This week, in recognition of World Mental Health Day, I wanted to take a look at the effects of anxiety on people with autism. By doing this I hope to provide support to those who need it, as well as help to create a possible answer for those looking to get rid of it. Let’s get started:
Growing up with autism has definitely had its fair share of high and lows. When I was younger, most people didn’t fully understand my particular situation, so often avoided me or distanced themselves just far enough away that I often felt extremely alone … On the other hand I got free access to the fast lane at Alton Towers, so you know, swings and roundabouts.
However, I always thought that one of the positive things about my condition was that, being blissfully unaware of social situations, would mean I was less phased by social interactions and so free from any form of additional social disorder, like anxiety. Sadly this couldn’t be further from the truth.
How Can You Tell if Someone has Anxiety?
It’s generally thought, that 14% of the modern population suffer from some form of anxiety. I’m not saying any one set of people is more fortunate than the other, but compared to the 49% of people with autism who have it, I kind of get the feeling that my community drew the short straw.
Interestingly, it is those who are ‘high functioning’ autists who are more at risk of anxiety. Due to a higher awareness of our social surroundings, we are left in a scenario where the more aware of other people’s opinions we have become, the more anxious we are about standing-out due to our autism (and here I was thinking we got off easy).
Like autism, anxiety is an invisible disorder. This basically means that, on the surface someone who does have anxiety may appear fine and even outgoing.
As a result, if you want to support someone with anxiety, then the first thing to do is identify it is there in the first place. This is alot easier said than done, especially when the person at risk is autistic and is therefore known to struggle in social situations.
But what can we do to change this? Can this even be changed? Well as the ancient Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu once said ‘know your enemy’.
What Are the Different Forms of Anxiety?:
Up until this week, I honestly thought that there were only two forms of anxiety: The scared form of anxiety, where you feel a little nervous before a big moment, and the distressed kind of anxiety when that moment has gone wrong and now you don’t know what to do. This, as it turns out, isn’t even close to the reality, as It only takes a moment’s search, to see the various types of anxiety that exist. ranging from the more commonly known:
- Social Anxiety: the fear of standing out /being a part of social situations.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): The inability to rid one’s mind of unpleasant thoughts (usually resulting in some sort of repetitive behaviour with the aim of satisfying said thoughts).
- General Anxiety: A totally natural feeling which can occur when you are nervous.
To the lesser known:
- Separation Anxiety: This usually hits hardest when a person is taken away from a place or person. In the case of people with autism, this can also apply to being separated from a routine (This is one of the major forms of anxiety that myself and many other people on the spectrum have).
- Physiological Anxiety: A form of anxiety which is caused from feeling extreme emotion. For example, every year I get so excited for Christmas that I usually spend the 24th with my head in a toilet throwing up (sorry for that image).
- Panic Anxiety: This one is difficult to explain, but it is basically comes down to spates of anxiety which seem to hit without rhyme or reason. Like when you wake up in the night scared with no recollection of what the dream even was, only this happens during the day time.
This is just a small selection of the different types of anxiety, but I believe that even by using this small sample size, it is clear to see that the cause and effects of anxiety are highly varied.
But now you know what anxiety looks like, let’s talk about how to get rid of it.
How to Help Autistic People with Anxiety (Possibly):
It’s recommended (by people much smarter than I) that to help calm the effects of anxiety on people with autism, we should be encouraged to practice our social skills until we realise that, in reality, everyone is a bit of a failure. So we might as well get over it (ok, so the articles I have read use much more delicate wording than this, but the gist is the same).
However, I’m not entirely convinced this is correct. In the past, taking this approach, only helped to strengthen my Separation Anxiety. As by meeting new people to resolve my anxiety of meeting new people, I am often reminded of how uncomfortable it makes me feel. This essentially reminds my brain that next time I have the option to go out, I should instead choose to stay home, throw on Netflix and refuse to pick up the phone, unless I feel it is entirely necessary.
Granted this isn’t really a solution to anything (as much as I wish it was). I just can’t bring myself to endorse something which doesn’t work for me, personally. This doesn’t mean that their isn’t a solution out there (as i’m sure there is one), it just me saying that I don’t think it has been discovered yet.
World Mental Health Day
It’s that last point though, which makes World Mental Health Day such an important date. As it raises awareness of disorders like anxiety, so that the researchers and support workers realise just how much their help is needed (and appreciated).
World Mental Health Day is also an important day because it reminds me, and the many others affected by anxiety, that, though there are days where we can feel like a failure for not wanting to go out, it is not our fault and it won’t last forever. It let’s myself and others know that sometimes it’s okay to stay in, but it also lets us know that when we are ready and we are finally confident enough to leave the house, the world won’t have forgotten about us. As such, we will know that we never had to feel anxious in the first place and we can start letting things return back to normal.
Carry on the Conversation:
That’s all I have to say for today though, now I want to hear from you. Do you have any experience of having anxiety (both big and small)? What advice do you have for people currently suffering?
As always you are free to share your stories in the comments below and I will do my best to reply asap.
If you’re looking for a more direct (and private) discussion, email me at email@example.com
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Thanks for reading and I will see you again, next Saturday, for more thoughts from the spectrum.