Stress for most on the autistic spectrum has a compounding effect on any difficulties or sensory sensitivities that we may experience. For example, when I am really stressed my noise and smell sensitivities become even more heightened. Stress affects most people’s emotions but it can have an interesting effect on some of those autistic spectrum which is akin to a shutdown on energy and sense of self. Many women on the spectrum say they have experienced these shutdowns in response to sustained stress.
This is why I am working to help myself and others on the spectrum understand how important it is that we take care of ourselves and not just take care of others. If you are not familiar with the autistic spectrum world from an inside perspective, that statement might surprise you. It used to be thought that we existed in worlds of our own with no interest in others but in fact we do indeed live in the regular world alongside the rest of the population and we not only care but are often actively involved in trying to make life better for others (people or animals) or to improve our environment or caretake for the world in some way or another. Because we say what we mean and are generally loyal and dependable we can put a long list of things in front of taking care of ourselves. For example, in my work I travel around in order to help teachers meet the needs of their autistic spectrums students more effectively. This can take longer than the hours I am paid to work, and though rule bound, it would not occur to me to cut short a meeting with a teacher so I can get the groceries before cooking dinner…. dinner will just be late!
If I don’t eat, I get very anxious and angry, but I will prioritise others over my need to eat… which will compound my stress… which heightens my anxiety…. Can you spot the cycle? My partner had a simple solution for me – take muesli bars with me everywhere. Simple and effective, but I hadn’t thought of this because usually I like to eat in specific places; cafes, restaurants, home, a staff room or at someone else’s dining table. My car was not a place I had associated with eating!
I have met some lovely fit people on the autistic spectrum who enjoy exercising, but I am not one of them and nor are many other people on the spectrum, so when psychologists and other experts say we should exercise more to reduce our stress I kind of flinch inside. I have tried walking, which is ok as long as I have the dog with me or am going somewhere, swimming is ok as long as I am warm and it is not a huge pool with kids in it, running – yuck, the gym – even worse… Anyway, you get the picture! However, like some people on the spectrum I do like bouncing and along with a growing number of adults bought a trampoline (ok it was the super supportive partner who went out and bought it along with a swing seat)! I find that my stress dissipates with a 10-20 minute bounce or swing, which enables me to work full time and study and do some parenting and housework etc. Without these and without meditating the stress builds up really quickly to intolerable levels.
When I work with schools and family I try and get them to work with the child to find out what types of activities de-stress the child. These activities need to be build into the week, before and after stressful events or tasks to help the child learn to manage their stress levels to prevent meltdowns and shutdowns where possible. However, when working with other spectrum adults I find they are much more reluctant to prioritise their needs. I often get the comment that they don’t have time for self-care. Although I do understand busy, and with moving house, jobs, countries at the moment I really do understand, I have come to realise that it is precisely at these busy times that we need to facilitate time to breathe, time to relax and be at peace with ourselves and our lives.
So, if you are on the spectrum please write down your favourite calming or relaxing activities and schedule 10-30 minutes a day for the next month for these activities (one activity a day is fine) and see if it makes a difference to how you feel. If it does let me know and more importantly let the wider autism community know how easy it can be to help ourselves.