By Emma Hinze, Professor Tony Attwood and Dr. Michelle Garnett
Anxiety is a personal experience, and each autistic individual’s journey is unique. Recognising that there is no one-size-fits-all solution is crucial. Understanding anxiety’s underlying causes and triggers is the first step in developing effective strategies. Sensory sensitivities often play a vital role in anxiety, so creating accommodations for these is essential.
Here are some general tips to consider (in no particular order) – please be mindful that these are general suggestions, given the intricate nature of anxiety and may not be exhaustive or suitable for everyone:
- Understanding and Knowing the Underlying Reasons: The first step in managing anxiety is understanding and identifying underlying causes and triggers. This awareness can help tailor specific strategies to address these root issues effectively.
- Recognise Early Signs: Become aware of the initial indicators of anxiety or sensory overload. Being attuned to these early signs empowers you to take proactive steps before they intensify. Consider leaving or avoiding situations that may trigger anxiety to manage your well-being effectively when possible.
- Self-Care: Regular self-care practices such as mindfulness, deep breathing, or sensory breaks can help regulate emotions and reduce anxiety. Deep diaphragm breathing is excellent for returning the nervous system from dorsal vagal to ventral vagal functioning. Deep and slow breathing: This exercise can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with relaxation.
- Energy Accounting: Think of your emotional and physical well-being like a battery that needs both recharging and protection. Identify what depletes and replenishes your energy, and prioritise activities that keep you emotionally and physically charged and resilient.
- Communication and Advocacy: Openly communicate your needs, boundaries, and preferences to those around you, including family, friends, colleagues, and educators. Developing self-advocacy skills is essential for navigating various settings and ensuring your well-being.
- Stress Reduction: Engage in regular stress-reduction activities like exercise, meditation, nutrition, or hobbies that help you relax. The mind-body connection is powerful in managing anxiety.
- Sensory Management: Identify specific sensory triggers and find ways to manage them. This might involve wearing noise-cancelling headphones, using sensory tools, or creating a calm, sensory-friendly space.
- Therapy: Consider therapy, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), which can help you develop coping strategies and emotional regulation techniques. Of course, this must be tailored to each person’s unique neurology, as not all autistic individuals benefit from CBT.
- Social Skills Training: To reduce misunderstandings and potential triggers, consider improving social communication and interaction skills. This needs to be a two-way process.
- Sensory-Friendly Environment: Create a sensory-friendly environment at home and work, where possible. This might include using soft lighting, comfortable seating, and minimising sensory distractions.
- Predictability: Embrace routines and visual schedules to provide a sense of predictability. Knowing what to expect can reduce anxiety related to unexpected changes.
- Time Management: Use tools like timers, alarms, or visual timers to help with time management. These tools can assist in transitioning between tasks or activities.
- Journaling: Encourage journaling as a way to express thoughts and feelings. Writing can be an effective outlet for processing emotions and identifying triggers.
- Social Stories: Create or use social stories and scripts to prepare for social situations or new experiences. Social stories can provide guidance on what is happening and any expectations and outcomes.
- Flexibility: Build flexibility into routines and plans to accommodate unexpected changes. Teaching adaptive strategies for dealing with changes can help reduce anxiety when things don’t go as expected.
- Art and Creativity: Engage in creative activities like art, music, or sensory play. These activities can be therapeutic and provide a positive outlet for emotions.
- Sensory Diet: Work with an occupational therapist to develop a sensory diet—a personalised plan to meet sensory needs throughout the day. It can help regulate sensory input and reduce anxiety.
- Role-Playing: Practice social situations and interactions through role-playing exercises. This can help build confidence and reduce anxiety in real-life social scenarios.
- Medication: If recommended by a healthcare professional, consider medication as part of the treatment plan. Medication should be carefully monitored and adjusted as needed.
- Family Education: Educate family members and caregivers about autism and anxiety. Increased understanding and support at home can significantly impact an individual’s well-being.
Remember, your path to managing anxiety is unique. Tailor these strategies to your specific needs, and seek professional guidance when necessary. Your well-being is a journey; understanding yourself is the first step toward a more fulfilling life.
Where to From Here?
Many girls and women miss out on identification of their autism because of camouflaging and are initially diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. In ouor online masterclass, we share insights to assist in the diagnostic process to differentiate and recognise autism from anxiety disorders and other conditions.
We also provide information about how to support autistic girls and women, including how to discover and unveil the authentic self, thrive in friendships and relationships and manage high levels of anxiety.
The masterclass was designed for health and educational professionals. Parents and autistic women have also found it very helpful.