Don’t Mess With Stress

As always, this is based on reports made to me by autistic individuals and/or parents/carers, and is simply my opinion only.
Autistic children and adults do not hold a monopoly on feeling anxious – of course not; however, it is well reported that levels of anxiety in terms of both duration and intensity are frequently much higher for autistic people than the predominant neurotype (PNT). In other words, something that sparks anxiety might result in that anxiety being felt more intensely and for a longer time that might be expected for the PNT. And, of course, the causation of anxiety will probably differ considerably for the autistic person compared to their PNT counterpart. This can work both ways – what can cause stress to a PNT may not be at all problematic for the autistic. For example, speaking at a conference is one that is often cited – while often highly stressful to the PNT it may pose no problem for an autistic speaker whatsoever (needless to say this can’t be generalised); conversely, the PNT may feel relief when the talk is done and it’s the coffee break – and yet this is when the anxiety shoots up for the autistic speaker. What is critical here is to recognise that across neurotypes it is likely that anxiety-inducing situations are very likely to differ. This makes it very difficult indeed for one population to understand the other in terms of what causes anxiety, why, or even how that state is experienced.
But – what is known, is that some autistic children and adults can become so overwhelmed with the intensity of their anxiety that it either becomes paralysing (sometimes literally) or a fight or flight kicks in, leading to either ‘meltdown’ type behaviour or fleeing. Needless to say, in educational parlance the latter two are subsequently renamed ‘challenging behaviour’ and ‘absconding’, neither of which are seen as a positive! But what else is a person supposed to do? A huge pressure exists on the autistic population to simply hide their anxiety and get on with it, put up with it, and just try a bit harder please to fit in with how everyone else does it. So, sometimes, people do. They mask their stress, they hide it – sometimes really well. They make a massive effort at not having the meltdown that could act as an anxiety release, they force themselves to overcome basic instinct to run away from the intense fearful situation. And some folk do this every single day. Imagine that. Having to hide your terror at going into an unpredictable classroom just because no one else has an issue with it. Or having to attend the team building day at work knowing that panic will be ever-present. Or having to go to a party with a partner and be expected to ‘chat’ without embarrassing self or others. Or having to put up with the real pain experienced in the changing room at school on PE day. Or suffering through lessons in intense anxiety knowing at any moment the teacher might ask you a question in front of the class. The list is endless.
And yet – what is done about this? How does the individual find any release from this horrible – and it is horrible – emotional state that can be perpetual? Sometimes, good practice prevails. Teachers, parents, staff – whoever – recognise that the individual is in emotional pain and take whatever steps are necessary – not to teach the individual ‘coping strategies’ to put up with it, but to remove whatever is causing the anxiety in the first place. [Please note – some strategies to enable individuals ways to manage their own emotional states can be brilliant. What I am suggesting here is that attempting to teach an individual that they simply have to accept and live with intense anxiety is not in the slightest bit acceptable]. However, in other situations, the individual’s emotional state is not accepted, recognised, understood, taken into account, or even identified. The person is then left, to face their fears, sometimes daily, with no support or understanding whatsoever. This is absolutely not even close to being ok. This is far from what should be the norm. This can be the equivalent of leaving an autistic person in a living hell with closed doors, no way out, and no way to see how to change anything. This leads, fairly obviously one would think, to a life of despair or worse.
And yet, is it that hard to accept it when a child tells us “that stresses me out”? Or when an adult states that they find certain activities anxiety-inducing to an unacceptable level? Or when we witness a meltdown to understand that everything happens for a reason? That the individual isn’t choosing to be so stressed that they lash out, or self harm, or scream (etc.). It may well be that it is difficult or even impossible to genuinely empathise with why something causes so much anxiety – but so what? It doesn’t make that anxiety any less real for the person. One doesn’t always have to fully understand why a person is so anxious; one just needs to accept that it is the case, and embrace the concept that something needs to be done about it.
So – a plea. If you know any autistic person who is stressed, anxious, fearful – and nothing is being done about it, intervene. Do what you can. Understand that life with anxiety is not ok. Stress can ruin lives, even end them. Please: don’t mess with stress.