Another Autistic Summer

Summer as an autistic person can be really difficult. There are a lot of changes and some of them can feel quite extreme, quite overwhelming: the heat, the humidity, the general increase of people out and about… It can feel like a lot to deal with. I don’t pretend to know everything – not by any means – but I thought I’d share some of my thoughts and strategies for dealing with some of the big summer stresses…


SENSORY ISSUES

  1. Too bright – While bright skies are a sensory issue year-round, the summer months are hard in their own way: the light feels like it has a different intensity, it reflects back at me differently, it’s a different colour, it’s present for more hours of the day… It’s hard work on my eyes. I like working in my living room because it has white curtains, allowing for some light but without the glare (although anti-glare glasses are a good option to explore if you’re struggling inside). Outside, sunglasses are the obvious protective measure, but polarised sunglasses are better if you can get them.
  2. Too noisy – I find noisy environments very stressful and my anxiety only increases the longer I am in that noisy environment. The sensory overload is just too much and I become less and less able to function. And with more people around in the summer, the noisier it tends to be and therefore, the more stressed out I can get. I’ve found that the most effective coping mechanism is noise-cancelling headphones but playing music or audiobooks/podcasts through headphones and earplugs (if you find them helpful, you can have ones specially made – relatively inexpensively – to fit your ears, making them more effective) also work.
  3. Too hot – I’ve always found the heat of the summer very difficult and have been using open windows, fans, damp flannels and so on for years. But over the years, I’ve found the noise that regular fans make more and more anxiety-provoking so I finally invested in a Dyson silent fan. It was expensive (note: they are less expensive outside the summer months) but it was one of the best investments I ever made in managing my day to day health; it’s the most effective fan I’ve ever had and I use it year round. It’s more than made up for the expense. It’s also important to remember to drink as much water as you can – this is especially important for those with hEDS as well as dehydration makes the symptoms worse. Carrying a water bottle with you, having an app that reminds you to drink regularly, and so on can help you to remember and help you to build it into your routine.
  4. Different clothes – Following on from problems with heat, that often demands an entirely different wardrobe, which can be a less than comfortable change, literally and figuratively. It can involve different, uncomfortable fabrics or less fabric altogether, which can result in chafing or just feeling really exposed when people look at you. Finding specific fabrics – like cotton or linen – that aren’t irritating can be helpful. Layering, so that you can stay covered up as much as you need to to be comfortable, with thin fabrics can allow you to balance the need to keep cool and the need to be covered. And if you find a piece of clothing that really works for you, I recommend getting several to avoid the repeated stress of trying to find comfortable clothes.
  5. Crowds – As we know, in the summer, there are more people out and about and the world just feels more crowded. Public places are busier and that can be really stressful. Especially with the anxiety around COVID-19, crowds and crowded places can feel overwhelming which can cause anxiety attacks or meltdowns. The obvious advice is to avoid busy places at peak times but we all know that that’s not always possible. We all have our own strategies for managing anxiety but the ones I find most helpful in this situation are having someone I trust with me, giving myself plenty of time so that I don’t have that additional pressure, and I’ve also found the sunflower lanyard useful in certain places.

CHANGES IN ROUTINE

  1. Day to day changes – For some of us, our routines change regularly with the seasons but that doesn’t make it any less stressful. As someone who finds change very stressful, I try to make these changes slowly so that I have time to adjust and don’t end up feeling overwhelmed. It requires planning but it can really reduce anxiety.
  2. Loss of structure – While this isn’t, of course, applicable to everyone, the summer is often when people have time off from their usual occupation or go away on holiday. And with these things, we often find ourselves without structure. A lack of externally imposed structure can lead to a lot of aimlessness and/or anxiety so learning to build our own structures is a good skill; you don’t have to fill your schedule from opening your eyes in the morning to closing them at night but giving yourself things to do and think about (beyond their inherent value) keeps you moving and feeling and living. I do struggle with this but I’ve found it really helpful to have my family prompt me when I get stuck in a rut.
  3. Seeing less of some people and more of others – As I talked about in my BPD Awareness Month post, I get very anxious about my relationships and fearful that I’ll mess them up or that my issues will be too much for people. So a big change in my routine of seeing friends makes me very anxious. Living with such limited energy, socialising is something I find stressful because it requires so much energy, even though I enjoy that actual spending time with people. I’m lucky that my good friends are really lovely and really understanding but I still worry. I haven’t really figured out a good way of dealing with this anxiety but I do try to be as honest as I can with my friends and family so at least we all always know what the situation is.

ANXIETY

  1. Trying to do too much – When I have free time, I often end up struggling with a lot of anxiety, usually about whether or not I’m using the time in the best way (partly due to the fear that if I say no to too many things, people will think I don’t care and eventually want nothing to do with me). This can result in trying to do too much, more than my health – my sensory issues, my energy levels, and so on – really allow me to, which can lead to meltdowns or feelings of burn out. Over the years, I have gotten better at judging what I can and can’t manage and what’s really important to me but I still find it difficult and stressful and sometimes upsetting. I think it comes down to practice and self-compassion but that’s easier said than done. (I know that I also have issues about being as productive as possible but I also have a lot of anxiety about time running out in general, in multiple aspects of my life, which means I often end up pushing myself too hard. But I can’t say I know what to do about those issues at this moment in time.)
  2. The stress of holidays – While there are fun things about holidays and travelling, there are a lot of really stressful aspects, from the actual travel like flying to all the new-ness to being cut off from all of the normal coping mechanisms. There’s also a weird expectation to have fun on holiday that can create added pressure. Personally, I’ve found that the absolute best thing I can do in these situations is just talk to whoever I’m with and try to be realistic about what I can manage, although it’s still a learning curve. It doesn’t always feel like enough but I’m still learning to adjust my expectations to fit with my physical ability; I struggle with feeling guilty about ‘wasting opportunities’ too but, as I said, learning to let that go is a process and requires practice and self-compassion.
  3. Anxiety around what comes next – This is the first year where I haven’t been in education (or had education on the very near horizon) so I can only really speak to the experience of being in education and how it can, at times, feel like an endless hamster wheel. Every year, there’s the freedom of the summer holidays but there’s anxiety too. I always had this anxiety in the back of my mind about what the next year would bring, having finally gotten comfortable in the patterns of the year just gone. After all this time and all these years, the new academic year still stressed me out to an almost unbearable level so I don’t really know how we, as (disabled/neurodivergent/struggling) students, are supposed to manage that stress. I think a big part of it is on the schools and how they handle the roll out of the new year and talking to the school about it can help but, personally, I haven’t had much experience with that making things better. But I have to hope that they will eventually improve.

I know it’s been a while since my last post. A lot has happened and I’ve been having a really, really hard time. Some of that is stuff that I would like to write about at some point but I still feel like I’m stuck in the middle of it. Plus, I’ve been really struggling to write – with even being able to string a sentence together – which hasn’t been helping anything. Things still aren’t great – which may be the biggest understatement of my life – but I miss writing and I miss writing for this blog so I’m trying to push through. I wrote most of this a while ago and, given how hot it’s been recently, I wanted to get it up while it might still be helpful. I hope it is.

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