Stess: Anxiety, Perfectionism, Black and White Thinking and Catastrophising by Jeanette Purkis

This article focuses on the stresses which are more likely to be the domain of autistic people: what they are and some strategies that can help address them.

Social anxiety

While this is not exclusive to autistic people, it is a very common occurrence for us. We might think that other people don’t like us or are judging or discriminating against us. This often comes from being bullied or invalidated in other ways in the past. We end up second guessing ourselves or being either way too trusting or, alternatively way too cynical, assuming that behind any kind gesture there is hateful intent. We can also struggle with simply feeling others are judging or attacking us, especially if we are around people who don’t ‘get’ us.

Some strategies to address these difficulties include:

  • Try to make some regular alone time
  • Identify what works for you in situations of social stress. You can put together a list of these strategies. Each person’s strategies will be different but you can compare notes with others, such as autistic friends
  • If possible, spend time with people who have similar levels of need for social input as you do or who respect your need for social downtime

Perfectionism

Once again, perfectionism is not the exclusive domain of autistic people but it is very common for us. Perfection is a combination of different kinds of anxiety: fear of failing and worrying our work or other outputs will not be good enough. Perfectionism is not a helpful quality and is more likely to hamper our ability to do whatever we are doing than improve the outcomes.

This can be addressed through:

  • Perfectionism really dislikes perspective. Think about what the most likely actual consequence of you doing something wrong might be. It is fairly certain nobody will die or get injured as a result of you error. However, if you are a surgeon or an airline pilot, please continue being a perfectionist!!

Communication stress

Autistic people communicate differently to neurotypical people. It is easiest to compare them to different languages I find. Imagine that autistic people are speaking French and neurotypical people are speaking German. German is not better than French or vice versa — they are simply different ways of communicating information. But for many autistics, fear of getting communication ‘wrong’ and being judged or attacked for it is a huge source of anxiety. Combine this with perfectionism or catastrophising and doing the ‘wrong thing’ socially can become vastly bigger than it would for most other people. One of the big risk factors for this kind of anxiety is where autistic people do not feel proud of themselves as they are but instead think they are deficient and broken. This attitude can turn a social mistake into a source of self-hatred or self-criticism.

Strategies to address this include:

  • Build your sense of pride and value in who you are as an autistic person. This will not ‘fix’ communication faux pas but it will mean you understand that you communicate differently and that this is OK.

Catastrophising

This is when we imagine that one worst case scenario will follow another leading to the most dire and horrific consequence imaginable. The other day my internet didn’t work and I genuinely thought there had been a nuclear war! Even though I know this explanation was quite unlikely, my anxiety took me right there and very quickly too!

Some strategies to address this include:

  • Logical thinking. Question the catastrophising and think about how likely what you are worried about is, coming from a starting point that you know it is not helpful thinking.
  • Run your concerns past someone you trust — preferably who isn’t someone who would actually support your catastrophising view!

Black and white or ‘either / or’ thinking

This is where you perceive things as only one of two polar extremes. An example of this would be “My friend hates me because we disagreed.” I am particularly bad at this and when a friend pulled me up on something I actually did do wrong and thought she hated me. There was no evidence that this was the case but it took me over a year to figure out she was still my friend and that most friends don’t just cut someone off for no reason.

Some strategies to address this include:

  • Run your concerns by someone else not involved in the situation and see what their opinion is as it may be different to yours.
  • With a friend, family members or support worker if you have one, make a list of likely consequences and unlikely consequences of interpersonal interactions and disagreements. Refer to this when you feel that someone ‘hates’ you.

Anxiety at new things

Almost every autistic person I have met really dislikes change and finds it threatening and unpleasant. Change is about something  outside of your control and autistic people often feel that we lack control over the unpredictable world so when it changes — even if we are expecting the change — it can very stressful indeed.

Some things to address this include:

  • Creating a ‘road map’ for new things, That is, where possible, experience or learn about everything you can related to the upcoming change before it happens
  • Positive self-talk about how you have managed similar changes in the past can help
  • Try to reframe your thinking about this change. If there is anything positive about it, focus on that

There are many other stresses autistic people can experience, including overload — sensory, social, emotional etc., aversion to experiences (such as certain foods or sensory triggers) and also diagnosable anxiety disorders like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorders and phobias. Post-traumatic stress is common amongst autistic people and we often have an overarching sense of anxiety, worry and loss of control.

This does not necessarily mean our lives are just going to be a hell of anxiety and misery, but it is worth being aware of, especially for neurotypical people who work with us, and love and care for us. Life can be complicated by stress and anxiety. It is not a failing or a reason for shame or self-criticism, it is something we need to manage and work through where we can, but also to be kind to ourselves. And remember that there are a good many autistic people in the world, and many of us share these stresses so you are definitely not alone.

About Jeanette Purkis

Jeanette Purkis is an autistic author, public speaker and autism advocate who also has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She has worked full-time in the Australian Public Service since 2007 and has a Masters degree in Visual Arts. She is the author of three books on elements of autism and hosts an internet radio show. Jeanette has presented at TEDx Canberra in 2013 and at many autism events and conferences, including alongside Temple Grandin in 2015. Jeanette has been facilitating a support group for women on the autism spectrum in Canberra since 2011. Jeanette was the 2016 ACT Volunteer of the Year and a finalist in the 2017 ACT Woman of he Year awards. She lives in Canberra, Australia.

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