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April Awareness: Stress & Autism

During the month of April there are several topics celebrated/acknowledged. Today I want to speak to two of them. Much of the verbiage I wrote based on information I knew and/or read but the bullets are right from an informational page as I did not want to take anything away from the professionals and especially those caring for someone with autism.

The first is National Stress Awareness. We all endure some type of stress. Managing stress is so important when you strive to live a healthy lifestyle. When you know how to manage stress you help to improve your mental and physical well-being which otherwise can lead to health-related issues.

Stress causes our bodies to react, like sending up “red flags” internally. Once the stress our bodies quickly go back to “normal”. But for some, stress is a much bigger issue. You might be dealing with family problems, health issues, finances or everyday hassles. It’s harder for your body to bounce back if there are too many stressors, as these stressors become chronic. Chronic stress causes mental and physical problems, burnout, bad moods, etc.

If you do continuous self-checks recognizing your stressors you will be able to build up resilience. There are several ways to do this:

  • Recognize and counter signs of stress. Your body sends signals that say "I'm stressed out!" These can include difficulty concentrating, headaches, cold hands, tight muscles, a nervous stomach, clenched teeth, feeling on edge, fidgety, irritable or withdrawn. Knowing how your body communicates can help you deal with stressful moments. Learn to not only recognize when you are experiencing stress, but also to take action to counter its effects. For example, deep breathing, stretching, going for a walk, writing down your thoughts and taking quiet time to focus. All these activities can help induce relaxation and reduce tension.

  • Take time for yourself. Make yourself a priority, every day. It's not selfish or self-indulgent. Taking care of YOU may require you to say “no” to others and you shouldn’t feel guilty for this. Start with small changes in your routine to help build resilience to stressful circumstances. It would benefit you greatly to work in time to exercise, specifically doing yoga or medication. These help tremendously when you’re stressed. If you’re not already, make time to eat healthy foods and participate in relaxing activities and sleep. Recognizing the “good” in your day and doing things you like such as listening to your favorite music or reading a good book can shift your attention to the positive rather than negative.

  • Stay connected and make new friends. Having family, friends or groups you have in your life is a great way to stay connected and share day-to-day happenings. While some don’t like it, it’s helpful having the technology we use to keep those connections and see the faces of those we love.

  • See problems through a different lens. If we learn to view some stressors or annoyances differently, we will keep situations in perspective. This method is called “reframing”. For example, try viewing sitting in traffic or around the house as an opportunity to enjoy your favorite music, podcasts or looking at the pleasant views. I know for some this is hard to do but try to reduce your anger towards rude or aggressive behavior by imagining what might be going on in that person's life. I’ve gotten better doing this and it really does help. Sometimes I even say out loud “God I pray for whatever that person’s going through”. At times when someone is speeding around/in front of you we will say something funny like they must really be hungry so they’re speeding to get food. Lol! Keeping situations in perspective is an important way to build that stress resilience. If you practice reframing, you will get better at it over time.

  • Seek help with problems. If day-to-day stressors are making you feel negative, turn to those you trust - family and friends. If it’s beyond that and your mental and physical health is affected, or you’re wanting to, or are, engaging in substance abuse please talk with a health professional. If you don’t get the help your relationships and ability to work productively are at risk.

    • If you have suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Lifeline chat is a service available to everyone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The second topic for April is Autism Awareness. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. People with ASD often have problems with social communication and interaction, and restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests. People with ASD may also have different ways of learning, moving, or paying attention. Common signs of autism include difficulties with social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, along with perseverative interests, stereotypic body movements, rigid routines, and hyperactivity to sensory input.

Many individuals with autism thrive in a structured environment that is predictable and consistent. Establish routines for daily activities, such as mealtimes and bedtime, and stick to them as much as possible.

There are no hard-and-fast rules on how to communicate with a child with ASD. But many family members have had success with these tips:

  • Be patient. It often takes a child with ASD longer to process information. You may need to slow down your conversation to their speed. Long pauses can be helpful.

  • Teach the child how to express anger without being too aggressive. Children with ASD should know that they don't have to hold their anger and frustration inside.

  • Be persistent but resilient. Don't let your feelings get hurt if the child does not respond to you as you'd like. Children with ASD may have trouble both showing and controlling their emotions. They can be blunt in their responses. Don't take this personally.

  • Always stay positive. Children with ASD respond best to positive reinforcement. Be sure to talk about or reward good behavior often. Be generous with compliments for good behavior.

  • Ignore irritating attention-getting behavior. A child with ASD may act badly at times to get you to focus on them. Ignoring this behavior is often the best way to prevent it. Also talk about and reward the child's good behavior often.

  • Interact through physical activity. Children with ASD tend to have short attention spans. This is especially true when it comes to communicating. Running around and playing outside may be a better way of sharing time together. It will also let them relax and feel calmer.

  • Be affectionate and respectful. Children with ASD often need a hug, just like other children. Sometimes they need this much more than other children. But some children don't like to be touched at all. Even light contact can distress them. Ask the child or caretaker before making any physical contact. Respect their personal space. Never force physical affection on an unwilling child.

  • Show your love and interest. Children with ASD may have trouble showing their feelings. But they still need to know that you love them. Go out of your way to express your interest, caring, and support.

  • Learn from your child. Your child's special need and abilities may show you a way to look at the world that you've never considered. As difficult as it may be on some days, relaxing, laughing, and enjoying the unique gift that is your child can provide both you and your family with many rewards.

  • Believe. A child with autism is first and foremost a child. They are a growing person with unknown possibilities. Believe in what the child can do. Don’t define the child by a diagnosis.

As an adult you may have a family member, a neighbor, a co-worker, a classmate, or a gym buddy who is on the autism spectrum. If so, you may find that it can be challenging, at times, to communicate clearly with them. No two people with autism have the same language and social skills, but the following guidelines can help ensure your conversations go as smoothly as possible:

  • Address him or her as you would any other adult, not a child. Do not assume that this person has limited cognitive skills. An individual’s disability may be more language-based and not related to his or her ability to comprehend the content of the conversation. In other words, s/he may understand every word you say, but may have difficulty responding verbally. A child with autism is first and foremost a child. They are a growing person with unknown possibilities. Believe in what the child can do. Don’t define the child by a diagnosis.

  • Avoid using words or phrases that are too familiar or personal. For example, words like “honey” or “sweetie,” or “cutie,” can come across as demeaning or disrespectful to anyone, but particularly to someone working to establish his or her independence. Save these terms of endearment for close friends and family members.

  • Say what you mean. When interacting with an adult with autism, be literal, clear, and concise. Avoid the use of slang, nuance, and sarcasm. These forms of communication may be confusing and not easily understood by a person on the autism spectrum.

  • Take time to listen. Being an active listener is an important skill when interacting with adults with ASD. Taking the time to listen lets them know that you care and support them. If you do not understand what the person is saying, ask more questions to clarify what he or she is trying to convey.

  • If you ask a question, wait for a response. If someone doesn’t respond immediately to your question, do not assume they haven’t heard or understood you. Just like typical adults, individuals with autism or other special needs sometimes need a little more time to absorb and process information before giving you their response.

  • Provide meaningful feedback. Some adults with ASD may unknowingly communicate inappropriately. Be prepared to provide specific feedback about what in the conversation was inappropriate. Providing feedback that is honest, non-judgmental, and clear can help someone with ASD learn to safely navigate complex social interactions.

  • Don’t speak as if the person is not in the room. In a group setting with family members, caregivers, teachers, or others, do not talk about this person as if he or she were not in the room. It is easy to be drawn into this trap – especially if others are talking about this person in his or her presence. By modeling appropriate behavior, you can help others learn how to be more supportive of adults with ASD.

It is important for those of us who are family members, friends, and advocates of individuals who have ASD to recognize and respect them as adults and to help them experience as much self-esteem and achieve as much independence as possible.

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