We are all familiar with feeling stressed from time to time, some of us more so than others, and we all have our own individual triggers and coping mechanisms. These triggers are often the same for autistic people, however, the real challenges lie in firstly recognising the symptoms of stress and then coping with how it makes them feel.
Not understanding and managing stress effectively can intensify negative feelings and behaviours and sometimes be so overwhelming that a person with autism may shut down completely.
This is why it’s really important to support people with autism to try, whenever possible, to avoid situations that may cause stress while mitigating the impact with an individual approach.
At the same time, we need to communicate that it’s OK to be stressed! It happens to the best of us and we are allowed to experience these feelings. Through explanation and support, you can hopefully help people to understand why they are feeling this way and that the feeling won’t last forever.
We spoke to our Behaviour Support Practitioner, Joanna Taylor, to talk about common causes of stress amongst autistic people, and how triggers can be removed or coping strategies implemented when that’s not possible.
Dealing with unexpected changes and uncertainty can be really difficult for autistic people, which is why the pandemic has been extremely challenging in many cases. We are all creatures of habit, and regular routine and predictability are a source of comfort for those living with autism.
In instances where you know change is going to occur, no matter how big, you should try to prepare individuals for that change. Whether they are moving to a new house or due to take a different route or mode of transport to school or work, consider how you can best minimise any stress that might cause.
For some of us, the thought of an imminent change can be worse than the actual event. Anybody suffering from anxiety will recognise this and at Autism Wessex we implement a range of tools and techniques to minimise this stress and help support our children and adults. These include:
- Advanced warning of what is going to take place
- Visuals such as social stories to help them understand what is going to change
- A key focus on the positives
- Calming strategies such as fiddle toys or breathing exercises to help regulate a person’s stress during the event
- Getting back to a predictable routine or distracting someone with something fun can help to reduce any stress after the event.
As the saying goes, the only certainty in life is uncertainty so there will always be instances where change cannot be avoided. Change and stress is part of life and we want those who we support to understand it’s OK to feel any negative emotions. What’s important is that we empathise with them and help them through the best we can.
Social situations can be a source of anxiety and stress for anyone affected by autism as many struggle with communication, interpreting body language, facial expressions and understanding certain social situations.
Everybody has different communication strengths and difficulties in how they express themselves and understand what is being said to them. This can lead to them feeling excluded from conversations and social settings which can cause stress and impact on self-esteem.
Try not to force social situations upon someone if you can see that it makes them feel uncomfortable and ensure them that it’s OK to leave if they want to. Try and educate others about how the person you support or care for prefers to communicate so that they feel comfortable.
Our aim is to help autistic people navigate the world in a way that feels right for them and to avoid them developing a fear about going out and being around people. Autistic people should be supported to learn the necessary social and coping skills needed to help with this. This may include teaching someone how to make friends, what different facial expressions mean or using a break card to communicate that they want to leave a situation. A person should be supported to safely express their frustrations and anxieties and supported to calm with strategies that work for them, whether it be humming or jumping on a trampoline. These safe, individual calming and coping strategies should always be encouraged and accepted.
Many autistic people can struggle with sensory sensitivities. Being hypersensitive to light, noise, smell, taste, touch and texture can make days out and visits to unfamiliar locations quite hard to plan for. Responses to sensory experiences are not only unique to the individual but can also fluctuate throughout the day and from one day to the next.
Where possible, try to avoid these triggers such as visiting places during quiet times, or make use of autism friendly times that some venues now offer. If you know you are going somewhere that may be noisy or extremely bright, like a birthday party, things such as noise-cancelling headphones, music headphones, hats and sunglasses can be useful, as well as finding out if there are quieter and darker spaces available. Overwhelming smells can also trigger stress in some autistic people but are hard to foresee. Move away from them where possible or try offering a tissue with drops of essential oil. Many fidget toys, such as balls or playdough, can now be scented and act as a useful distraction tool in these situations.
With food, certain flavours are often overpowering too, and some textures can cause discomfort. To avoid stressful situations during mealtimes, plan ahead and take your own food or call a venue in advance to see if they can accommodate you.
Finally, some autistic people are very sensitive to touch and don’t like being hugged or wearing certain clothes. Try to make people around them aware of this. Autistic people can be supported to develop sensory regulation strategies that help them to cope with any sensory difficulties such as touch. Avoiding crowds and queues where possible is a good idea and is one instance where social distancing measures may have a benefit!
You know best!
You know your autistic child, family member or person you care for better than anyone and are an expert in helping them to manage their stress, even if you don’t realise it.
If you are not sure why someone is behaving in a certain way, or if you would like help supporting their stress, collecting data via an ABC (Antecedent Behaviour Consequence) chart at home or school and sharing it with a professional can help spot patterns such as recurring triggers.
The information gathered can empower you to put the right interventions in place to help minimise stress triggers and mitigate the impact. Involve the person where possible to contribute and remember that things may take time to work, so don’t give up on something straight away.
We are all continuously learning how to cope with and manage stress and an autistic person may just need that bit more support and understanding.