Anxiety and Normality: Coping with Autism

By Wes Washington (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
To gain insight in the complex world of “disabilities” and “special education” can be difficult, and it seems rare that clear perspectives to help us navigate these treacherous waters is published. Thankfully, every now and then such a perspective comes along: here’s an insightful interview on autism, entitled “A First-Person Perspective on Anxiety and Autism” by Dr. Dan Peters on Psychology Today.

What I found particularly insightful in this interview of an adult on the spectrum, Dr. Catharine Alvarez, is her articulation of the link between anxiety and autism. She frames this as an issue of the disjoint created between a societal conception of “normality” and the demand for conformity:

Promoting acceptance means looking for ways that society can include autistic people as they are instead of trying to fit autistic people into society by insisting that they be “less autistic.”

As she notes, our society is well aware of autism these days, so the issue for advocacy is less of building awareness, and more about including people with autism as they are.

Going back to the idea of anxiety and its link to autism, she notes that:

…anxiety can be secondary to autism because sensory overwhelm and negative social experiences can lead us to develop anxiety about certain environments and situations, but the interaction goes the other way as well. Anxiety can lead to avoidance of experiences that could be social learning opportunities for children and adults on the autism spectrum, and anxiety can make autistic people more rigid, more dependent on routine, and can make it more difficult to regulate our emotions.

What fascinates me about this is that she points to a clear opportunity for improvement of learning environments, whether for those with autism or otherwise: seek to reduce anxiety by creating environments of psychological and physical safety.

In noting the increase in rates of diagnosis of autism, Alvarez points to the commonality between the experiences of those with autism and those who are “normal”:

I see the increase in diagnosis as a result of describing autism as a set of behaviors that are actually common coping behaviors that any human being will exhibit under stress.  Social withdrawal, low eye contact, rigid insistence on routine, repetitive behaviors…all of these are basic human attempts to cope with an overwhelming environment (Bold added).

I can relate well to this, having been painfully shy and self-conscious for many of my formative years. I still have to consciously force myself to meet other people’s eyes in social situations, as I can get easily overwhelmed in unstructured environments or situations, especially ones with a lot of noise.

However, as Alvarez points out in this next quote, by making such a personal connection, I must also be aware of the reality that no matter how difficult certain situations or environments may be for me, I am not someone with autism, and that what I may consider to be “normal” may be unfathomably difficult for someone else:

Acceptance requires people to acknowledge that a situation can be extremely anxiety provoking for an autistic person even if it would not be a problem for most people. Acceptance means understanding that behaviors like harmless stims, reduced eye contact, and a need for routine are ways that autistic people cope with anxiety. I think your recommendation to honor the needs of autistic kids is so helpful because it allows them to take the lead in managing what they can handle. All children need a zone of safety that they can retreat to and then venture out again to explore and learn when they are feeling calm and open to learning (Bold added).

This is an incredible insight. It made me think of a student with autism I currently work with. He doesn’t exhibit the extreme stereotypical behaviors of autism, but has a few subtle signs of repetitive behavior in the classroom. And this little insight made me realize that those moments when he is exhibiting those behaviors could be pointing to moments of anxiety—an anxiety that I can help alleviate if I can determine its source.

That was a tangible insight that aided me in understanding someone with autism. Here’s another great insight:

For any child who is a literal thinker, clear facts and explanations may be a better choice. For example, it would have helped me very much to learn early on about emotions and the sensations they cause in our bodies. For a long time, I was not even reliably able to discern when I was experiencing anxiety. I thought there was something physically wrong with me. Using emotion words, talking about how emotions feel in our bodies, and encouraging children to notice and talk about these sensations and feelings can go a long way toward developing social skills and cognitive empathy skills.

We often neglect to teach children how to become self-aware of things we might take for granted, even though it can be evident that even many adults aren’t aware of them. For example, are you aware when you are getting angry? What signs notify you that you have been triggered? I know that I get visibly tense, my shoulders get tight, and I look down. By becoming aware of this, I am more likely to be able to control my anger and make a conscious choice about how I react and cope with it. But how many adults have you known who fly off the handle and have difficulty restraining themselves, damaging relationships and their own well-being in the process? Teaching children this self-awareness and the language to discuss their emotions is critical.

We have to understand ourselves before we can begin to understand others.

I think acceptance of autism can go a long way toward alleviating some of the anxiety because when we feel accepted as we are, we worry less about trying to pass for normal. Acceptance is permission to do what we need to do in order to feel comfortable expanding the range of where we can go and what we can do. (Bold added)

What does it mean to be “normal”? When we expand our notions of what normality means, perhaps we might find that we can better understand people with different manners of coping with anxiety. By accepting these differences, we can include these others rather than exclude them.

If that sounds vague, let me bring it back to the classroom. Every now and then a middle school teacher may encounter a child who copes with anxiety by crawling around on the floor or making strange sounds or talking to herself. While this can seem strange at that age, consider what that child may be coping with. By accepting that she is attempting to make a comfortable space for herself, maybe we can begin to understand what she might be feeling anxious about, and then—only then—maybe we can begin to help her.

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