A note on overload and burnout

Life is such a roller coaster with Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA). Little Miss M can tolerate and cope with life in one moment but cannot in another, going from one extreme to another (and sometimes back again) in the same day. Sometimes we go for days with relative stability, finding a balance that works, before something happens which overloads her and stops her from coping, while other times she remains intolerant to life’s demands for an extended period of time, living on edge and finding everything difficult. There are also times when she just seems to burnout and isn’t able to tolerate what she usually can and life becomes incredibly difficult for her.

Our PDA-friendly lifestyle allows Little Miss M to have a lot of downtime, drastically reduced demands and autonomy where possible and we use lots of distraction strategies to help her cope with necessary demands and the things she want to do. This has a positive impact on her quality of life and wellbeing but it does not eliminate all of her difficulties and anxiety. There are still times when she doesn’t feel in control, moments of uncertainty, difficulties with social interactions and her emotions and other difficulties and confusions associated with autism which all overload her brain and cause anxiety.

Her anxiety levels fluctuate all the time, depending on how many of these scenarios she encounters and how often (which affect her tolerance of demands and behaviour day-to-day) and over time the overload and anxiety accumulate and take their toll on her. Every so often this results in her experiencing periods of burnout where her brain is exhausted and unable to function as it usually does and all of her difficulties are heightened and become even more difficult than usual as her ability to cope with life drastically reduces.

It will look different for everyone but here are some key features for Little Miss M during burnout:

Demand perception and avoidance are heightened as is anxiety and she’s more likely to explode with anger and frustration very quickly when she feels a loss of control.

She worries about everything and is nervous and on edge for a prolonged amount of time which really plagues her, making each day stressful and scary for her. She needs a lot of reassurance and comfort but it doesn’t really do much to settle her in the moment.

She really struggles to speak and put some sentences together and stammers and repeats words. I think this is the reason she reduces the number of full sentences she uses when asking for things and will instead use one or two word commands. She also has a hard time processing what people say and often doesn’t answer or respond or takes extra long to do so.

Her sleep is rather restless during this time and she becomes even more demanding of us and needs our full attention all the time.

When burnout happens, she needs time to recover and extra support. We’re sympathetic to her worries and fears, no matter how often she repeats them and do as much as possible on her terms in order to give her brain as much rest from additional overload as possible. Her mood can be low as she reflects on her difficulties so we do lots of things to boost her mood and increase her confidence and self-esteem by making her feel valued and loved just as she is. Once her brain is well rested it begins functioning as usual again and her ability to cope returns and her tolerance levels increase.

It’s no wonder burnout occurs from time to time, her brain is frequently overloaded due to perceiving so many everyday things as a threat of danger and her constant need for absolute control and certainty of her environment and those in it is mentally exhausting. Also, while she’s still young and figuring stuff out, emotional dysregulation frequently overloads her too. We hope in time that emotional maturity and understanding will make a big difference but in the meantime, we want to do all we can to help reduce burnout now by reducing overload and the effects of overload and hopefully encourage good habits which will continue to help her in the future as well.

So how are we doing this?

We reassessed our lifestyle and looked at all the things which contribute to overload.  

Her lifestyle is already geared towards supporting her autonomy and individual needs which we’ve talked about in A note on education, A note on demand avoidance and A note on the need for control and certainty but after some reflection a couple of months ago, we identified some areas where we could make some more adjustments in that respect as well as to reduce the amount her brain has to process at any one time so overload won’t accumulate as quickly.

For us this includes:

Re-looking at the demands which are still present in her daily life and reassessing if any more can be cut out or approached differently and thinking about how to make necessary demands even easier so they have less of an impact on her. This also includes thinking even more carefully about the things we say and trying to cut out language which can put pressure on her.

One demand which has always caused a great deal of anxiety is going to sleep. She has always been her most demand avoidant at bedtime and we’ve been very flexible around this while still trying to steer her towards going to sleep at a ‘reasonable time’. After much deliberation we decided to relax even further on this and let her decide when she goes to bed which could be as late as midnight and falling asleep at 1am. This has removed A LOT of anxiety and overload for her and made bedtime a happier time. Consequently she sleeps later in the morning to get enough sleep and unless we have to be somewhere at a particular time, we leave her to wake up naturally. This one adjustment has had such a positive impact and we’ve since discovered Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome which we suspect may be a factor as well as demand avoidance.

Addressing how we can help social interactions to become less anxiety inducing for her (see A note on social difficulties).

Having an assessment of her sensory profile to find out if anything sensory is leading to overload and so a sensory diet can be introduced to help. This is something we’re still looking into arranging.

Being more mindful about how much information we give her so her brain isn’t overloaded with unnecessary info which she can’t process. This includes choosing the right time (when she’s not already processing something else or stressed) to talk to her about something or ask her a question so she has a clear mind to process the information, keeping it simple and giving her time to process what we say without pressure to respond straight away.

She’s said that she becomes most stressed when we’re in a hurry so we’re making sure we take our time with everything and don’t hurry her (unless absolutely necessary). We thought we were already doing this but on reflection we found there were still times when we needed to rush or we’d ask her to hurry so we’re much more mindful of this when we plan (allowing even more time to leave the house for example and where possible keeping our arrival time somewhere ‘open’ so we aren’t pressured by needing to be out by a set time) and when she takes a long time to do something (not asking her to do something faster and allowing it to run it’s natural course and take as long as it takes). There are of course times when she does have to go a bit faster for safety or when time has run out for example but we’re very careful with the language we use in these instances to minimise the pressure she feels.

We’re encouraging lots of things which relax her brain and give it the respite it needs as often as possible. [This can be difficult due to demand avoidance of things we suggest but we plant seeds and place things within sight and do them ourselves and then she can choose to do them if she wants to].

For us this includes:

Encouraging repetition which is incredibly calming for the brain because it knows exactly what to expect next so can relax. She naturally loves repetition of things which she likes so this is an easy one but we value how good it is for her and encourage it when we see she needs some respite and downtime. Examples include re-watching a favourite episode of a TV show or YouTube video, re-reading a favourite book, role-playing the same familiar scenario again and again, listening to a favourite song over and over – anything familiar which remains constant so her brain doesn’t have to wonder what is coming next and can relax.

We’ve learnt how relaxing proprioceptive input is for the brain through this video. Little Miss M loves to move, even when she is sitting so we are encouraging this more. We bought her a rocking chair so she can be soothed by the rocking motion whenever she likes and she enjoys going to our local park to swing and bounce on the bouncy sea-saw for more physical movement (this is often in her pyjamas because the demand to get dressed to go out is too much and doing so would defeat the object of going there).

Anticipation anxiety and worries about uncertainties cause a lot of stress and overload so we’ve introduced this concept from GoZen where she can imagine her own still and quiet place whenever she is worried or thinking a lot about things outside of her control. She really engages with videos on YouTube and this one captured her attention because she loves to draw and use her imagination. This has been particularly good to use at bedtime when many worries can come out, even just wishing it was morning already.
[She has made the concept her own by the way and creates a new ‘place’ each time we use this.]

Drawing and colouring really calms her so we have a variety of colouring pages and drawing paper in easy reach along with an endless supply of her favourite pens and encourage it when we can see she needs some respite.
[It’s taken trial and error to get to this stage – colouring books initially caused a great deal of stress when the colours showed through to the page behind so we photocopy the pages for her to colour now and she feared the pens running out so we have multiple packs stored away to replace them when this happens. We also keep all of her work in folders as throwing it away would upset her too much. Once we figured these factors out, colouring and drawing became a great source of relaxation for her.]

How’s it going?

It’s been a couple of months now since we started addressing this and Little Miss M has fully recovered from the burnout which prompted us to and we’ve seen a definite reduction in how frequently she is overloaded. Life still throws scenarios at her which cause overload but by eliminating the ones we can with these lifestyle changes and helping her recover from the times she is overloaded, she’s literally in a better state of mind and is gradually becoming able to ‘do’ more in terms of days out and activities with her friends.

Burnout may be something she’ll continue to experience throughout her life due to the complex way her brain works but we hope these adjustments will help reduce the frequency with which it happens (if not prevent it at all) and we’ll continue to monitor and adjust our lifestyle and her support as needed so she has the very best opportunity to thrive.

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