastating for their parents to cope with. It certainly puts things in perspective for us. Life can be difficult but we know it could be a lot worse..

Life with an autistic child is an emotional roller coaster or at least that’s how I see it. There are highs and lows in every day. Sadness and joy. Hope and despair. Resignation and determination. Courage and fear.

But always there is love.

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