So my last blog dealt with introducing sensory processing disorder and the difficulties children who have it face in daily life. However, although I conveyed the essence of the disorder, I would like to take a moment to talk about a result of SPD that your children may or may not experience. Anxiety.
It is only natural to consider that if a child experiences a world too stimulating that they would feel a bit uneasy (to put it lightly.) In fact, it is quite common among the autism community for people to have multiple diagnoses. Whether that is because of the DSM’s lack of detail or the diagnosis-happy doctors, each source of research has its own explanation. But all too often therapists realize that although what is in ink and paper is classifiable it is not definitive.
Anxiety comes in many forms (some people even believe eating disorders to be a form of anxiety) and it is no wonder that a child acclimating themselves to a world that moves too fast will have difficulty with that process. Here, I will outline anxiety. But it is incredibly important to note that because autism spectrum disorder is expressed individually, some children may express behaviors that seem like anxiety but in reality are behaviors that stem from autism. It falls along the people closest to the child to identify the environmental and internal stressors a child may posses, and from there conclude whether it is actually anxiety or something else entirely.
Not too long ago, anxiety was seen as a “yuppie” disease (you can thank one of my college professors for that term.) Anxiety was temporary. Anxiety was for those who had experienced trauma and those who were anxious were just deemed “delicate.” In today’s world we are more aware of the impact anxiety can play on an individual’s life. Anxiety is, in my understanding, a CONSTANT state of mind. For many people it comes in the form of doubt.
Do I really think I can do well on that test? I barely studied. Sure my professor says I’m prepared and smart enough…but he’s probably just saying that so I can stop bothering him. God, I’m such a pain.
In other instances, anxiety can come when faced with something novel or frightening. Of course, everyone has experienced something LIKE this in the past. However, it is rare to meet people on the street who see everything as novel and frightening (perhaps that’s because those who DO see the world in this way are holed on up in their homes.) But it is this perception of the world that many children with autism carry with them. One way to look at this is as if the neurotypical population and those with autism are “tuned in” to a different frequency. I am tuned into the faster, shorter, squigglier wavelengths while my clients may only be able to digest smoother and slower wavelengths. We’re forcing people who are used to walking a straight line to take a turn.
The visible, audible, tangible world can be incredibly confusing to those who are experiencing a world at this different wavelength. And in our insistence to make those with ASD part of our world we may sometimes forget that it might be too much (how much is too much is again, for you, your child, and your child’s therapists to decide.) We’re throwing them into downtown Miami without knowing a lick of Spanish. Naturally, these children will begin to become nervous in the newfound territory. And left long enough in a dizzying world without comfort people tend to exhibit anxiety. Jumpiness, increased irritability and fatigue…the list continues. One quality that is quite common is worrying about the tasks throughout the day.
“What are we going to do today? And after that? And after that? And after that? Then what comes next? Will we eat after that? Are you sure? You’re sure there’s going to be chips because one time there wasn’t.”
Worrying just about what you’re going to do, then, makes it much more difficult to actually work on those things. For instance, if you hate talking to people but you know that if you don’t your taxes won’t be filed, you’re probably going to hold off on going into H&R block as long as possible until you don’t have any other choice but doing it. For many children with autism they thankfully don’t have to worry about taxes and curt bankers. But they might be anxious about other aspects of their lives. Transitions, or moving from one task to another whether that is physical or mental, are often difficult. So when someone is forcing that child to go from the classroom to the lunchroom, or from the lunchroom back to the classroom it might be difficult to cope with the sudden change. A child may detest these changes and suggest alternatives or make excuses why they can’t go to lunch and why they won’t get up from their seats.
Now, I’m not saying give into these protests and excuses. But addressing a child’s anxiety is important. If someone is continually forced to do something they don’t want to do it may cause negative coping mechanisms or a negative outlook on their problems. Instead, it is important to address what is making your child anxious. Ask them to describe their feelings (if they are verbal enough), or point to emotion boards for help understanding. From there, decide if this is something in the environment that can be fixed (a flickering bulb in the hallway to lunch being replaced, or a different route that cuts out going down a hallway with a humming a/c unit.) Or it may be time for your child to learn a positive coping skill (having a coat or jacket that they find comforting, or taking deep breaths and looking forward to the lunch they get to have once they get to the lunch room.) Working with children who have autism as well as anxiety requires a bit more consideration than just deep breaths. Sometimes they don’t understand why they can’t eat lunch in the classroom. It may require more explanation, modeling, and perhaps a little bit of patience on your side, parents.
Anxiety is another way to look at the world that requires a little more preparation than a normal state of mind. It does not mean your child will always be afraid of a deviation of schedule or always need to be reminded to take deep breaths and meditate. But being aware of how stressful it may be for children to acclimate to a dizzying world is important. It is integral in healthy integration to address such anxiety and any doubts or fears a child may have.