Understanding autism
Understanding autism

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Understanding autism

4 Reactions to stress

Autistic people may experience enormous stress and anxiety as a result of any of the traits just described. Social situations, the disruption of familiar routines and activities, or exposure to aversive sensory stimuli such as textures, smells and sounds, may be confusing, overwhelming or even frightening. In such situations, both children and adults with autism may resort to activities or behaviours which seem particularly unusual to others, but which help the person to manage and reduce the stress they are feeling.

Listen to Arabella again:

Download this video clip.Video player: boc_aut_1_video_week2_4_arabella.mp4
Skip transcript


You'll find that if Iris is an environment that she loves, if she's outside in nature and some people-- like the human environment is good. So if people are not asking her direct questions, if they're just hanging out with her and not in her personal space, then she can be very social and she can be smiling and happy and want to ride on your back, like any sort of toddler would at that age.
But as soon as you get her in an environment which is difficult for her, say in a cafe with lots of loud noise or a toddler group, you begin to see a completely different child. She stims a lot, which is sort of these almost like involuntary movements with her hands. So she'll flap her hands. She hums to kind of-- I think it's to block out everything else and to cover it with her own sound, like something the she can control.
And she also tends to block people out. So she'll get a book and she'll just put it in front of her. And she'll lay out toys all around her, so basically you can't get in her space. And then if you move one of those things, she'll put it right back and make sure that she's got this little barrier around her.
But so it really does depend. She can seem severely autistic in some moments and then she can seem so typical in other times.
End transcript
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Sometimes, in response to an unbearable level of stress, an autistic person may have a ‘meltdown’. This may look like a temper tantrum, but is an expression of distress and overwhelm, with the added frustration that the person may be unable to communicate this.

During our first hour on the road, Elijah rifled through hundreds of stickers I had brought along to keep him busy in the car. He feverishly peeled them and pasted them onto a large piece of cardboard like a small machine with his strict and narrow concentration. In the rear-view mirror, I saw the waxy paper backings of the stickers piling up in the back seat like fluffy patches of snow surrounding him. When he had peeled the very last sticker from its paper he let out a screech. Quickly, I popped the Pinocchio soundtrack into the tape player to redirect him, but to my dismay, I had forgotten to rewind it.

… ‘REEE…WIND’ he bellowed when he suddenly heard Pinocchio’s voice singing mid-song.

Valerie writing about her son, aged 5 (Paradiž, 2002, p. 132)

Stress reactions are likely to happen regardless of the person’s level of functioning. For instance, high-functioning teenagers with all the intellectual skills necessary to attend university, are quite likely to struggle with living away from home, dealing with personal care and the constant pressure to socialise. It is important that their tutors or mentors are aware of the additional emotional strains they are under, and that the university has support strategies in place.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus