The Biggest Challenge For Adults On The Autism Spectrum Is Not What You Think

I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with many adult men on the autism spectrum. I haven’t had the good fortune to work with any women yet, but I hope to at some point.

Some had an official diagnosis and some did not. Those that did not have traits that were consistent with that diagnosis.

All would be considered high functioning, although that category is very wide. Some were independent and some were not. Some lived with their parents and struggled to hold down a job. Others were married, had children, and had a career.

All these people, without exception, were good souls who treated everyone with kindness and respect. All of them were genuine and authentic people.

The conventional wisdom for high functioning adults on the autism spectrum is that they have challenges with social engagement and emotional connection. This may be true. But, in my opinion, these issues are not the biggest challenges they face.

The biggest challenge is anxiety. That feeling of worry, fear, unease, and even dread.

Imagine living a life that may have included all or some of the following:

  • Having parents that don’t understand you
  • Not understanding yourself and what you need
  • Other people have unfair expectations of you
  • Frustration with doing things others find easy
  • Difficulty making friends
  • Struggling in school
  • Being bullied and made fun of
  • Difficulty having romantic relationships

How could a person experiencing these things not feel anxious all the time? How could a person possibly feel safe and secure?

A man on the spectrum, Danny Raede, runs an excellent website and business called Asperger Experts. He calls it being in “defense mode.” This is a great description of what daily life feels like.

And the symptoms of persistent anxiety or defense mode for a person on the spectrum are the same as for a neurotypical person:

  • Hypervigilance
  • Overwhelmed
  • Insecure
  • Shut down
  • Irritable
  • Impatient
  • Defensive
  • Angry

We neurotypicals have all been anxious and we’ve all experienced these symptoms at one time or another. We know how unpleasant and debilitating it can feel.

Try to imagine someone who feels this way all or most of the time. Imagine if this was your default mode. You would have issues with emotional connection and social engagement too.

Trying to get someone on the spectrum to just focus on these issues is missing the point. What I’m suggesting is that underlying these challenges is something more fundamental and relevant.

What does an absence of anxiety feel like? It feels like I am safe and I can trust the people around me. If the anxiety goes away, if there is safety and trust, everything gets better. A person on the spectrum would be more able to engage socially and emotionally connect. So would you.

So how do you get someone out of defense mode and into a space of safety and trust?

The place to start is to ask, “What would anyone need?” If it were me:

  • I would need to feel understood and accepted.
  • I would not want to be judged or criticized.
  • I would want to receive empathy and compassion.
  • I would want to feel heard and validated.

Next, ask the person what he or she needs. If you are on the spectrum, get in the habit of asking yourself this question frequently.

Think about needs that are:

  • Mental – play a video game, work on a hobby
  • Physical – go for a walk, find an enjoyable movement
  • Emotional – listen to music, find a laugh
  • Spiritual – be in nature, enjoy solitude

These are obviously just quick examples. The overall point is that the better you take care of yourself, the less anxiety you will have. If you know someone who is or might be on the spectrum, think about how anxiety is affecting their life. If you are on the spectrum or think you might be, ask yourself the same question.

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