Life Enhancing Strategies for Teenagers and Adults on the Autism Spectrum
Autism is an often misunderstood medical condition that can have a great impact on every area of life. For the people who live with autism and those who care for them even simple everyday tasks that others would take for granted such as going to the supermarket or meeting a friend for lunch can be difficult and anxiety inducing. Issues caused by autism can be greatly frustrating to those who have the condition and lead to further misunderstanding when others do not understand their reactions or why they cannot participate in activities or behave like other people. This problem can be even greater for people who are described as being at the ‘higher functioning’ end of the autism spectrum. In this case it may not be obvious that the person has any kind of medical condition and they may function well in many tasks and situations, only to be later tripped up by something unexpected, throwing them into confusion and anxiety or fear. The following strategies can help people living on the autism spectrum and those around them to understand why they react the way they do and also how to manage situations either to avoid a problem in the first place or to work through the issues that do occur.
1) Do not take on too much – while this may seem obvious there are many situations that may seem ok but in fact will be too much for an individual on the spectrum. Another important point to consider is that over the space of an hour, day, week or longer the feelings of pressure, stress, anxiety and frustration can build up until they are no longer bearable for the person and cannot be contained any longer. Each task or event in itself may have been fine but the combination is simply too much. As someone on the autism spectrum do not be too hard on yourself if problems like this occur, instead be pleased about what you did achieve and try to remember for future what triggered you to become overwhelmed: was it a particular task? Having too much to do or think about or remember? It will also be helpful to the people around you if you can tell them this information even if you are unable to fully explain in detail or why you are felt that way. This will enable them to plan and support you better in future. Take breaks throughout the day if needed, either to sit quietly or to engage in something you enjoy or find calming. This could be as simple as listening to some music through headphones while having lunch or perhaps keeping a favourite item in your pocket. Lists and other visual supports such as visual timetables can also be helpful, not only in reminding you of what needs to be done but also of what will be happening next.
2) Set realistic goals – Do not dwell too much on your difficulties. It can be easy to get into a negative mind-set that is dominated by thoughts of all the things that are difficult or that you cannot do. Think about the many things you are good at and have already achieved and set realistic goals for yourself that can either help to further improve these or work on skills and situations that are more difficult. Favoured subjects and mastered skills can be used as a base to work on other areas of life. For example: if you would like to get out more or work on social skills you could try joining a group or club that is based around your special interest or something that you are skilled in. This can help give you confidence and take away some feelings of anxiety as at least some of the situation will be familiar and you will have a common ground with others there so worries about what to say may be lessened. Learning new skills can often be eased by incorporating them into favourite activities or topics which make them more pleasant and familiar and so less daunting.
3) Worries based on past events and mistakes – When something goes wrong it is very easy to then worry about the same thing happening when faced with the same situation again, however the majority of the time these are one off happenings and you will find that your worries are unfounded. Worrying about what may happen can be a huge problem for those on the autism spectrum and can be very hard to stop. It is very hard if not impossible to foresee and account for every possibility in life which can leave people feeling anxious and vulnerable because they do not know what will happen or when. However small or even silly the worries may seem to others, they feel very real to the person experiencing them and over a period of time these worries can grow either because the longer the person feels worried the more that worry grows or because one worry may lead to others and add further to the problem. For example the initial worry may be leaving the house to go the shop but then is added to with related worries such as what if there is an accident? What if the shop is out of stock of the wanted item? Or they may be nervous about speaking to shop staff. If worries are not worked through and resolved they can continue to grow and have a negative effect on the person’s well-being and life. It is unlikely you will able to stop worrying but there are steps that can help reduce worries and anxiety. Talking yourself through the problem can help and using positive experiences to assure you that the worry is unfounded is a good strategy.
Some examples of strategies to use could include: if you are worried about missing the bus to school, work or to meet a friend obtain a copy of the timetable from the local bus company or many are available online so that you are able to check the times and even carry the timetable with you if it helps. To combat worries about over sleeping, two separate alarms can be used set a minute or two apart. AS well as the traditional mains and battery powered clocks many devices such as mobile phones, MP3 players, tablets etc. have an alarm function that can prove a backup. Lists can be useful to combat worries about forgetting things or to organise thoughts or tasks into a more manageable visual format. When you have a positive experience that is related to your worry i.e. using two alarms and no longer over sleeping, keep this in mind and next time the worry arises remind yourself that you have a working strategy and this has previously been successful. It is very common for people who have autism spectrum conditions to have multiple worries and to over worry so again do not beat yourself up over the fact and know that there are ways to combat these often seemingly never-ending thoughts.
4) Social Isolation – The first thing to consider here is whether the person is unhappy with their lack of socialisation or not. Many individuals on the autism spectrum are in fact more happy alone or having a one or a few close friends and so many not feel isolated and unhappy even though it may seem this way to other people. On the other hand autism can cause someone to feel completely alone with no way of breaking out of the isolation. This could be due to lacking appropriate social skills and so not knowing how to behave and go about making things or because of previous bad experiences that are causing fear and anxiety around socialising. Because they have generally have less friends and may be less aware of any social events and places around them, someone who has autism may feel that it is impossible to find somewhere they will be accepted and that established social groups within their school, college or work place will be too hard to join in with. In many areas there are in fact groups that are specifically for individuals who have autism spectrum disorders which can be a good starting point as the staff will be accepting and understanding of nay difficulties that arise and the other members of the group will know how it feels to have a hidden disability such as autism and this may help to form friendships built on common ground and mutual understanding. These groups or other associated groups may also offer help such as sessions teaching social skills or other practical and life skills that are of benefit such as handling money, cooking or counselling.
Another good possibly for social groups is a group based around a special interest. Having a common topic to talk about, especially one in which the person with autism has knowledge can help to ease anxieties about socialising and give a confidence boost. One aspect to be careful of in this case is that it can be easy to talk too much, especially about a loved subject and this can be off putting and even annoying to other people.
If social isolation is causing a person a lot of unhappiness then referral to a counselling service that can help improve social skills and reduce anxiety can be a good starting point as reducing any anxiety that has grown around being social will be needed before the person is able to actively become more social and therefore reduce their feelings of isolation.
5) Coping with Changes – For people who have autism routine can be very important and reassuring. Keeping to the same routine and structure everyday can help to alleviate some of the anxiety around everyday life and create a calming atmosphere where everything is familiar. Problems can occur when this routine is disrupted with unexpected changes and cause the person to become distressed and react badly. In some cases a change cannot be avoided and it is important to reassure the person and not to act as if their worries are unreasonable or silly. To the person with autism there whole way of living has been changed and they now also have to cope with not knowing what is happening, further increasing their anxiety.
If a change is known about in advance for example a teacher training day, a holiday or house move it is important to prepare the person in advance as much as possible. Explain to them in as much detail as possible what will happen, when and why. When moving house for example, let them see pictures of the new house inside and out so they can familiarise themselves with it, let the person help with packing and if they are able to be responsible for packing their own possessions if they have any worries about other people touching their things or that items may be forgotten or lost. Knowing exactly where and how their things have been packed can feel reassuring and add order to a situation that may feel chaotic. Visual supports that show what is going to happen and the result can be helpful especially with younger children along with books and even television programmes that show others going on holiday or moving house etc. When a change is unexpected it can be much harder for someone who has an autism spectrum condition to cope with. They may feel like their whole world has been turned upside down and will never be the same again. These feelings can cause anxiety, additional worries and feelings of insecurity. Try to keep everything as much the same as normal and offer lots of extra reassurance during the time. When appropriate involve the individual in discussions and decisions as this can help them to feel like they have some control and say in what is happening rather than feeling lost in an unpredictable chaos.
© 2014 Claire