We all have coping mechanisms can help us deal with overwhelming or stressful situations. After being diagnosed with aspergers I was told that learning coping skills can help me to avoid meltdowns. But where do we get these coping skills? What works for one person won’t work for everyone. Trying to figure out what would work for me was and continues to be an ongoing challenge. Sometimes I just don’t have the energy to employ any skills. Each autistic person is unique and has his or her own difficulties. Since each of us will be affected differently by various situations, circumstances, or triggers, no single person can write one comprehensive list that will help everyone. But it’s something I get asked about a lot, especially by parents of autistic children. The following coping skills have helped me.
1) I try to reduce over-stimulation and sensory overload by wearing headphones, avoiding places with bright florescent lights whenever possible, cutting down on overstimulating foods and beverages, being honest with myself and others about how much socializing I can handle, turning off the television/computer/smartphone when I need to, planning in advance whenever possible, cutting down on phone calls, and limiting time spent with people who trigger me.
2) I have figured out relaxing activities that help me feel less stressed. I try to do them regularly to prevent stress as well. This way I will be in a better frame of mind to cope with stressful situations that will inevitably present themselves. It may help to engage in these relaxing activities whenever you can, not just after you feel stressed and need to decompress. I have become a much more relaxed person by allowing myself to engage in relaxing things daily such as coloring, doing puzzles, and playing with sand.
3) As much as is humanly possible I try to reserve my energy for things that matter. I try to maintain the habit of taking an inventory of the things I do (and people I spend time with) and how they affect me, cutting out the unnecessary things/people that cause me the most stress and frustration, and doing more of the things that make me feel good. I understand that some autistic people are not able to do this or don’t find it helpful, but it helps me a great deal. I can tell because when I don’t do this for a while, I either shut down or melt down or experience a burnout that results in my eventually going back to this habit.
4) I highly recommend carrying stimming toys or security objects with you if they help you relax. My life has become much easier after accepting that stimming is part of my life and deciding that I don’t care what other people in public might think about me. I carry a small stuffed animal with me to my doctor appointments, because doctor appointments often stress me out to the point of a meltdown. If someone looks at me funny in the waiting room because I’m a 35-year-old woman and am petting my stuffed hedgehog, I just laugh to myself and think that they would probably rather watch me pet a stuffed animal than see me have an anxiety attack or a meltdown while I’m waiting.
5) Figure out if you do better going places alone or with a friend/family member. I’ve learned that having a friend or family member go with me to stressful doctor appointments actually makes things worse. When I have my mom sitting next to me asking me questions or trying to make small talk, I’m consumed not only with my stress of being at the doctor but also with the additional stress of trying not to snap at her while trying to make small talk. Other people enjoy having someone to talk to because they find the conversation distracting and relaxing. Be honest with yourself and your loved ones about whether having them go with you is helpful or not.
6) I like to try different distraction techniques. You can do different things like counting breaths, reciting something in your head, or playing mental games with letters or words, etc. If I find myself growing impatient or overwhelmed while waiting in the pharmacy line, for example, I will sometimes have good luck with distracting myself by singing a song in my head or making up a game. One game I like is to try to think of a word that begins with each letter of the alphabet, like A apple, B banana, C cat, D dog, E elephant, etc. Other times I will count floor tiles. One of my friends memorized a long poem that he recites in his head while he is waiting in line. If you can find a way to distract yourself mentally then the situation sometimes becomes more tolerable.
7) I will try to re-frame a situation or emotion in my mind. In other words, try to put a positive spin on a negative situation. This isn’t always possible but sometimes helps me. For example, this morning I woke up late and felt like I wouldn’t get anything done. The thought that was consuming my mind was “Today is going to be so stressful because I overslept. I’m never going to get everything done.” After about half an hour of this, I decided that I was wasting even more time with this negative thinking, and I was working myself up toward shutting down completely. I was able to re-frame my thinking by telling myself “I will get as much done as I can.” I stopped beating myself up for sleeping too late by telling myself “I probably needed the extra sleep.” I often remind myself that not everything is an emergency. Sometimes I have to admit that I am being a drama queen and allowing negative thinking to ruin my whole day. I am not always able to re-frame the situation or change how I am feeling, but I’m getting better about trying to do this before the negativity escalates into a meltdown or shutdown. This is a technique that takes LOTS of practice, and I know it doesn’t work for everyone.
8) Try to step away from what I refer to as a “communication crisis” until you can formulate a proper response. If you have problems with communication and impulse control problems like I do, this is a hard one but it has helped me. I have difficulty coping when someone is criticizing with me, trying to argue with me, giving me too many things to think about at once, or making me feel bad. It’s easy to get into an argument with a loved one, become insulted by a coworker, or react to what a boss says in a negative way. When I become stressed in a conversation, I tend to react harshly even if the reaction isn’t warranted. It is helpful for me to take the time to regain my composure, figure out what is really being said and how I should properly respond, and then step back in to the conversation. This is not always possible, but sometimes it is. For example, if my boss calls me or has me come to his office to discuss several things I am doing wrong, I am likely to feel on the defensive and might react in a way that will make me be without a job. Instead of reacting right away, I will try to say something like “It would be helpful if you give me some time to digest what you’ve said. Can we meet again tomorrow (or later) to finish this conversation?” This way I can think through the criticisms, maybe ask a trusted friend if I am overreacting, or try to come up with the best calm way to address what my boss has said. Likewise, I will try to step out of a heated conversation with family members in order to calm down, compose myself, and discuss the issue when I am not feeling overwhelmed with so many emotions. One thing I love about email and the internet is that I can choose to reply later; replying immediately to an email or message on social media is usually a bad idea for me if I’m feeling overwhelmed.
9) One of the best things I have learned is to say no. We all have our limits on how much we can cope with. Some days I will be able to cope with a lot and handle many tasks, while other days I can barely cope with the basic things I have to do to survive. I tend to be too nice and will say yes to many requests. Then I feel overwhelmed later and get resentful at the people I said yes to, but it’s really my own fault for taking on more than I could handle. I often have to remind myself: There is no shame in saying no to the neighbor who asks you to babysit their kid, or saying no to the boss who asks if you can come in on your day off, or saying no to an invitation to a social function. My life is much easier if I say no sometimes. The fewer things I have to cope with, the better I’m able to cope with the things that must be done.
10) Get comfortable with the idea that there is no shame in asking for help. This is the hardest one for me. I like to think I’m a fairly smart person, but there are some things that I can’t figure out on my own no matter how many hours I spend trying to learn. A few years ago I had to ask for help with preparing my taxes; after someone taught me to use the tax software, I was able to do it myself. Some things I never seem to get any better at and will probably always need to ask for help with. For example, I can’t drive. If I have to go somewhere, I either have to ask a family member or call a taxi. In the past couple of years I’ve grown more comfortable with accepting that I will need help sometimes. Everyone needs help sometimes, and it’s better to ask for help than to suffer silently.
Do you have any other coping skills that have helped you? Feel free to share what works for you and what doesn’t.