You know what makes me anxious? Anxiety. My son’s anxiety, to be specific.
When panic and fear raise their ugly heads in his direction for no clear reason, it is painful to watch. My beautiful (adult) son can be stopped dead in his tracks. While I sometimes have magic words to restore his balance and inner calm, I am just as likely not to, and so he has to pull on inner resources taught from a very young age. Sometimes, but not always, these are helpful.
Individuals with autism may be predisposed to experiencing anxiety more often and more intensely than typical people. The pounding heart, dry mouth, and sense of dread are unwelcome companions to many people the spectrum.
In our home, thanks to Daniel’s willing participation in his anxiety-busting lessons, the unpleasant symptoms of acknowledged as temporary physical sensations—nothing more. He is reminded to give them no more power than that.From the age of eight, he adopted the mantra I offered him and he said it out loud often: “Anxiety is not the boss of me.”
Here’ s the thing: Daniel has learned that his anxiety is a physiological reaction to danger...danger that does not exist. He understands, cognitively, that his body’s survival response of fight, flight, or freeze is off kilter, out of sync, way off the mark, and so in fact, he doesn’t need to heed its false warning. He is really quite safe and sound.
But what to do? The sensations of fear and sometimes terror feel real. When the fake ‘Danger! Danger!’ of anxiety descends, Daniel draws on tremendous courage, braces himself for the task, and uses logic to calm himself.
In spite of the unpleasantness of pervasive fear, he moves through the mire, telling himself the warnings are an illusion, and wills himself to do the things he has learned in these circumstances.
He may take a shower, watch a funny movie, go for a walk, hug the dog, read a book, read an Archie comic, play a video game, speak with a friend, or tackle the cause if he/we can tease out what it might be as he waits for the physical sensations to pass. The fear steals away the same way it came: silently, without warning, and with no regard for the host it hijacked.
Suffice to say that it can be very helpful for parents to understand the connection between anxiety and autism: it seems to go hand in hand with the diagnosis, but in fact, autism is not a mental illness. Consider this:
According to the research in Intense World Theory of Autism, people with autism have a, “hypersensitivity to experience which includes an intense fear response.”: http://www.thedailybeast.com/…/a-radical-new-autism-theory.…
In ASD, then, anxiety might be a physical predisposition, one that is exacerbated by living in a world that moves too fast and expects consistent multi-tasking from a population that often prefers to work on one thing at a time and at their own pace.
If we can help create environments and curriculums that match their tolerances, abilities and needs, we can create environments where anxiety may happen less often for our children.
Alas, our schools have yet to catch up with emerging research. Our children would benefit from individualized curriculums that stray far from the provincial expectations set out for typical children.
They would feel more comfortable if anxiety-reduction strategies were employed by teachers and assistants throughout the day, and if their curriculum included things like Mindfulness training to help them to self-manage when fear and dread nip at their heels.
Seems like other districts around the world got the memo: http://mindfulnessinschools.org/
With pressure from parents, perhaps our own school boards will work to create learning environments that can minimize the cost of anxiety to their own bottom line: how much money are we spending on behaviour teams, EAs , psychologists, and stress leave for overwhelmed teachers?
When anxiety management and stress reduction are embedded in the school day, we can hope for a better future for our brave, brave children with autism.
Whether you are waiting for the change or want to be part of it, right now we need to find ways to teach our children to manage their anxiety. There are number of excellent resources out there. Here are just a few you may find helpful.
ANXIETY AND BEHAVIOUR
WORRY CARDS FOR KIDS WITH ASD
HANDS-ON WORK WITH EMOTIONS