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7 The world-travelling rabbit

ASD traits can vary significantly between individuals. Consequently, not all autistic people have the same struggles, but I believe it is fair to say most will have some or other difficulties that lead to anxiety. I completely understand that even neurotypical (NT) individuals will experience tough times and am not dismissing these but the fundamental difference is that NTs will find stability by learning to communicate effectively, recognition of non-verbal cues, understand the mindset of others around them and the ability to interpret social situations. These are skills that individuals with ASD are not as readily able to comprehend and learn. Even with some coaching, they may not be able to develop these skills to the equivalent level that NTs can, simply due to the way they are wired. This leaves ASD individuals at a distinct disadvantage when dealing with anxiety.

Coping mechanisms stabilise individuals with anxiety, to make situations more comfortable in order to avoid becoming overwhelmed. However, if the usual communication based methods are not as easy for ASD individuals to grasp then what strategies would be better suited? In an attempt to answer this question for myself, whilst researching I found a document written by Luke Beardon, a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, who summarised the topic as below:

Coping strategies are often used by individuals with ASD to reduce the anxiety felt in everyday situations that cannot be compensated for in the neurologically typical ways. The strategies themselves can manifest themselves in any number of different ways and may be unique to the individual.

It would be impossible to list all coping strategies used by individuals with ASD. It is possible, however, to group strategies together – a preliminary list would include:

· Physical

· Routine

· Repetitive speech / questioning

· Attachment to objects

(Beardon, 2002)

As this has only been brought to my attention recently, reflecting on the past 17 years, I am now aware of subconscious coping mechanisms I have developed over that time. I want to share my experiences not only with others who are neurodivergent but also with those who want to support family and friends with ASD.

My coping methods

I’m attached hugely to my family and a soft toy rabbit! I recognise that as long as I have my parents and siblings to turn to when I am overwhelmed, I can manage my anxieties. This recently played out within the school environment. I found myself in a situation that frustrated and upset me so much that I was unable to move past it until I offloaded to my brother. He just listened. Well, expecting words of wisdom from a 15 year old was probably a bit unfair! I didn’t want a cuddle or false reassurance that things would be okay. I just needed to tell him. His eyes said it all. The validation and comfort I sought was there before me, for which I was grateful and re-energised to regroup. The reason for my recount is that most teenagers turn to their friends, but I have realised that my social and communication difficulties around finding the words to describe my emotions are better understood by my parents and siblings. There are times when I need no words, they just know. I realised that I'm incredibly fortunate to have those bonds.

Mostly my coping strategies are physical, and routine based as outlined below. I don’t really engage in repetitive speech.

Physical

When things get too much or I get frustrated because I can’t articulate, I wiggle my fingers around or tense them. This is something I have pretty much always done, which I tried hard to stop. Now, understanding this is actually a coping mechanism has been eye-opening. I no longer feel the need to hide this habit and accept these movements as an aid to my wellbeing.

In situations where I feel there is too much noise or drama going on, I pace (whether it be in a circle or back and forth). I think this helps me detach from the situation and distracts me as I notice the cracks in the floor or threads on a carpet and focus on these instead.

When I was younger, people around me would mention my curling tongue which developed a life of its own as I concentrated on writing an essay or calculating a maths equation. Unfortunately, children can be cruel and so this became a point of focus for teasing taunts. Completely subconsciously, I swapped my tongue for my foot which I circled (normally my right foot clockwise) to help me concentrate or calm me down. This has stayed with me, so if I am in deep thought, I will usually notice my foot swirling to its own rhythm.

I find scratching quite therapeutic. I focus on the feeling of the scratch and therefore am less overwhelmed by other sensory stimuli. I like that it is a linear movement (scratching back and forth). However, I have had to be more aware of force and continuity as in the past I have been known to draw blood.

I am a fidgeter and in the past have used fidget cubes and spinners. As these can be noisy and disliked by most NTs, I fidget with my fingers or by moving my legs under a table instead. However, as I am trying to accept my coping strategies more, I want to reintroduce a spinner. I find focusing my excess energy on a certain movement helps me concentrate on the main subject more (like when in school lessons or when having a conversation).

Routine

When I wake up, I follow a very specific routine. I am up before my alarm. I brush my teeth, turn my AC off, open the blinds and make my bed, after which I progress with my day. Routine keeps my emotions in check. Starting the day right sets me up for all the unpredictable daily happenings that are unavoidable. Having a routine allows me to be more productive and spend less time contemplating, ruminating or being distracted. I believe it regulates my moods. The only drawback I need to be mindful of is not becoming too rigid, such that if the routine is broken it shouldn’t spiral me into experiencing discomfort. I recognise that life is unpredictable, so I have to learn to have a balance of a routine but also have the freedom to adapt and change.

A while ago I decided to cut out all dairy, gluten, and eggs from my diet, just because. My food habits became quite rigid and strict with a set breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. I acknowledged during lockdown that this was getting out of hand so set to work on being less rigid with food. It is an example of how I like having control and a routine to follow but also how I am trying to be bold and step outside of my comfort zone.

Attachment to objects

When I was born, I was gifted a soft toy rabbit from my grandparents, this became something I was hugely attached to (I wouldn't let it out of my sight!). Having something that was constant in my life I think helped me feel calmer during changes and uncontrollable situations. Rabbit still travels with me on holidays. He is probably the most well-travelled rabbit in the world - hence the title!

Another strategy I have employed includes thumb sucking. This was something I was so embarrassed about as I started to have sleepovers, but it provided me with a significant comfort and reassurance, calming me almost instantly. I now no longer feel bad about thumb sucking. However, that’s not to say that I would walk around school with my thumb in my mouth!

I am very active and I know that physical activity is a great coping mechanism, allowing me to distract my mind from daily worries and release frustrations. Therefore, it is crucial that I exercise at least 5 times a week. After receiving my diagnosis, I have prioritised this even more and make sure I have a set routine to follow, so I focus on this to keep my balance.

Music is so important in my life as it helps de-stress me and escape from any anxiety, but I can get quite attached to certain songs, to the point that I have been known to listen to the same song for hours on repeat. However, I believe this to be acceptable although I think my siblings may not agree so readily!

Following on from my diagnosis and having more self-awareness, I am trying to implement the below:

· Taking naps throughout the day if I am feeling tired from a high sensory stimuli environment.

· Having a designated low stimulus, safe space where I can unwind after a stressful situation or a high sensory stimuli environment.

· I am learning that it is ok to say no if I am feeling tired or overwhelmed and I need a break from other people.

· Using green paper instead of white, as it is less tiring for my eyes.

· Like mentioned earlier, I have made sure to do at least an hour of physical activity, at least five days a week, so I can remain sane during quarantine!

An important term to be aware of when discussing coping strategies for ASD is ‘stimming’. This refers to self-stimulatory behaviours that include repetitive, body movements (most common) or noises [Raising Children Network, 2020]. Stimming helps with oversensitivites, undersensitivities, and managing both ends of the emotional spectrum from anxiety to excitement.

Stimming is not a bad thing, as long as the behaviours are not self-injurious. It can be a positive coping mechanism, allowing individuals to communicate and learn more effectively. Everyone stims in some way, shape, or form, even NTs. Everyone has coping methods for all sorts of things life throws at you, for example pacing a room whilst waiting for news or twirling hair around your finger. But these are seen as socially acceptable compared to rocking or fidgeting with a toy in the middle of class. However, maybe we should be more tolerant and accepting of these behaviours and not so desperate to constantly conform.

Some coping strategies may well be best steered away from, like those that reinforce social isolation or as mentioned previously, those that would be classed as self-harming. Others may not be sustainable such as expecting the school bus to always take the same route.

Unfortunately, stimming has had negative connotations and some autism therapy (like Applied Behavioural Analysis) involves trying to suppress stimming. This is heavily shunned in the autistic community (but a topic for another time - there is so much to say!). In more recent times, there has been a huge movement dedicated to revolting the initial idea that autism needs to be cured or hidden. We should make a conscious effort to accept these, regardless of whether you are neurodivergent or neurotypical.


Because acceptance is everything.

Thanks for reading,

Nidhi :)

 

References


Beardon, L., 2002. Coping Strategies.

Raising Children Network, 2020. Stimming and autism spectrum disorder. Available at: https://raisingchildren.net.au/autism/behaviour/common-concerns/stimming-asd [Accessed October 20, 2020].


Cover image: Sarah Deweerdt, 2020. Repetitive behaviours and 'stimming' in autism, explained. Spectrum News. Available at: https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/repetitive-behaviors-and-stimming-in-autism-explained/ [Accessed October 20, 2020].

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