Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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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.

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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.
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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.


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