It’s great that as a society we are becoming more aware of mental health challenges and the impact they have on peoples lives. Words like depression, and anxiety are part of our conversations now, and the stigma around them is reducing. But there is still some misunderstanding about what they actually are, and even more so when we mention anxiety in neurodivergent people.
Typically in a person who is recognised as having anxiety it is assumed that the anxiety is something unfounded- it arises from an irrational fear or worry that is blown out of proportion in the persons mind and results in unhelpful behaviours and coping mechanisms. Treatment and therapy for anxiety revolves around this belief.
However, for autistic people and those who experience significant sensory processing challenges (maybe for other neurodivergent people too, let me know in the comments if you experience this as well), the anxiety experienced is different.
It is not based on unreasonable thoughts that are coming from nowhere. It is based on things that we have experienced, have noticed as patterns, and that we do not wish to see repeated or to have to experience again. This is a valid reason to experience stress and anxiety, and in these situations our anxiety serves a useful purpose, in that it helps to protect us from getting into situations that will cause us discomfit and distress….. if we are adults.
For example, if I go to the shops I will experience sensory overload to some degree. Many years of experience tells me this. If I know I need to go to the shops, but notice I feel particularly anxious about the thought of it, that is a fair indication that I am already experiencing a higher than usual amount of sensory stress that day, and probably means it would be best to avoid shopping if I don’t want to have to do a significant amount of self care and de-stressing afterward. As an adult I can choose to avoid the shops. If I am a child, my parents might make me go anyway, then wonder why I am “acting out”, “having a tantrum”. “being difficult”, or “melting down” and get angry at me for my behaviour. Really, all I am doing is communicating my distress, but my parents and “autism experts” or professionals might label me as being dysfunctionally anxious and try to convince me through therapy that I don’t need to be, or put me on medication to manage it.
Just because parents and professionals don’t see the thing we experienced doesn’t mean it doesn’t exists. And just because they don’t experience the world the way we do doesn’t make our anxiety and reactions to certain situations or triggers unreasonable or worthy of being labelled as broken or dysfunctional.
Parents, professionals, helpers, friends…. please think about the diversity of experience that exists in people, and consider that when an autistic person behaves in ways you don’t understand, that there is always a valid reason behind that which you don’t understand yet. Please seek out the input of autistic adults when the child in your care seems distressed and you don’t know why. And please treat your autistic children with compassion when they are anxious. It is more than likely there is a very good explanation for it that they need your support to work through.