I could hear the anxiety in his voice, just thinking about being in the same situation and making the same choices. The anxiety associated with his high functioning autism prevents him from doing so many things…things that I am sure he would enjoy without such extreme anxiety.
D was watching an episode of Caillou where he and his sister went inside a hollow area of a tree.
I wish I could do that…
Pouty asked, Why can’t you?
I can’t, because what if there are spiders or bugs in there. Or, what if there is a squirrel hiding in there. Even though I know they won’t hurt me, I just can’t because what if they do?
But if you know they won’t hurt you, why can’t you go in there?
D replied, albeit losing patience and somewhat embarrassed by his anxiety with…
I just can’t! I am scared that something would happen! It would be so fun to go play in a tree like that, but I JUST CAN’T!!! I would be scared!
High Functioning Autism: Anxiety
I have watched D deal with his anxiety for most of his life. I have watched him occasionally succumb to it, but just as often face it head on and overcome it. This time it was different, though.
This time, D was able to verbalize it. He was able to say, I want to go in that tree and play, but I can’t! I would be scared! This time, he recognized it, verbalized it, and expressed his feelings with regards to how he would feel in a similar situation.
Other times, we can see the anxiety building up, or we recognize it because it is anxiety we see on a regular basis. And still, sometimes it jumps up from out of nowhere and punches us right in the gut.
Anxiety We Recognize
Many times, what seems like peanuts to others is a huge trigger for a person with HFA.
D has an enormous amount of school anxiety, difficulty in crowds, and anxious at the doctor’s office. He has a difficult time with new situations and a fear of the unknown.
These situations are things that we may not always be able to control, but many times we can prepare ahead of time.
His school anxiety is not something we can really avoid, so we have worked with his team at school to alleviate as much anxiety as possible. We push him to reach his potential, but we also all know when to pull back and let him retreat to his safety net.
We try to avoid crowds, but if we must be in one, we help him create an escape plan. Doctor’s offices and new situations we always prepare for ahead of time. If he is kept in the loop, he is more able to prepare himself and handle what happens.
Anxiety We See Build Up
Sometimes anxiety is not obvious right away. It builds up as many tiny things pile up. It may be simple things that everyone else would not give a second thought, but for a person with HFA, as they build up, they become huge walls of anxiety.
These times, as we see it start to build, we spend time talking with D, trying to process what is going on in his life. We talk about what things have happened and how they can be avoided in the future.
We also do things that we know will help ease the anxiety. He loves brushing and joint compression (although we do it slightly different). We will also take him for a walk, offer him options to remove himself from a situation, or offer him a snack…snacks almost always help!
Anxiety That Attacks From Out Of Nowhere
These are the hardest to understand and work through. The anxiety that comes from out of nowhere and explodes before you realize what has happened. Yowsers!!
We are experiencing less of these times as D matures and has learned to better express himself, but they still happen. Usually something happens that is totally out of everyone’s control, but like all other anxiety, there is always some underlying cause. That underlying issue may be hunger, tired, getting sick, frustrated about something else, who knows … but, it always makes the final trigger seem to be overwhelming.
When we face this type of anxiety, we try desperately to turn it around. We offer redirection opportunities such as artwork, electronics, snacks (yes, snacks fix nearly everything), or help in whatever way we can. Unfortunately, these redirection attempts don’t always work. Many times, the anxiety has reached the explosion point before we realize it has started to boil and we just have to let him have a safe place to let it all out.
The key to keeping anxiety manageable is to be sure that we are working to minimize as many triggers as possible. In addition, we also teach him to manage those triggers, one at a time.
As I have mentioned, we know that the level of anxiety is significantly increased if he is hungry (or any other basic need is not being met), so we try to always make sure those needs are met.
One of the biggest learning experiences for us happened recently. He absolutely loves church, but it creates a lot of anxiety for him because of crowds and sensory input. We know that not only is he overly anxious by the time it is over, but he is also starving. After being wanted for kidnapping, we learned that we must have a snack for him. We have started taking an insulated lunchbox with Lunchables, or other snacks. Usually before we make it out of the building he is digging into the lunch box and our Sundays have been much more peaceful.
In most cases, it boils down to being proactive.