One of the main problems that people with Autism face is anxiety, from mild to acute it effects every area of their lives. Consider this quote from Katy one of the young people I work with.
“I was heading into a classroom and then I just couldn’t go in. It’s not that I didn’t want to or that I was being naughty I just couldn’t go through the door”
This is the problem with the anxiety in action. Katy does want to go in to the classroom but has anxiety about it which prevents her. As you can see she’s also acutely aware that this behaviour could be perceived as “naughty”. This is important because it highlights how the anxiety can multiply in a particular situation. Katy’s anxiety is heightened because as well as not being able to go through the door she’s becoming anxious about how this behaviour may be perceived. She’s anxious about going to the class room and anxious about the reaction to this making her doubly anxious. You can see how it might be easier to just retreat from any situation that could create anxiety.
This can spill over in to even the most apparently mundane situations that an Autistic person may find themselves in. A situation such as ordering a coffee. This is something I’ve been working on with another young person, Ben. Again, the problem is that he’s anxious about ordering a coffee and getting it wrong. This is compounded by the fact that he is perfectly aware that he ordering a coffee is easy and isn’t something he should be anxious about. But this anxiety about being anxious makes it impossible to accomplish the task. He won’t make eye contact and takes a defensive body stance, he knows he’s doing this and again it worsens his anxiety.
So how do you deal with this situation?
I need to work on helping them gain the social skills to make the situation less stressful. It’s possible that the anxiety won’t go away but we can work together to get the tools to help. I start by creating a trust relationship between Ben and me. We talk for some time maybe as long as 40 minutes focusing on this one issue – buying a coffee. We talk about the importance of eye contact and making a positive body stance. If eye contact is problematic we could suggest looking at someone’s nose or between the eyebrows.
Then we go and buy a coffee. I always remain at Ben’s side and he knows if it all gets to much he can ask me for help and I’ll step in immediately. This sort of thing can help with other day to day tasks such as going to the supermarket or checking out a library book. It can also help with situations that may occur more randomly. Another quote I’ve got takes a look from a different angle.
“someone falls over in front of me. I know I should ask them if they’re OK but if I do I don’t know what to do if it goes further”
In this situation the anxiety is about the unknown. Ben knows he should ask if the person is OK. But what if they’re not? He doesn’t have the social skills to deal with that so retreats from even the basic social skill of asking if someone is OK. Even someone without Autism would have some trepidation at asking of someone is OK. Because let’s face it the answer we always want to hear is “Yes I’m fine thanks”.
So, what I do is work on overcoming the basic lack of confidence to engage and to give people the tools they need to deal with these situations. Starting with scripted ones like the coffee and moving to more complex ones like someone falling over. Once we’ve got the tools it’s practice, practice, practice.
If any of this seems familiar or you’d like information about a different issue you may have encountered with a student with Autism, please get in touch. I’m confident I can help find a solution