Sunday, May 1, 2016

Autism and anxiety

Studies have shown that a vast majority of individuals on the autism spectrum suffer from anxiety disorders.  This probably has to do with many different things like awareness of differences, increased sensory sensitivities etc.   Anxiety can manifest itself differently depending on the individual and can also vary in severity.  With this blog post, I am going to talk about my own experience with anxiety and how it manifests in my life.  My journey with anxiety started during my teenage years as I started to develop awareness about my autism and that I was different from my peers.  I would constantly worry how people would perceive me and if people would like me.    When I was younger I expressed my anxious feelings through meltdowns and had perseverative behaviors (I repeated myself a lot).  As a result of not having proper control over my anxious thoughts, I had to be on medication in order for me to cope with my anxiety a lot better.  However through behavioral therapy I was able to learn coping mechanisms and techniques such as journaling, deep breathing etc. to manage my anxiety so by junior year I was able to wean off my medication completely.  This might sound like a victory story that I was able to come off my medication completely since not everyone with anxiety and autism are not able to fade their medication.  However despite all the progress I have made over the years, I still struggle with anxiety. There are still days where I can't reign my spinning thoughts and the anxiety gets the best of me. While I am not the type to experience physical symptoms related to anxiety, there were times I experienced vomiting as a result of a nervous stomach.  My anxiety tends to heighten when I am faced with a lot on my plate or face with a challenge or transition (like finding a job) in which the outcome is unknown.

How my anxiety is related to autism is that I experience social anxiety.  Unlike most people with typical social anxiety, public speaking does not bother me as I have spoken in front of audiences before.    I struggle in group social situations, because the increased pressure and demands causes me to feel anxious.  I deal with this by withdrawing which is why I might seem antisocial or come off as "aloof" and "cold" to some people.  In my case, when I am feeling anxious my autistic self comes out more because I am so focused on taming my thoughts that sometimes I may not be aware of my surroundings and behavior.   This is why I prefer to hang out with my friends in a one-on-one situation because it is less complex and I get to know people better.
Another issue in which my anxiety and autism intersect is transitions or the notion of change.  While I got better at not having a meltdown when there is change happening in my life, I still get very anxious when I am in a transition period (e.g. from high school to college) because of the unknown.  For instance, I didn't feel like it was a good idea to go to a 4-year college and live in a dorm right out of high school since the combined demands of adjusting to college and independent living would be too much for me to deal with at 18 since I was emotionally immature for my age.  I went to a community college for a few years to mature and then transfer to a 4-year college.  This is the part I feel most experts neglect when talking about the transition from high school to college.  It seems that anxiety is brushed aside in favor of skill building.  To deal with anxiety, it is best to take "baby steps" in building skills because trying to cram everything all at once can overwhelm the individual to the point that they won't be opening to learning and can lessen the chance for a successful outcome after a new experience.  Having autism and anxiety is not easy, but I have learn to accept my anxious thoughts which makes living with the two conditions more manageble.  The more I try to fight my anxiety the harder life becomes harder to deal with.   I hope I have provided an accurate depiction of what autism and anxiety looks like for people on the spectrum.

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