Tag Archives: sensory overload

Where I Go When I Shutdown

This is loosely related to last week’s post on flat affect. When I look blank or checked out, sometimes it’s because I’ve withdrawn or shut down.

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“You disappeared.”

When my husband said this to me, we were sitting in a restaurant waiting for lunch to arrive. It was the tail end of a great weekend at the beach and I was off in my own world.

Withdrawal. Shutdown. You’ll hear people with Asperger’s use different words for the disappearing act we perform under stress.

For me, withdrawal feels more accurate. The sensory input becomes too much. Too many people, too much noise, too many decisions, too little time to process it all.

Sitting in the restaurant, I felt the telltale signs of withdrawal creeping up on me. The first is a sudden heavy sleepiness. All I want to do is put my head down and close my eyes. Or better yet, curl up in a nice safe place and take a nap. Of course, the urge to withdraw almost always hits at at a time when a nap is impossible and there are no safe places nearby.

The second sign–the one that makes it clear I’m not just overtired–is the sensation of moving through a long tunnel. Everything around me recedes and grows quieter. I feel myself disconnecting from the conversation. It becomes harder to formulate responses and I have no motivation to initiate any interaction.

Once I’ve drifted far enough into the tunnel, I’m quite content to sit and stare off into space, detached from everything that’s happening around me. I feel invisible.

Cumulative Stress

My withdrawals are almost always triggered by cumulative stress. The morning leading up to that lunchtime withdrawal was marked by a series of little frustrations. On any other day, I would have simply rolled with them, but I think two days of being in an unfamiliar environment was silently taking its toll.

The scene of my latest shutdown

Suddenly the music in the restaurant was too loud, the sun was too bright, I couldn’t tune out the conversations at the tables around me, the menu had too many options, none of which looked good. Sitting half in the sun and half in the shade, I was too cold and too hot at the same time. Every time I looked up, the guy at the next table quickly looked away–and I think that was the last straw.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about why I frequently catch people staring at me, often repeatedly over the course of a meal or a train ride. So off went my perseverative brain, puzzling over that question again. Then–bam–the sleepiness rolled in and next thing I knew I was slipping into the tunnel.

Going Offline

Contrary to how it must look externally, when I’m withdrawn I’m not sad or depressed. Sometimes a withdrawal is triggered by anxiety but sometimes it’s triggered by having too much fun. Whatever the trigger, a withdrawal is always the result of being overwhelmed.

Once I’ve disappeared, though, the dominant feeling is one of comfortable blankness. Relief.

Withdrawing or shutting down is obviously a defense mechanism. My brain decides that the processing demands of my environment have become too high and it takes some resources offline for a while. The withdrawal itself is restorative, a sensory timeout, but it’s not voluntary and even when I know it’s happening, there’s little I can do to stop or control it.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Do I need to control it? Do I want to? Ideally, it would be nice to delay a withdrawal to a more convenient time, like during the drive home instead of in the middle of lunch. I’m not sure if this is possible. The urge to withdraw is a strong and physical, more like being hungry than being sad. I can talk myself out being sad, but being hungry only goes away if I eat something.

Looking at a withdrawal as a physical need makes it easier to see that it’s not something I can simply distract myself from. Still, I hate the idea of feeling helplessly ruled by my body. Maybe the answer lies in what comes before the withdrawal, that series of little frustrations made worse by being out of my element.

I’m getting better at managing unexpected change. I’m slowly learning to embrace the unfamiliar. I’m becoming more mindful of the ways my physical comfort affects my emotional shifts. But perhaps I’m still too good at stuffing down the negative emotions, the little discomforts and anxieties that don’t feel important enough to waste energy on.

Resurfacing

Normally if someone tries to engage me in conversation when I’ve shut down, all they get are monosyllabic answers. When my husband asked, “where are you?” my nonanswer was “why?”

He paused  a moment, probably wondering if he was doing the right thing by confronting the situation head-on and then he said, “You disappeared.”

That simple acknowledgement of what I was experiencing helped me re-engage with him. We’d never talked about my withdrawals before. My husband has always, I think, assumed they were simply “bad moods,” something to be ridden out and ignored.

They’re more than that, and now he has a better understanding of not only where I go when I disappear but how I feel and why it’s not entirely a bad thing.

Asperger’s and Motherhood (Part 2)

This is the second in a series of posts about being a mom with Asperger’s–a combination of reflections on how my AS affected my parenting abilities and some advice that I wish someone has given me when I was struggling to make sense of being an unconventional mom. Hopefully some of what I learned the hard way will be useful to other moms in the same situation.

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I know I haven’t been a perfect mother but I also know that the perfect mother doesn’t exist. As moms, we do the best we can under often challenging circumstances. We each have our individual strengths and weaknesses as parents. But aspie parents have some unique strengths and weaknesses.

Everything from issues with sensory overload to problems with social interaction can affect our ability to parent effectively or even competently. In his starkly honest assessment of aspie parents, Dr. Tony Attwood lists some of the many challenges a family may face when one parent has Asperger’s: “the imposition of inflexible routines and expectations . . . the intolerance of noise, mess and any intrusion into the parent’s solitary activities, the perceived invasion of the home by the children’s friends, and a black and white analysis of people.”

These potential challenges may begin to emerge during pregnancy and quickly intensify with the arrival of the baby.

Babies are stressful. They’re unpredictable. They’re messy. They’re demanding. They don’t care if mom is sleep-deprived or suffering from sensory overload or finds breastfeeding painful or needs a couple of hours of alone time to regroup. When you throw in postpartum hormonal fluctuations and the challenges of Asperger’s, it’s no surprise that the result can be epic meltdowns more fit for a toddler than a new mother.

When Jess was a baby, there were days when I felt like I was going to lose my mind if she didn’t stop crying. I remember one day in particular when I found myself standing in the dining room, sobbing uncontrollablly and repeatedly banging my head against the wall. If you’ve ever seen an autistic child have a meltdown, it probably looked something like this. I can only imagine how terrifying this must have been for my husband–watching the mother of his child regress to that point.

But instead of losing his temper or fleeing, he was there to rescue me before I could slip too far into that abyss. He kept me tethered to reality in a concrete way that allowed me to stay connected to Jess when my natural instinct was to withdraw.

Jess at 7 months

Some Tips for New Aspie Moms

One of the keys to surviving the first months of motherhood as an aspie mom is support. All new moms need time to themselves to regroup, but for aspie moms this is especially important.

Honestly, there may be times when you feel like you can’t stand to be around your baby. He  won’t stop crying or he won’t settle down for a much anticipated nap or he’s in the mood to play when you’re exhausted. Don’t feel guilty. Needing a timeout doesn’t make you a bad mother.

It’s okay–healthy, in fact–to ask for help from a partner, relative or babysitter so you can take a short break. And if getting an hour to yourself means preventing a meltdown, that’s going to make you a better mom in the long run.

If you find your anxiety level rising at a time when you aren’t able to immediately call on one of the supportive people in your life, it may help to have some strategies you can draw on to de-escalate your stress. Many of things that babies and toddlers find calming may also be soothing for moms with Asperger’s. Here are a few options to consider:

  • A rocking chair: Lots of adult aspies still find rocking to be soothing and when you’re doing it with a baby in a rocking chair, you’ll find that no one looks at you funny. I had two rocking chairs as a kid and a comfy rocker was one the first things I put on my wish list as a mom-to-be.
  • Music: Singing to your baby, dancing around the living room with your toddler or just enjoying a favorite song together can all be soothing. For a few months as an infant, the only thing that put my daughter to sleep at night was U2’s Joshua Tree album, played at what was probably an inappropriately loud volume.
  • Water: Many aspies say that water is calming. If you have access to a swimming pool, you and your child might enjoy spending time in the water together. Once your toddler is old enough, you may find that she enjoys playing in the tub while you soak in a warm bath.
  • Pets: A dog or cat is often high on the list of expert recommendations for adult aspies. Petting, cuddling or playing quietly with the family pet can be a way to spend time with your child while you de-escalate.
  • Walking: If you have a quiet place to walk, you may find that exercise combined with fresh air and sunshine is a good way to head off a potential meltdown for you and an instant sleep-inducer for your little one.
  • Driving: The same goes for a drive along quiet roads. I remember evenings when my husband and I drove around with Jess in the back seat because it seemed like the only way to get an hour of quiet time.

Of course, there’s the toddler who screams the minute you put him in his car seat and the aspie mom who finds driving stressful rather than relaxing. Not all of the strategies that worked for me will work from everyone. Hopefully this list will be a jumping off point for you when it comes to finding “rescue” activities that you can share with your child.

Next in the series: The joys and terrors of toddlerhood