Living With Autism Spectrum Disorder

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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is type of neurodivergence according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Autism represents differences in how the brain is wired and how it functions.

While many autistic people are disabled, others do not consider themselves disabled. Autism does not indicate deficits in comparison to people who are considered neurotypical. Instead, it means that a person may need varying levels of support and accommodation to thrive.

Getting a diagnosis can often feel overwhelming. It is important to recognize that autism is not a condition that needs to be cured. It means that a person may need different supports, adjustments in their environment, and coping strategies to live full lives with minimal disruptions to their daily functioning.

Autism represents a neurodevelopmental difference, which presents uniquely in each individual but is defined by various traits. Some autistic people require adaptations in routines and environments in order to function effectively.

This article explores the emotional, physical, and social impacts that autistic people live with. It also provides tips to people who are caring for an autistic person.

Emotional Tips for Living With Autism 

Research suggests that autistic individuals face feelings of anxiety and stress, which can take a toll on emotional health, coping, and resilience to stress. Some of these pressures stem from societal expectations, which often insist that neurodivergent people must conform to neurotypical demands. Additionally, autistic people are at higher risk for trauma and abuse compared to non-autistic people.

While autistic traits often manifest initially in early childhood, autistic children grow into autistic adults. Autism is not something that goes away as the individual gets older.

For an autistic adult, finally getting a diagnosis after a lifetime of not understanding why they are the way they are can be difficult. Many providers will not evaluate adults, and many autistic people are misdiagnosed or inaccurately told they are not autistic following an evaluation. Those who are able to get an evaluation from a qualified provider might struggle to afford the service.

Because of these barriers, many in the autistic community have embraced self-diagnosis. Self-diagnosis is when an individual has researched what autism is and how autistic traits manifest and has found that this resonates with their experience but has not been evaluated or given a diagnosis by a provider.

Whether self-identified or diagnosed through an evaluation, a person who learns they are autistic later in life may experience many different emotions associated with this realization. They may grieve not knowing sooner or feel overwhelmed as they reprocess past experiences with this knowledge in mind. They might also spend considerable time comprehending their identity in light of this information as they learn to unmask and live authentically outside of neurotypical expectations of behavior.

Understand the Emotional Challenges

Autism is a form of neurodivergence, which means that the way a person's brain functions differs from what is considered neurotypical. However, because neurodivergent people are often expected to think, act, and feel in neurotypical ways, they experience ongoing stress resulting from having to mask or present in ways that meet neurotypical standards.

These emotional reactions might often mimic other mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD, and many autistic people have at least one mental health diagnosis. Autism can also co-occur with other conditions such as ADHD, epilepsy, sleep disorders, and gastrointestinal disorders.

Dealing with the emotions of an autism diagnosis is even more difficult for autistic people who were not permitted to learn how to process and express emotions in a way that comes naturally to them.

Find Ways to Manage Anxiety

A lot of autistic people experience anxiety. One 2019 study found that while 9% of a control group reported anxiety, 20% of autistic adults reported having anxiety symptoms.

Such anxiety may be the result of challenges with daily living. In addition, many autistic people experience anxiety about social interactions. Autistic people tend to communicate differently from non-autistic people, and they might struggle with interpreting nonverbal social cues or neurotypical rules for social communication. This can lead to them being labeled "rude" for not following these rules. They may become anxious about making mistakes or being misunderstood.

If you are experiencing anxiety symptoms, you can consult a provider about treatment options, including therapy, that can help manage and alleviate these symptoms.

Anxiety can also stem from feeling misunderstood by others. Communication challenges, particularly for individuals who are nonspeaking, can also contribute to feelings of anxiety.

Relaxation strategies that may help manage anxiety include using a weighted blanket, creating art, going for a walk, using a fidget toy, or using breathing exercises.

Staying Healthy For Autistic People

Healthcare providers may focus on an autistic person's autism diagnosis any time the individual has an appointment, which could cause them to overlook other symptoms. However, it is important to stay on top of other regular medical checkups like annual physicals and monthly dental visits. You can bring a supportive person to these appointments, like a partner, family member, or friend, to help you advocate for yourself and communicate with medical providers effectively.

In addition, strategies that can help maintain physical health include:

  • Practicing self-care: Self-care activities such as getting regular exercise, taking breaks to relax, and practicing stress management are important. These may also factor in tasks, activities, and plans that fit your sensory needs and energy level.
  • Having a regular routine: Disruptions in routine can sometimes be difficult for autistic people, so finding a way to stick to a regular schedule can be helpful when possible. Creating a daily routine that incorporates regular sleep/wake times, set times for meals, daily self-care activities, and household chores can help in maintaining a consistent schedule.

Active Lifestyle

There are several treatment programs to help autistic people get their support needs met or manage co-occurring diagnoses, though very few of these programs include a physical activity regimen. Some autistic people might find that their motor skills, such as walking or coordination, are affected. Hypermobility and dyspraxia are examples of related diagnoses.

Research suggests that staying physically active can help improve communication, self-regulation, and behavior in autistic children.

If you are autistic, it is important to find activities you enjoy in order to stay active to remain healthy. Focusing on activities you enjoy and that feel good when you are doing them can help both physical and mental health.

Maintaining a Balanced Diet

Some autistic people find it hard to maintain a balanced diet due to food textures, smells, and other sensory challenges. Many have specific dietary needs due to sensory sensitivities.

It may take some work, but it is important to find ways to work around these food preferences to find foods that a person likes that meet their nutritional needs.

This may take some patience and trial and error, so be prepared to try (and probably reject) a number of different foods before finding some that are acceptable to you. Disordered eating and eating disorders like ARFID are common with autistic people, so awareness is important as well.

The use of supplements such as green powders can be important or necessary.

You can keep a food diary of the foods that you or your loved one like and dislike and build a food timetable from there. 

Sleep Challenges

Many autistic people also struggle with sleeping difficulties. This can be brought on by several reasons, from restlessness to overstimulation. If you are autistic and find it challenging to get enough sleep, sticking to a specific bedtime routine will also benefit you. Keep a sleep diary, and make a note of the days you struggle with sleep and what you think might be causing it. 

Social Impact of Being Autistic

Humans are relational, and everyone needs social support in some form. However, autistic people may sometimes struggle with this for various reasons.

Communication issues and overstimulation can create difficulty in a person's ability to form and maintain interpersonal relationships.

Stigma is another significant problem for autistic people. Research suggests that neurotypical people are often less willing to interact with autistic peers due to stigma.

While there may be challenges, it’s incredibly important for an autistic person to get adequate social support. Social support can come from family, friends, and local support group meetings in their area. 

If you are autistic, a support group for other autistic people can help you meet and connect with people from your own community. If your loved one is autistic, a support group can help you manage stressors you are experiencing and be there for your loved one in the most effective way. You get to meet others who have delt with similar challenges and experiences.

Resources and Organizations

Organizations such as the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), Asperger/Autism Network (AANE), or Color of Autism also offer additional resources and support.

Caregiving & Helping Others

If you are caring for an autistic person, it's important to remember to also take care of yourself. Depending on your loved one's needs, they may require varying levels of assistance and support. Taking care of your own emotional and physical health helps you provide the best support for the autistic person you are caring for.

Autism is a lifelong form of neurodivergence. The focus should be on helping a person recognize their strengths and find ways to manage the challenges that a neurotypical world often presents.

Where treatment approaches have traditionally focused on a normative agenda, self-advocacy has led to a growing understanding of the needs and lived experiences of neurodiverse people. Rather than focusing on "fixing" the autistic person or teaching them to act in neurotypical ways and mask their autistic traits, caring for an autistic person should focus on meeting the individual's needs, helping them communicate in a way that is effective and comfortable for them, and treating any comorbid conditions.

More recent interventions focus on adapting environments to improve functioning and utilizing strategies that maximize well-being and autonomy. Some autistic people have shared that coping strategies built on natural developmental processes are helpful.

Identity-First Language

In some cases, people may prefer to use the person-first term "person with autism." However, many people in the autistic community prefer the identity-first term "autistic person." You can help support autistic people and reduce stigma by listening to their lived experiences and affirming their identities.

Support for Autistic Kids

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), autistic children are eligible to get certain free or low-cost services to help build skills and manage needs. These services include physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, medical evaluations, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices, and other services.

If you suspect your child is autistic or has other developmental challenges but hasn’t gotten a diagnosis, the IDEA allows children under 10 to benefit from these services. 

11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Amy Marschall, PsyD
Dr. Amy Marschall is an autistic clinical psychologist with ADHD, working with children and adolescents who also identify with these neurotypes among others. She is certified in TF-CBT and telemental health.

Originally written by
Toketemu Ohwovoriole
Toketemu Ohwovoriole

Toketemu has been multimedia storyteller for the last four years. Her expertise focuses primarily on mental wellness and women’s health topics. 

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