A Guide to Effective Self Care, for People on the Autism Spectrum

Graphic: W+G Creative
Until my early thirties, I spent much of life feeling like an overheated computer. I pushed myself into social situations and resented people for stretching the limits of how much human interaction I could tolerate. That social stress, combined with a demanding schedule that kept me in a constant state of fight-or-flight mode, often left me feeling angry.

Then I was diagnosed with autism, which the the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) calls autism spectrum disorder (ASD). (For me , along with a number of other autistic people and advocates, the classification of "disorder" doesn't resonate, as it adds a negative connotation to the condition.)

Finally, I began understanding why I experienced so many of my feelings and reactions: “Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are typically more prone to sensory overwhelm,” says Bonnie Ivers, PsyD, the clinical director at the Regional Center of Orange County, a nonprofit that secures services for people with developmental disabilities. “Their neurological systems are not developed in the same way as those without the condition of ASD.”

With this context of how my brain operates, I was better able to both give myself grace and practice self care that supports my specific needs as an autistic person. For example, because my nervous system is more sensitive than many people who are neurotypical, I’ve learned that I need more time to recharge by myself than I previously realized. This often means not answering texts or emails immediately. It also means physically stopping what I’m doing to breathe when an emotional meltdown is coming on. It means not judging myself when my ability to empathize shuts down. And it means understanding that I can’t skip meals or lose sleep and still feel fine, like so many others who aren't autistic can.

After spending so long trying to operate in the ways a neurotypical person might, it’s been empowering to take charge of my mental health and give myself what I need as an autistic person.

Learning how to practice autism-supportive self care has been a process for me, given that self-care advice is often geared toward neurotypical people. To get clearer on the best ways to fill my own cup, take care of myself, and embrace my neurodiversity—and how other autistic folks might also practice effective self care—I spoke with autistic people and to mental-health professionals who work with the community.

7 effective ways to practice autism-supportive self care

1. Find a practice that helps you de-stress—and do it daily

Because of the sensory sensitivities autism can entail, it may be helpful to learn a practice you can do at any time to calm your nervous system and prevent overwhelm. Victoria Jones, a teacher in Texas, learned yoga from YouTube and now does it for 15 minutes every morning in her living room.

“Being autistic makes me prone to either melting down or shutting down when I’m extremely overwhelmed, so I use yoga to help manage my stress and cope with challenges.” —Victoria Jones, teacher

“Being autistic makes me prone to either melting down or shutting down when I’m extremely overwhelmed, so I use yoga to help manage my stress and cope with challenges,” says Jones. “The stretching makes my body feel amazing, and the deep-breathing techniques help to quiet my mind. When done at home, it’s an easy and inexpensive way to help cope with the stress of living in a neurotypical world.”

Marriage and family therapist Ariel Landrum, LMFT, adds that movement practices like dance and yoga “allow autistic individuals to develop a routine of setting aside time to regulate their bodies.” Mindfulness practices such as meditation, deep breathing, and muscle relaxation can also be helpful ways for managing stress or anxiety, particularly when done as a preventative measure rather than a reactive one, says Dr. Ivers.

2. Keep calming items with you in tense moments

To handle working with a difficult co-worker, Jamie Evan Bichelman, a Boston-based mental-health counselor and disability-rights advocate, always keeps a glass of ice water with him. “Every time I felt severe anxiety and a meltdown approaching during my meetings with this person, I'd take a sip of the ice-cold water,” he says. “After the end of the meeting, I'd go to the sink and splash cold water on my face and neck.”

He also kept in his hand a small, silent fidget device—a pen or a magnetic toy small enough to go undetected and durable enough not to break if squeezed tightly. “There is something incredibly powerful and symbolic in tightening your hands into a fist, then passionately letting go,” says Bichelman, “It’s as if to remind yourself: This person does not have the power to induce anger in me.”

3. Spend time away from social media

Avoiding social media can certainly be helpful for anyone, but it’s especially impactful for the intersection of autism and practicing self care. With autism, encountering negative and potentially ableist words on their feeds can exacerbate an existing state of overwhelm or kick-start one.

“There is a remarkable amount of clarity that one begins to feel when they remove the things designed to upset and engage them on social media,” says Bichelman. “I simply cannot use Twitter without doomscrolling—or going down the rabbit hole and finding incendiary tweets that insult my very existence.” For Bichelman, that meant removing the app from his phone entirely. For others, it may mean setting up daily usage limits.

4. Set alarms beyond your morning wake-up

Because many people with autism have intense passions and interests, they can sometimes enter into a state of “hyperfocus,” where they lose awareness of important basic tasks like eating and sleeping, Landrum says. Research defines hyperfocus as the "intense mental concentration fixated on one thought pattern at a time to the exclusion of everything else, including one’s own feelings."

“Many autistic clients have reported that the tool that has often allowed them to thrive is that of an alarm,” Landrum says—but not just as a wake-up call. Setting alarms to brush teeth, take a shower, and eat lunch are also helpful. As are task apps, like Habitica, which Landrum recommends for those who struggle to stick to their daily routines. By using these simple tools, she says, folks with ASD “do not miss essential activities of daily living and do not fall into hyperfocus.”

5. Learn to socialize on your own terms

“Our neurotypical world frequently emphasizes socializing and can really make people feel negatively if they prefer spending time by themselves,” says Daniel Marston, PhD, a psychologist specializing in autism. “Autism often carries with it a real preference for being alone. Taking many experiences to get comfortable with spending time alone is worth the effort and can really help someone with autism feel much better about their differences.”

Complete isolation isn’t healthy, either, though, for folks with autism aiming to practice self care. Some autistic people prefer one-on-one interactions to larger gatherings. For Emily Owen, an operations manager for an accessibility company in Wales, it's easier for her to navigate social gatherings by bringing someone she’s close with and leaving time in her schedule to decompress after the event.

“A massive part of self care for me has been learning what my socializing limits are [as someone with autism], accepting them, and working with them, not against them.” —Emily Owen, operations manager

“I used to compare myself to other people and wonder why I would feel so drained when attempting to keep up with their levels of socializing,” she says. “A massive part of self care for me has been learning what my socializing limits are, accepting them, and working with them—not against them.”

Landrum agrees that to avoid emotional meltdowns and even cultivate a social routine that constitutes self care, it’s important to always includes breaks. “Every day should have time intentionally set aside to be with oneself," she says. "A predictable schedule will help an autistic person feel regulated, but there will be days when unexpected things happen. Therefore, taking breaks will allow time to self-regulate and implement ways to adjust to the change in routine.”

6. Have a plan when overstimulation is unavoidable

Although it’s often most effective to remove yourself from an overstimulating situation, that's not always possible. In those scenarios, it’s helpful to have a mantra or affirmation to distract yourself from sensory input, says Dr. Marston.

“This could be familiar lines from movies or just the person repeating to themselves, ‘This is okay. I can get through this,’" he says. “It takes some practice, but concentrating on this can be very helpful.”

Another way to cope in moments of unavoidable overwhelm is to bring your attention to your senses, which can help you ground yourself in the present moment. “Grounding methods, combined with continuous mindfulness practices help me maintain my calm center,” says Alexa Donnelly, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in autism. She recommends thinking about “five things I can see, four things I can touch, three things I can hear, two things I can smell, and one thing I can taste.”

7. Have compassion for yourself

If it feels difficult for you to function in certain settings, avoid blaming yourself and recognize that the world was not set up to accommodate those who are neurodiverse.

“The first thing I've cultivated is acceptance toward the upsetting realization that your family, close friends, or school counselors failed to adequately prepare you, accommodate you, or even remotely teach you lessons that would benefit you as an emerging adult,” says Bichelman. “They failed to do their job—they failed you—but that doesn't mean you are a failure. Rather, you're extraordinary for adapting to a world unkind, unaccommodating, untrained, uneducated, and unwilling to adapt to your needs.”

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