Five 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 due to other people not understand their reactions or why they cannot participate in activities.
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 disability 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 okay but will in fact be too much for an individual on the autism spectrum. Another important point to consider is that feelings of pressure, stress, anxiety and frustration can build up over the space of an hour, day, week or longer term not just in relation to one event. Each task or event may be manageable but the combination can add up to be too much to cope with, causing overload or meltdown.
Do not be too hard on yourself if problems like this occur, instead be pleased about what you did achieve. It can be helpful to think about whether there was a particular trigger to you becoming overwhelmed or if one situation or task is regularly causing difficulties. This can help you to prepare in future or to avoid the situation if possible. It can also be helpful if you can tell people around you this information, even if you are unable to fully explain in detail why you feel that way. This may enable them to plan for and support you better in future.
When possible take breaks throughout the day and either sit quietly or 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; to remind you of what needs to be done and of what will be happening next.
2. Set Realistic Goals for Yourself
Try not to dwell too much on your difficulties. It can be easy to get into a negative mind-set and only think about the things that are difficult or that you cannot do. It is important to remember the many things you are good at and have already achieved. Setting realistic goals can help you to further improve these skills or enable you to work on skills and situations that you find hard. 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 a favourite interest or something that you are already skilled in. This can help give you confidence and may reduce feelings of anxiety due to the fact that some of the situation will be familiar. A shared interest can make it easier to interact with other people and lessen worries about not knowing what to say or that people will not be interested. Learning new skills can often be eased by incorporating them into favourite activities or topics as this can make them more pleasant and familiar and so less daunting.
3. Combat 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 situation again. However the majority of the time these are one off mistakes 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 difficult to stop. It is very hard if not impossible to foresee and account for every possibility in life and this 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. Over time these worries can grow 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 day and day 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 ease your worries and using positive experiences to reassure you that the worry is unfounded is a good strategy. For example: 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. This will enable you to check the bus times and you can even carry the timetable with you if it helps.
To combat worries about over sleeping, two separate alarms can be used, set a few minutes 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 in 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 of your previous success. It is very common for those with autism spectrum conditions to have multiple worries and to over worry so do not beat yourself up over this happening and know that there are ways to combat these often seemingly never-ending thoughts.
4. Do you Feel Isolated?
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 may 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 or because of previous bad experiences that are causing fear and anxiety around socialising. The person may be less aware of any social events and places around them, and feel that it is impossible to find somewhere they will be accepted. There may also be a fear that established social groups within their school, college, leisure groups or work place will be too hard to join in with.
In many areas there are groups that are specifically for individuals who have autism spectrum disorders and these can be a good starting point for increasing socialisation. The staff will also be accepting and understanding of any difficulties that arise and the other members of the group will know how it feels to have a hidden disability such as autism. These factors can help to form friendships built on common ground and mutual understanding. These 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 service that can help improve social skills and reduce anxiety can be a good starting point. Reducing 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. In many areas social skills groups are run by organisations such as The National Autistic Society and their website has a directory of groups and events sorted by area.
5. Easing Difficulties cause by Changes
For many 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 this can cause the person to become distressed. 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 them their whole way of living has been changed and they now also have to cope with not knowing what is happening, further increasing their anxiety. When a change is unexpected it can be much harder 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.
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 and let the person help with packing and unpacking. If they have any worries about other people touching their things or that items may be forgotten or lost let them pack their own possessions if they are able to. If they cannot or in the case of younger children they could be allowed to direct or oversee the packing so that they can feel reassured that nothing has been forgotten and precious items are safe. 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.
© 2014 Claire