On Autistic Stress

Autistics get stressed out by a lot more things than most people, and what stresses us, and why, is often surprising to others. Here's the critical first step to helping.

Stress isn’t always obvious

Autistics get stressed out by a lot more things than most people, and often what stresses us is surprising to others, and the reasons they stress us out are often not the obvious ones, either.

Add to that the fact that it’s often difficult to talk about what stresses us—that’s not an autistic oddity, most people find that difficult—or why it’s stressing us, and you’ve got a recipe for easy misunderstandings. And for help that is well-intentioned, but misses the mark.

On top of all that, most children are really bad at describing why they do or don’t like things, how something makes them feel, and what’s good or bad about a situation. Again, that’s not autistic, that’s just childhood.

Those skills can be taught, but they are often not, so children who can’t describe what’s hurting them turn into adults who can’t describe what’s hurting them—often not even to themselves. I was the same.

Stress is behind a lot of challenging behaviors

If you can’t express what’s bothering you with useful communication, it will still come out—in less helpful ways.

When all the sounds and lights and textures and expectations and social time and therapies and and and and get too much to deal with, that’s when those “challenging behaviors” come out.

Tip: As you’re reading this, release your shoulders from your ears, unclench your jaw, and remove your tongue from the roof of your mouth. We tend to hold onto stress in least noticeable ways.

Which isn’t all that surprising. Everyone has their own point of overwhelm, beyond which everything. is. so. hard.

Think about it. When your back hurts or you’ve got the flu or there’s way too much going on in your life, and you’re hurting or stressed out, everything feels more challenging.

Changing plans when something comes up becomes harder to deal with, you’re more likely to be irritable when someone interrupts you, it’s harder to think of alternate options when something isn’t working out.

Of course, there’s more going on in autism than just being stressed or overwhelmed, but too much stress makes everything so much worse, and masks what’s really the problem.

If the stress can be relieved, even a little, it can make the autistic person much easier to be around, which makes your life easier, which makes your whole family dynamics easier.

The first step to helping

It’s taken me years to slowly and clumsily develop both the awareness of what was really bothering me and ways to describe it.

Interestingly, I’ve found that being able to describe it helps me become better aware of it, and being better aware of it helps me describe it better. So the two have grown together.

I made the most progress with the help of a really good therapist, who gradually helped me become aware of my body’s sensations and modeled for me how to talk about them. But you don’t need a therapist to do that, you just need someone who’s had that experience. That can be a parent, teacher, a good friend, or a coach.

This is one of the things that I would love to work on with your kid, because it will help with so many other parts of life.

Just being aware of what’s hurting, what’s wrong, why something doesn’t feel good, and being able to describe it, makes everything else so much easier.

It makes other kinds of help much more helpful.

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Heather Cook

Heather Cook

Heather Cook is an autistic writer and autism coach. She finds joy in helping neurowonderful adults, teens, and parents find and remove the hidden barriers that are holding them back, so their natural strengths can shine.

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