This month we are discussing autism and anxiety. I’m the mom of an autistic daughter who has lived with anxiety her entire life. In relaying the following story, which she has given me permission to tell, I’d like to share what I’ve learned from her and how it has influenced my own response to those who experience anxiety regularly.
When my daughter, Rachel, was a senior in college, she called me in a panic. I knew it was serious because she typically preferred to text. “Mom, you need to pick me up. I’m not ok,” she said. I was at a family event over 1,300 miles away from her in Florida, but I made sure she wasn’t thinking of hurting herself and would be ok in her dorm room for the night before I made plans to fly back to Boston the next morning.
When I picked her up from school the next day, her relief was palpable when she got into the car and cuddled her dog. Like any parent, I was worried that something specific had happened to trigger her mental health crisis. But through a psychiatrist consultation, Rachel shared that she had been trying to manage overwhelming social anxiety on her own for the past four years. Finally, the social anxiety became too much, and as the psychiatrist explained to us all, untreated social anxiety can turn into depression.
Over the next two years, Rachel focused on her mental health, and slowly found her way back to engaging in life again. But during that recovery period, there were several weeks and months where she could not participate in our typical family activities, connect with friends, work, or study. Her anxiety and depression took all her energy, and she wondered when she would find some relief. Four years later, we both agree her anxiety and depression are being treated effectively, and she is glad to be able to pursue graduate school and socialize with friends.
Like many autistic kids and adults, Rachel’s anxiety was close to the surface and could be triggered fairly easily. Change, perfectionism, an uncertain future, social situations with too many people or people she didn’t know, all increased her anxiety. And that accumulated anxiety could show itself in a variety of ways. She might ask questions repeatedly. Sometimes she would grow agitated when we couldn’t provide the answers she needed. She would ask to leave soon after arriving at a social event. She would beat herself up if she couldn’t accomplish her work in the way she imagined it in her head. She was very hard on herself. I felt terrible that we had missed the signs and opportunities to better support her.
By sharing their experience, Rachel and the other autistic children, teens, and adults I know through AANE have taught me what anxiety feels like for them. That in turn helps me better understand and support those who live with anxiety regularly. There are several strategies that have been effective for my daughter and others:
- Break overwhelming or complex tasks down into small, manageable steps. It’s hard to imagine completing a project if you don’t know how and where to begin.
- Find ways to focus on the present. Anxiety often comes from perseverating on the past or worrying about the unknown future. Many people have found meditation, especially mindfulness meditation, to help anchor them in the present.
- Consult with a licensed medical professional to consider therapy and medication. Medication may not be the right choice for everyone, but many find it to be life changing. Not everyone finds the right medication on the first try, but if a good match is eventually found, therapy often becomes even more helpful.
- Be aware of anxiety triggers and your responses to them. For example, last minute changes, or promising something and then forgetting to follow through can raise anxiety. Try to be as clear as possible with yourself and others about what to expect. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may also help you change the way you think about those triggers and modify your response to them.
If you are not the person who experiences anxiety, it’s important to validate its impact. Acknowledge how anxiety can limit a person’s ability to engage. Make sure they feel supported. Try to be as gentle as possible when you sense anxiety is driving someone’s actions. Anxiety can show itself as irritation, anger, inflexibility, or perseveration. Being aware of the unique way a person expresses their anxiety will help you better understand and support them.
If you or someone you know is experiencing an emergency, contact 911 or go to your nearest emergency department.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386
National Domestic Violence Support
Crisis Text Line: 741741