In this blog I will talk about the anxiety demon and how this impacts me as an autistic adult.
I have always been different, although I did not understand why until I was diagnosed last year as being autistic; as my son started his autism assessment.
Among other aspects of being autistic, one that has always affected me strongly is anxiety.
Anxiety is like having a voice in your head whispering all the things that can go wrong in any situation and not having the means to shut it out. For some of us, anxiety is part of daily life; a constant battle to overcome the anxiety to sometimes do the simplest of things.
People often believe that anxiety is situational or only happens during stressful periods. This isn’t entirely the case; like a lot of autistics, I overthink everything and replay conversations and events in my head on a constant loop while my anxiety demon is chastising my choices, actions or social interactions; making my anxiety peak.
It convinces me that I have made a fool of myself, that I’ve been misunderstood or that I’ve made a mistake and making me dread being in these situations again in case I repeat history.
My experience of anxiety
When faced with new situations or social events, our anxiety demon’s voice grows louder, demanding our full attention; overwhelming all other thoughts that we are trying to process.
“What if it’s too loud and there are too many people?”
“What if I get overwhelmed?”
“When will I be able to leave?”
“What if I say something stupid?”
“What will I be expected to do or act like?”
“What’s going to happen and when?”
“Will people dislike or laugh at me thinking that I’m weird?”
These are just some of the things that my anxiety demon says to me when I consider socialising or going somewhere new.
As an adult, I am able to manage my anxiety to an extent; I have worked out what situations I need to avoid, what I can do to prepare for new situations and how to self-regulate.
Our children do not have this experience yet. Most young children do not understand what they are feeling or why, so they need us to be able to read their signals and understand when and why their anxiety is high and, most importantly, how to help them manage it.
At this time of year, our children are probably experiencing a high level of anxiety having either started school or advancing a year.
So many aspects are out of their control as well as having both educational and social demands put on them continuously that can trigger their demand avoidance in a situation where they cannot easily avoid these demands.
The first year of school can be so daunting for any child but more so for autistic children. It may be their first time away from being at home with a parent or carer full time, everything is new, theydon’t know the environment, they don’t know what is expected of them, whether they’ll get overwhelmed, what the other children will be like, whether they’ll make friends, will they fit in, etc.
Consider for a moment that you are facing all of these things and your anxiety demon is constantly whispering that it will all go wrong, that you won’t cope, that no one will like you, that you’ll fail.
When I was at school, diagnoses weren’t common place and the schools weren’t as quick to recognise the struggles that autistics experience as they are nowadays, so it was a case that I had to try to manage my anxiety myself.
This took the form of leaving classes as soon as they finished so that I could spend some time on my own in a quiet bathroom before rushing off to the next class as well as spending break times and lunchtimes alone and away from everyone else in the playground.
When I got home, I would spend all of my time alone in my bedroom immersed in video games that I could escape into; blocking out reality and all other stimuli for a while. This would quieten the anxiety demon as I was focused so heavily on the game that I couldn’t hear it as much.
Without doing this I would often spiral into meltdown or would lash out at family members because I had, unknowingly, been masking all day (hiding my anxiety and differences to my peers) so when I returned to the safety of my house, all of the anxiety and overwhelm from the day would explode out of me.
Nowadays there are many different tactics, equipment and toys that can help autistic children manage and cope with their anxiety as well as different methods of signalling others that their anxiety is high and that they’re not coping. I would have found these invaluable when I was young.
An important fact to remember is that an anxious or overwhelmed child is incapable of learning effectively. They are not able to process all of the information they are being given. Therefore it is imperative that measures are taken in order to help them to regulate their anxiety and overwhelm while at school.
By Jo Richardson
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