Mental health recovery when you are autistic: Self care tips that match our sensory and communication needs
Autism and mental health issues often go hand in hand, many of us struggle with anxiety, depression, low self esteem and loneliness. For many of us who are late diagnosed, we struggle through the mental health system for years not realising that we are actually autistic. We have tried and failed through many of the therapies and tools designed to help manage these difficulties. However, many of the commonly used techniques to help with issues like anxiety, low mood and intrusive thoughts are designed for neurotypical brains and may not work that well for autistic people. In this blog post I go through some of those techniques and suggest alternatives that might work better for the neurotypical brain.
Meditating or taking time to sit still and listen to your mind is a common tip often spoken about in mental health spaces. However, for autistic people, sitting still and trying to quieten our mind is uncomfortable, unhelpful and is likely to make us feel like we are failing ‘self care’.
Stimming. Get moving in whatever way feels most soothing to you. Flap, jump, fidget, stim dance etc. If you use fidget toys, get them out! If you haven’t tried stim toys before, there are loads to choose from (tangles, fidget spinners, bubble pops etc).
Imagining a safe space
Another really common tip for calming the mind is to imagine a safe space in your mind and this is supposed to help you connect with the positive feelings that this safe space creates. However, for some autistic people, imagining the picture of this space in our minds is very challenging. Many of us struggle with imagination and it can be incredibly frustrating to try and conjure up some sort of clear image in our minds.
‘Do’ the safe space – create a space in your environment or daily/weekly plan to engage in your special interest or hobby. If it isn’t possible to engage in your special interest or hobby at home, another idea is to create a sensory pod in your home. This could be a small enclosed space with comfy beanbags and cushions and soft lighting.
Go for a run
Mental health experts often encourage us to take up exercise to build up endorphins and serotonin naturally in the body. Running is a great way to do this, however, for many autistic people, the visual and spatial sensory build up of running can be overwhelming to our sensory systems. This is especially difficult for the more sensory sensitive among us.
Go for a short walk during quiet/off peak times using noise cancelling headphones or ear- plugs and sunglasses if necessary.
The 5-4-3-2-1 technique
This is a commonly used grounding technique where you are invited to imagine or find 5 things in your environment you can see, hear, smell, touch.
It can help autistic people to be able to write down or paint/draw the senses using this technique. Instead of just trying to imagine it, physically writing it down or drawing it out can be an easier way to follow this grounding technique.
One of the most popular tips going when talking about mental health is the encouragement of talking about what’s going on in our mind. However this can be difficult, if not impossible for some autistic people. Many of us are non-speaking all or some of the time, and some of us have difficulty with expressing and knowing our emotions.
The traffic light system is a useful alternative when speaking is impossible or difficult. It consists of three colour coded cards; green stands for ‘i am okay’, orange stands for ‘i am not okay but i am not in danger’ and red stands for ‘i am not okay and i might harm myself’. This is a really useful alternative to speaking as it gives our carers/loved ones an indication of how bad things are and helps them to help us in times of crisis.
I hope you find these tips useful! Remember, if a mental health technique isn’t quite working for you, it might just need some adjustment. They are designed for neurotypical brains, and it is perfectly okay if you need to adjust it for your own brain type.
Zoe lives in Dublin with her girlfriend, dog, and cat. She spent many years confused about why she felt so different, and after spending ten years in and out of mental health services, hospitals, and treatments she was eventually diagnosed with Autism when she was 28. She is passionate about creativity, autism, and mental health recovery and founded The Autistic Art Club to facilitate connections with other autistic people who use art and creativity as a stim.