As the Navigator grew older and was better able to articulate his experiences, needs, and requests, one key component has underlined almost all of his ongoing challenges:
As I understand it, anxiety is not a characteristic of autism, per se, meaning that anxiety is not an element that a professional analyzes as part of a diagnostic evaluation for autism.
That being said, heightened anxiety and anxiety-related diagnoses are not uncommon in those on the autism spectrum.
We pulled the Navigator out of a traditional public school and placed him in online school primarily to help manage his anxiety.
Anxiety is a keystone of Pathological Demand Avoidance, the Navigator’s own (as of yet unincorporated) neighborhood on the autism spectrum.
When working with him to help him manage challenges, including anxiety, we emphasized his strengths as the foundation on which to build tools and strategies.
One of those strengths was his innate intelligence, which we used to reassure him that his challenges in the classroom were not because “he was stupid.”
In September 2016 New York Magazine published an article describing how anxiety is the companion of intelligence.
Anxiety is something that motivates you to plan your approach to these challenges in such a way that you feel you’re prepared
Anxiety is an ambassador of responsibility, nudging you to taking care of the things that you need to take care of
The meaning of intelligence in the article is the overarching intelligence that is part of being human, not intelligence related to a particular IQ score.
And the anxiety the article is referring to is general anxiety, not the heightened, more intense experience my son experiences.
But my son doesn’t need to know those details.
We can take the core idea of the article and use it to “flip the script,” looking at his anxiety through a positive lens.
Instead of saying that his anxiety is a deficit, we can say that his anxiety is a companion to his skills
- his ability to remember details
- his ability to solve problems
- his ability to take in a lot of information at once
- his ability to see patterns
With the message that his anxiety is part of his intelligence, he can shift his perspective from it being something burdensome and to be avoided, to accepting it as part of who he is.
Then we can focus on utilizing his strengths as the foundation to build tools and strategies to help him manage his anxiety and be more comfortable.
We can focus on recognizing when he starts to feel anxiety, to name it, and then select a tool to help him calm himself.
He might use breathing or snuggling under his weighted blanked if he is feeling over-stimulated by his anxiety.
If he needs stimulation to help him manage his anxiety, he might play on his viola for a while or do some role play.
Nothing is foolproof, of course, and like other aspects of his neighborhood on the spectrum, the Navigator will use his strengths to help manage his challenges for his entire life.
And we’ll keep flipping the script.
Also published on Medium.