I have been thinking about and experiencing anxiety recently. Most autistics, children and adults, experience anxiety on a daily if not hourly basis. How we recognise and deal with this varies dramatically. For example, some autistics are able to use physiological symptoms to evaluate their level of anxiety, whereas others are not.
I personally am only aware of my anxiety when I am entering into panic mode. I have physiological symptoms, such as pounding heart, but do not interpret these as anxiety. Like many other autistic adults I am aware of trigger factors that will result in anxiety and/or panic if not managed well. The obvious way to manage trigger factors is to avoid them. However, avoidance can lead to a diminishment in depth and breath of life experience and therefore is not the easy solution that it might seem to be on first glance.
For example, avoiding travelling by plane may seem to be an easy way to avoid the anxiety and/or panic that several of my aspie friends experience when flying. However, for one of them, this would result in their being unable to see their children and grandchildren, who all live in another country. For another, this would slow or stop career progress as travel is required to attend and present at events across Australasia.
I actually quite like flying, and enjoy travelling around the world to see friends, family, work, attend and present at conferences etc. However, taxis and public transport are known sources of anxiety for me. I manage my anxiety in two concurrent ways, which others on the spectrum suggest are also useful to them.
First I harness my detailed aspie planning skills and plan trips in great detail. I save all the information on my phone or iPad and print out a hard copy too. For a recent trip to Vancouver, where I was attending and presenting at a conference, my planning was immense. First I booked my plane ticket and seats online. Then I sourced accommodation via trip advisor, booked this online and checked details of how to get into the accommodation with the owner. Then I printed a plan of Vancouver airport and arranged exactly where I was going to meet a friend (important as I have very poor facial recognition). I emailed this information to her and set about the public transport part of my planning. To do this, I used the trip planner, maps and timetables on http://www.translink.ca/ These were all saved and printed out. All the information was then collated and ordered by when I would need to use it. On arrival, I collected a city map which was carried with me at all times.
The second strategy is to be mindful of my growing panic, stop, do a small breathing mediation to break the fixated thought pattern of arising panic and analyse my possible solutions. This is not possible if the panic is full blown, but as I have got older and more self aware, I am able to identify arising panic.
On arrival at the University of British Columbia, I walked towards where the conference was being held according to my printed out map of the campus. Unfortunately, the map did not include many new buildings and the campus was woefully underserved by signposts. I felt the panic rising up, stopped, did a 10 in/out breathing meditation and surveyed my options;
1. I could panic, I could then have a meltdown
2. I could ask someone where I was meant to be, showing them on the map and my handwritten note on the side of the map of building and room names
3. I could keep walking around repeating over and over, “its ok to be lost, I will find where I am meant to be eventually.”
Intellectually solution 2 seemed to be the most destined for success, so I tried that. Sadly, it was too early for many people to be around and the people I found had no idea where the building was meant to be. I later found out the campus has 45,000 students and large numbers of buildings. Option 1 was looking likely at this point, so I stopped again and had a mini breathing meditation and went for option 3. I found the building (which had a small notice that the conference was being held there), breathed a huge sigh of relief and registered.
I no longer panic on public transport as I can see exactly where I am at all times with my maps and trip planners. This trip to Vancouver was great for my friend as she said she didn’t need to worry about where to go and when as I had got it all sorted! Taxis however are a different story… when I was younger and living in London a number of fake taxis had abducted young women, and with my aspie fixated thoughts, this has translated into a fear of the taxi not being a real taxi and the driver abducting me…. I manage this by avoiding taxis where possible and where not possible booking online with large firms and confirming by phone. I then sit in the back and combat my rising fear by having a map on which I can see where I am in relation to where I am going and trying to breathe more calmly.
In talking with other autistic and aspie adults I think that as we get older, we become more comfortable with being uncomfortable and a side effect of that is that we can manage our anxiety better if we are able to plan strategies to minimise our lack of control over anxiety provoking situations. Of course, this means being able to identify these situations in advance.
For some of us, that comes about from self-awareness, for others it comes about because others help us to identify these situations by describing when our behaviour changes in ways that may indicate anxiety. An example of change in behaviour is shouting or talking very fast. This is not the case for all aspies or autistics, just some. Others may withdraw or may appear aggressive.
Medication can be extremely helpful for some people on the spectrum as part of their toolkit to combat or manage anxiety. However, this needs to be done carefully, with a doctor who is aware that people on the autistic spectrum tend to require tiny or huge amounts of medications to achieve the same effect as neurotypical (NT) people. Obviously it is better to try tiny amounts first!
Unmanaged anxiety can and does lead to stress, distress and depression and worse. This is why it is so important to address all aspects of our lives that provoke anxiety, including our sensory environments and our interactions with others. Creating a sensory environment in one room of our homes (or in the garage or garden) that facilitates calm and/or self-regulation can make the difference between well-being and not. I have a lovely wooden garden swing seat that brings calm within half an hour. Others have trampolines, quiet rooms, particular music, fabrics and textures etc.
Managing our relationships with people is more difficult in many ways as we cannot control the responses of others towards us. Like other autistics I worry about hurting or upsetting other people and try hard not to. It can be devastating when someone says they have been hurt by something we have said or done. Planning isn’t really applicable in these sorts of cases, but stopping, breathing and analytically problem solving can all still work well. Also a sense of self-forgiveness.
Anxiety can spiral out of control when something goes wrong and in our autistic fixated thinking we focus on the awfulness rather than shrugging things off and moving forwards. I am discovering that I can problem solve after the event and IF I accept that it is ok to mess up every now and then, moving on and avoiding panic and/or distress is entirely possible.
If you are friends or family with an aspie or autistic who is not managing their anxiety well, talk with them to find out how you can support them. Ask if they would like help identifying what makes them anxious. Let them know you are happy to be a sounding board for strategies and ideas for problem solving. If you are on the spectrum and are finding it hard to deal with your anxiety, try to be mindful of when anxiety is starting or at what signals in yourself you can interrupt the anxiety and ensure it doesn’t take over your life. If need be, talk to your doctor to see if there are medications or support services in place to help you. I can self-manage much better now than I could ten years ago, and through feedback from others and growing self-awareness this is improving all the time. It is important not to feel criticised by feedback, but to see it as a support to developing anxiety management. Also, if you want to do something that is scary, so for it and plan by yourself or with friends or family. I love my detailed planning, and it turns out so do they!