January 21, 2021

Autism and anxiety

By rosieweldon

Anxiety is common in autistic people. This includes as children, with 42% of autistic children being affected by anxiety disorders (compared to 3% of non-autistic children) through to 79% of autistic adults having mental health issues. While diagnosis is high with 2 in 5 autistic people having a diagnosed anxiety disorder, there are many more of us that go undiagnosed.

Last week I wrote on my Facebook and Twitter page about having a tough time with anxiety. I felt like a ran a mental marathon and it has taken many days to recover from the anxiety driven exhaustion. This intense anxiety experience got me to thinking about the connection between autism and anxiety. Sometimes it can be difficult to know where autism stops, and anxiety starts. It can feel more like they team up and spur each other on.

In many ways they clash. Autism wants finite objective answers, yet anxiety fills my mind with what ifs and subjectivity driven worries. In other ways they join forces and team up to overwhelm my mind. My autistic mind goes 100 miles an hour, when you fuel that with anxiety it churns through anxious thoughts at 100 miles an hour and dominates my mind. Another way they drive each other on is my autistic nature to get caught on one thought and be unable to move on. What happens when the thought I get stuck on is an anxiety given one?

Last week I carried out a new work task. It was poorly planned, badly communicated and full of subjective what ifs. Without anxiety this is an autism minefield and would have put me on the edge of meltdown. Add anxiety and what I had was anxiety attack after anxiety attack while on the edge of an autistic meltdown.

In a lot of ways anxiety can help to calm autism in its need for information and preparation. Both elements want to know what’s happening. However, the problem with anxiety is it often seeks it to an irrational level. I have learned the hard way that you often can not placate anxiety enough to calm it. Distraction is often the best tactic. However, I cannot distract away from autism. My autistic mind needs a plan, it needs to know what is happening. Therefore, what I am left with is desperately trying to calm autism without feeding my anxious thoughts through overthinking.

As an autistic person with an anxiety disorder it is exceptionally difficult to know at what point I cross from sensible planning to over preparing, from thinking something through to overthinking. A mind driven by a desperate need to understand and process yet clouded by irrational questions and doubts that are impossible to quantify and place.

It is no wonder so many of us struggle with anxiety when the two interact so significantly. A mind working so constantly is a playground for anxiety, it feeds off our overactive minds.

Anxiety is a disorder that you can try to overcome and push back against. Autism is a difference you learn to live with. Knowing when to push back and fight and when to self-care and accept my ways is difficult as an autistic person with anxiety.

Anxiety is exhausting, it’s constantly there day in day out. Please be understanding of anyone in your life (autistic or not) that is going up against this fight every day. No matter how irrational we know the thoughts are, they are exhausting to push back against and live with.

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