Helping a Person on the Autism Spectrum Manage Their Anxiety

by Karen Savlov

“I cannot ‘come back’ and defend myself. I cannot respond to others. This is scary, beyond scary. It is terrifying. Sometimes the words seem to be accessible, but as I open my mouth they disappear. In the presence of another, I instantly forget what I was going to say. This happens over and over. I want to talk, but I forget what to talk about. It feels like I am a blank slate. It petrifies me. People on the ‘outside’ expect me to talk. What am I going to do? Sometimes I watch very carefully to see what would be a good answer and give them back what they want. I am good at this. I feel this is the only way to survive. Survival is becoming my middle name. Who would ever understand that I am a blank slate? When I am alone I am not blank, but in the presence of others, I am. I am a blank slate walking around in a person’s body. Please help me. This is too much for me to know. Who will listen to my burden?”

Let us make sense out of this person on the autism spectrum’s experience. We can only deduce what is going on within him. He seems to be telling us he has no ability to respond to others and this scares him very much. He says to wants to talk, but in the presence of others, he goes blank. By himself, he is not blank, can form ideas, and probably has feelings. Finally, he feels burdened by this experience and there is a sense of hopelessness and desperation in his writing. We can understand this experience as a lack of freewill and control over his environment.

This person is describing the experience of not being able to express himself as he sees others do. It is a tortuous experience, which he seems to lack the ability to change on his own. I believe it is important to note that this phenomenon is probably going on with others with autism spectrum disorders as well. He is describing how relationships cause him tremendous anxiety and cause him to collapse. He is not ‘falling apart’ because he wants to, but because of his anxiety when in relationship to others.

How can we help this person who seems to collapse when in relationship to people? Some steps that may be helpful for the person with an autism spectrum disorder and yourself are

1) recognize that he has the potential to communicate, but the presence of another makes him feel too anxious and he ‘goes blank’ or forgets what is on his mind,

2) he is not going blank because he is willful or difficult,

3) help him to understand that you understand his predicament,

4) help him to become more comfortable with others including you. Until his anxiety is under control he will continue to go blank and finally

5) give him the time and space to talk. Create opportunities for the two of you to dialogue.

Anxiety is something that people on the spectrum are always trying to manage. We need to put ourselves in their shoes. If they lack self-will and dissociate in the presence of others, which creates an inability to communicate their needs than their daily existence will be one of coping and anxiety management. People in general remain anxious when they do not have a way to self-regulate. ‘Neurotypical’ people talk about their problems with others and hopefully find new solutions to manage a given situation or their anxiety in general. Because people on the autism spectrum do not have the ability to communicate their feelings, we have to find other methods to help them to self-regulate.

What can we specifically do to help the individual with an autism spectrum disorder who is anxious? There is not an easy answer, but some thoughts to consider:

1) talking about anxiety in general may be helpful. If the child is nonverbal, speak about how he might be anxious doing the specific thing he is doing. If he does have words, ask him either how he is feeling or interpret what his anxiety might be like. Let him respond to you. It is important to not expect that he will be able to speak about his anxiety, but at least allow this to be part of the discussion between the two of you. By doing this he is acknowledged for how he is feeling and hopefully in turn feels understood,

2) make room for the discussion of anxiety as part of the dialogue,

3) let him have the time he needs to warm up to new situations and not be pressured to comply to others’ time frames and

4) work on developing a relationship with him that allows for mutuality, dialogue and direct expression of feelings.

Copyright Karen Savlov

Related Articles:

Complete List of All Articles on Autism Spectrum Directory

Reduce Stress by Changing Perspectives

How to Overcome Worrying and Anxiety

SOLUTION CHART for Social and Communication Difficulties for People on the Autism Spectrum

Techniques To Use When Helping the Person on the Autism Spectrum Manage Their Anger And Rage

Growing up with Asperger’s in Retrospect

Steps to Serenity

How to Let Go and Let God



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