Life is harder for a person on the spectrum. Did you know that? If we were to compare a neurotypical (NT) brain and a high functioning autistic spectrum (HFASD) brain to two computers, the NT would be a PC and the HFASD brain would be an Apple.
They both function wonderfully well in their own circles. They are simply two different operating systems. But the world is built on the PC’s model. So while you and I are doing the basic calculations to function in life, they are having to rewrite the code to their own computer language before doing the same basic calculations. It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting!
I recently read an article that said that those with Asperger’s or HFASD feel too much. They feel things so strongly that it’s hard to process, so they shut down or have a meltdown. I felt that was very insightful because that’s exactly what I have observed in my family. My family has a larger than usual incidence of High Functioning Autism. My uncle, my brother, my sister, my nephew, and my son all have it. And throughout my life, I have not seen them as people who didn’t feel anything, but instead, people who feel so much they are easily overwhelmed.
Often those on the Autism spectrum also struggle with sensory issues. Let me illustrate by telling you about my son. He’s got super senses. This boy can smell unopened play-doh, sealed in a plastic bag, from across the room. He can taste the difference between two different brands of applewood smoked bacon. And he can hear the smallest sounds and they sometimes really worry him.
When he was a baby, I had to be really careful how I picked him up and held him because if I was not very gentle, he would cry. Currently, he struggles because he feels the dust in the air, and it can make him want to gag or cough when the rest of us would not be bothered.
These heightened emotions can make life challenging. Imagine the touch of a hug being so overwhelming that you avoid touching people. And the morning sunlight is so bright that it gives you an instant headache every morning. Imagine the noise of a lunchroom full of elementary school children being so overwhelming that you would rather pretend you are sick and stay home in bed all day rather than face it. And the smells of each person’s lunch being so strong, that blended together, the lunchroom is a nauseating nightmare.
It’s Hard to Handle
Do you function at your best when you are exhausted or overwhelmed? I know I don’t. For that reason, I have a personal theory that some HFASD behaviors may be due to exhaustion. I know for a fact that any behaviors would be stronger with overwhelm in the picture. We have very often needed to leave an event when my son got overwhelmed, by no fault of his own. There are just so many things in life that are a real challenge for you when you are on the spectrum.
That said, I often need to seek ways to cope with these behaviors. I don’t know about you, but for us, my son loves to make loud and repeated sounds when he needs to calm down. He says he’s being a racecar engine. But for me, it can really stress me out.
He will also repeat himself…. a lot. It’s a normal autistic trait. They call it “persevering.” And I’ve been known to have anxiety attacks when he gets stuck on a subject or sound that is especially challenging for me to handle.
Sometimes even his special interests give me stress. I will never forget when he was four and five, how obsessed he was with smoke alarms. He watched them on YouTube, and made his personal smoke alarm collection beep for as long as you’d let him. I had to get a prescription at that point. It was insane. But most of his special interests aren’t that intense.
How to Cope?
My husband asked me once how I take it. He works a lot, and most of the childcare falls to me. My coping mechanisms started when my son was only a few weeks old. He had colic, a condition where a baby will cry for hours on end with no discernible cause. And my husband traveled a lot during that time. It was really hard!!
One day I decided I needed to “Fake it till you make it” or “Fake it till you feel it.” I still use that mantra. I need a timeout when I am truly irritated. But when the irritation is small, I just pretend it doesn’t bother me for as long as I can. And sometimes that trick works, sometimes it doesn’t. As my son gets older, I find that honesty will help keep the peace better than pretending. But here are a few more tips I use.””
“Keep Calm” Tips
1. I remind myself that this is not intentional behavior. It is just his way of coping with the world. Keeping myself focused on his perspective gives me greater love. Love is a great tool for keeping calm.
2. I use deep breathing techniques to stay calm.
3. Meditation is great for keeping tension at bay.
4. Daily Scripture study keeps me focused on what really matters. The Lord gives me strength and patience—quite literally.
5. I let him have time and space to be himself. It helps us both to have time spent doing our own thing. He will just be in the next room, but it’s often enough.
6. I give myself regular “me” time. That can be going to the store alone, getting some pampering, or just reading a book in a quiet room while my son watches a movie.
7. I try not to overschedule the family. Having time to decompress is important for all of us.
I am not perfect. But I’m trying. And I hope these tips can help you too. Knowing how life works for these sweet souls helped me a lot when trying to find patience. Truly, it’s not my child’s fault if I am getting annoyed. He is just being the kid he always is. I’m a grown-up, and it’s my job to help him have the best childhood possible.
This article was previously published on Abby’s page on Patheos.com.
Abby is capable and caring. She is learning more about Autism and parenthood every day. Having completed training to be an RBT (Registered Behavior Technician) for ABA therapy she is beginning to understand her son. And even though she is the first to admit she makes a lot of mistakes, she is so grateful to be on this journey. She comes from a family with many autistic members. She invites us to join her, as she shares her adventures. She wishes to emphasize that Autism is a difference not a defect. If you or a family member have autism, Abby wants you to know that the challenges can be overcome, and there are blessings in autism. You or your loved one are not sick or broken. Together we will teach the world this new language.