Managing Stress through Barriers, Positivity and Mindfulness: An autistics lived experience

A lived experience by

Liam Rhodes


Autism and stress are something that are well-established to cause meltdowns in autistics and, sometimes, outright burnout – especially if the stress isn’t handled correctly.

I will always say as someone who is both autistic and works in the field, it is important to add that if you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism. We are not all the same. It’s therefore important to realise that we have different tolerance levels to stress, and, like everyone else, we respond to it differently depending on where we are on the spectrum and also our personalities.

With those caveats in mind, I want to share my own lived experience. It’s not necessarily for just those with autism: It can be useful for people with ADHD, ADD and indeed those who are neurotypical. It can be useful for those who suffer with anxiety problems. It can be useful for those of us who are just stressed and consider themselves to be otherwise typical.

Given that my undergraduate degree is in counselling psychology, I’ll add that not everything works for everyone. We have to find our own paths and approaches; however, I found that reading advice from people who have experienced high-levels of stress and anxiety and learnt how to deal with it can be helpful.

Anyone reading this can understand what stress and, most likely, anxiety, feel like. I understand how it feels to be so anxious that your mind literally separates from your body: I once had a complete depersonalisation experience, in which my friend had taken me to sit around a lake when she knew that I was anxious. It was lovely of her, and she was incredibly supportive. However, the anxiety had taken control.

We have two nervous systems: The sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. When we become anxious, our body switches to the parasympathetic nervous system, which is when fight or flight takes over and we become panicked. It’s important to recognise this because it’s vitally important that we manage stress before that happens. Sometimes, in autistics, it’s not possible. Sometimes, we just become totally overwhelmed and have meltdowns.

But as I’ve grown to understand stress management and indeed have been in highly stressful situations, I’ve become wiser as to what mostly works for me.

Here’s how I manage my stress.


* See the positive in each setback – re-frame your thinking

You might have heard the term “there are people who can find the negative in every positive”. You might not have heard about finding the positive in the negative.

Recently, my car’s transmission failed due to a fault and I can’t currently afford to replace it. It failed in my work’s car park. I was incredibly angered by it and I am still frustrated that I don’t have a car – especially as someone whose autistic sensitivities include loud noises and

my personal space being avoided. This makes public transport anathema to me. However, a concept in neuropsychology called neuroplasticity is now evidenced. It shows that we reframe our thoughts and make the pathways in our minds more active and likely to engage in that thought process.

In stressful environments, where you might feel like a failure that you haven’t had enough time to get things done, or because a project has failed, where home life isn’t easy and you’ve had an argument – whatever it is. Always find the positive. Respectively, it might be that you might need to establish more boundaries (more on that later), it might teach you something about time management (also more on that later), or it might show you that someone’s true feelings – behind the anger – might have been exposed.

There is meaning in the phrase when someone is trying to calm you down and they say: “But nobody died.” I mean, it really could be worse – in so many situations that we get stressed about in daily life. There’s also meaning in the quote in the song ‘Everybody’s Free’ by Baz Lurhmann when he says: “Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind – the kind that blindsides you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.” Always try to keep some perspective.


* Meditate, use grounding techniques, or be mindful

There are those of us – many people, in fact, including me – who say that they can’t meditate. I found useful meditations in Adyshanti’s work (YouTube has plenty of his meditations). It was the only person with whom I “got on” when listening to, so keep looking if you haven’t found it yet.

I’m generally not a fan of Eckart Tolle’s work, but I once listened to all of his books and this particular quote really stuck with me: “Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry – all forms of fear – are caused by too much future and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms. of non-forgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.”

Always try to be present in the moment of enjoyable times. It helps you in those times that are less enjoyable because you can reflect on those memories.

Grounding techniques are part of mindfulness. Mindfulness can be practiced in every day situations. You can do it by simply feeling the sensations of your body on your chair – i.e. feeling the contact of your back, behind, arms and legs on a chair. Become aware of it. Become aware of your walking. Become aware of those special moments by grounding yourself in them – and always do that.


* Try to get enough sleep

This can’t be stressed (forgive the wordplay) enough.

The effects of sleep deprivation not only include your usual tiredness and fatigue, but they can an make you more prone to stressful situations and the anxiety that comes alongside them. Sleep deprivation also leads to a lot of other things that you don’t want happening: An over-reliance on caffeine, an inability to generally look after yourself properly because your appetite becomes so strong that you will eat almost anything providing that it’s quick and easy, and a lack of focus in terms of operating heavy machinery and driving, meaning you could cause an accident.


* Exercise

I used to be a keen runner in my 20s, but as a consequence of flat feet, I ended up with bursitis and arthritis in both big toes. The point I say this is that although my options for exercise are limited, I am still able to engage in it – whether by using a cross-trainer and “driving with my heel”, an exercise bike or weight-lifting for cardio purposes. Exercise is proven to release stress-busting endorphins.

Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise per day. It doesn’t matter whether you’re walking or engaging in mild to moderate cardiovascular activity – all of it will help relieve stress.

* Eat a balanced diet, but make it easy

As an autistic and someone who is very busy, I don’t find it easy to find the time to cook as often as I’d like (not properly, anyway).


* Create a routine that works for you and manage your time

Whether we work, volunteer, study, care for someone, or can’t do any due to disability, routine is still key. It’s a really important element of mental health – and especially in autistics because routine becomes something on which we rely for comfort – that it cannot be ignored.

Make sure you get up at the same time every day, as I referenced in my first point. Take a shower, make breakfast, brush your teeth – whatever order. Relax. Make time in a morning because this is the time that sets you up for the rest of the day. If you’re too stressed out by struggling to rush out in a morning, then you are already stressed before you’ve left the house. It’s really important that you get up that extra fifteen minutes before you set the alarm to snooze so you get time to do things slowly instead of really stressing yourself out.

At work, study, volunteering, etc., wherever you can, use time-blocking in your daily diary. Use a task-list; whatever works for you. I find this really helpful. If you dedicate parts of your day to certain activities, then you’ll be able to manage those tasks a lot more efficiently and effectively.

Always make time for “slack”, which is the part of the day (around one hour) that you are free to do anything that might crop up that day. When you’re in a busy working environment, studying or volunteering, or indeed taking care of someone, you need this flexibility.

If you are struggling with stress and anxiety – especially if it has lasted, or your GP agrees that it will likely last for longer than twelve months – you are within your rights at your place of employment to ask to make these sorts of reasonable adjustments.

It’s also important in all of these activities that when too much pressure is put on you, you learn how to say no – or to use work language properly and protect your own stress levels. If your manager gives you something and you panic that you need to do it immediately despite your day being full, simply ask: “Thanks. When do you need this by?” If the answer is “today”, reprioritise your tasks accordingly, and do inform them that something else will have to take a hit and clear that with them.

When things are put on you all of the time, then that is the time to have a conversation with your line manager about this, or, if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, involving your Union (if you are a member) or seeking advice from an Employee Assistance Programme, if you have one, or your HR Department. Look at your internal documentation for guidance on this.

* Actively make your life as easy as possible

Supermarkets are also stressful for me due to the noise and queuing, especially given the current climate with COVID-19. Even though I’m exempt from wearing a face mask due to my autism, I try to do it because I want to join in protecting others. You might not be able to do that, and indeed there have been occasions where I have not been able to. And I’m sure, like me, you’ve then been absolutely mortified when people stare or even shout at you.

I keep a lot of frozen vegetables and fruits (for cooking and smoothies respectively) and I do my shopping online. This means I get it delivered and I don’t have to worry about cooking for a long time.

Some of you might enjoy cooking. Sadly I don’t enjoy it and I’m really not great at it.

* Make time for your needs and time

“Time that you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” – Bertrand Russell

This is really important. Whatever it is you like doing: Watching Netflix, reading, listening to music/podcasts/audiobooks, knitting, stamp-collecting, spending time with your pets – it doesn’t matter. Make sure you dedicate at least one hour of each day to your needs only. You will be amazed at the difference that this makes to resilience.

* Make time for others – but learn to say no

If you’re stressed, sometimes the best thing for you can be the company of others; other times, if you feel pressured, quite the opposite. It’s important that you get this balance right and only you can do that by ensuring that you only do engage in activities when you either know that they will cheer you up or that you can cope with them.

In the evenings, set firm boundaries. Put your phone on Do Not Disturb unless you have relatives or friends for whom you are caring. If someone repeatedly calls you in the middle of the night, as I’ve experienced, to discuss their problems, you can only put up with it for too long until you have to ask them to speak with another organisation like Mind Allies or The Samaritans until you are awake and able to speak without worrying about them.

If you don’t help yourself and put yourself first, you won’t be able to help others.

I hope that my ways to deal with stress have been helpful to you, whether you’re autistic or whether you’re neurotypical. If they haven’t, keep searching, keep speaking with Mind Allies and keep looking into this area.

It will help you.