So, a slightly more serious discussion today. If you have autism — or a loved one does — it’s important to keep track of your health. Not just because it’s important to be healthy, anyway — because those of us on the spectrum experience very real and sometimes very frightening sensory extremes. And this can affect our health.
When we don’t pay attention to our stress triggers (for example, certain food textures/smells, too hot/too cold, too loud, too crowded), our bodies and brains will react by generating high levels of stress. This can result in headaches, joint aches, stomach problems, panic attacks, meltdowns, lack of sleep, anti-social behavior (and of course most people won’t want to be around us if we’re like that, anyway), and depression.
For years I’ve suffered with migraines, joint pains similar to arthritis, and stomach pain that doctors assumed was an ulcer — but it all came from trying to ignore my aversion to condiments, my fear of thunder, and how concentrated noise in a confined space makes me grit my teeth. Trying to pretend I wasn’t having these reactions, that these things wouldn’t affect me “this time,” or (worst yet) that I could just learn to “get over it” has really wracked my body.
Did I figure all this out right away? Oh, no, it took several months of research and reflection. But now that I do know, I’m very aware of making sure I do what I can to reduce my stress level, so that hopefully I’ll be healthier.
Something else that’s really, really important to reducing stress — that may be a bit hard for some NT folks to swallow — is letting us stim if we feel the need to stim. That’s short for stimulating or stimulation — when those of us on the spectrum feel sensory overwhelmed, a simple way of calming our brains and bodies is to stim; usually that means small gestures, like rubbing our hands or feet together, or rocking in place. Sometimes, unfortunately, stimming just isn’t considered appropriate — and yet, we really can’t help it, nor should we be forced (for the sake of our health) to completely give it up. If we find ourselves in situations where this is the case, there can be other types of stimming that are “acceptable in public,” such as squeezing a stress ball or twirling your hair or even biting your nails. (I know I’ve always been a nail-biter, because most people just ignored it.)
For parents of ASD-ers, please recognize and remember that these triggers are all too real, and so are the effects they can have on your child. (For those of you who already are doing this, rock on.) While it is beneficial to try to find ways for your child to cut back on how much anxiety they feel, please be aware that a “typical” method of addressing anxiety doesn’t necessarily work for autistic kids. Counseling probably won’t do anything, particularly if the counselor doesn’t know much about autism. Instead, go for an occupational or physical therapist who gets this kind of anxiety and sensory perception, and stimming, and will most likely offer Applied Behavioral Analysis to provide alternate methods of coping with overstimulation.
If you are the ASD-er in question (whatever your age), here’s my (unsolicited) advice — this is something about you a lot of people won’t understand, but it is important to you, and don’t let what “they” may think of you change what you know you need. We can’t control how our neurotransmitters take in information and stimuli; but we can work on keeping our reactions moderate to mild. That does take effort on our part.
However, it never means that we’re “freaks” or “wrong.” Don’t ever believe that of yourself. This is the way we experience the world. It may be different — but different doesn’t have to mean bad.