The Denver Autism Wheel

Autism and Anxiety

Posted on: July 24, 2010

Julie and I recently attended an autism conference in DC. Among the pep talks and speeches, what really stuck with me was the science and psychology talk which occurred on the second day. Among the statistics they mentioned, somewhere around 60% of people with autism also suffer from anxiety and depression.

That’s an astonishing statistic. If one in 110 is on the Spectrum, then 66 of those people, mostly boys and men, will also suffer anxiety and depression. Autism affects fluidity of motion and thought. People with autism spend a lot of their time not understanding fully what’s going on around them. Spontaneous exchange of ideas-in-progress can be difficult or impossible to follow. And their train of thought might run on an entirely different track from a typical peer.

I think a statistic like this puts the lie to the theory that people with autism live “in their own world.” Why would somebody in a self-contained, detached environment feel anxious or depressed? I believe it’s far more likely that the person with autism wants very much to engage but just (absolutely, basically, completely) doesn’t know how. The whole social interaction thing makes no intuitive sense. That fundamental lack of success doing something most of us take completely for granted on a daily basis could be crushing.

Imagine you can carry a square root to 10 decimal places in your head (something you’ve always been able to do, and effortlessly), but you can’t talk to a classmate over the phone. Meanwhile, your brother has friends over every week who don’t care how far out you can carry a square root (and don’t care to hear about it). The thing your brother good at is the thing most people think is important. The thing you’re good at causes curiosity at best, ridicule at worst, but doesn’t help you understand how to make friends. And there seems to be no reason for the difference between the two of you. There’s no magic, no secret ingredient. You’re brothers! It looks so easy, but you can’t do it! I’d be depressed, too!

I’ve lived overseas, surrounded by people speaking a language I had to learn from a book. Personally, I burn out after a couple of months and end up isolating myself from those “so, how are you enjoying your stay?” kinds of social interactions. I can’t compete with native Japanese speakers, for instance, in casual conversation…I can’t keep up with the cultural, linguistic and social differences between what’s normal for them and what’s normal for me. I end up tired, bummed out, and separate from my fellow human beings. I long to hear English again: the familiar intonations, the flow of the words, the vocabulary, even the topics. It’s familiar, comforting.

Now, imagine there is no refuge. Nobody speaks English. Ever. You’re stuck. If you want to interact with people, reach out for human contact, you have to speak Japanese. Now imagine you can’t learn it for some reason you can’t fathom. No matter how hard you try, you can’t figure out the patterns, the syntax, the etiquette. It doesn’t make sense. Sure, you can buy groceries, pay your bills. You keep a roof over your head. But you can’t pass the time of day while waiting for the train in the morning. You can’t comfort a crying child. You can’t get help to find your lost dog. Oh, and you can’t relocate, either, because everywhere you go, people speak only Japanese.

Of course, my analogy is based on a native ability to communicate successfully under certain linguistic and cultural conditions. I’m not sure my typical brain has the full picture of what it’s like trying to navigate ANY social situation at a native disadvantage.

I read on another blog that the casual conversation we typicals so eagerly and easily engage in to relax our minds can be physically and mentally exhausting for an autistic individual. No wonder Chris “runs lines” from movies sometimes instead of forming original sentences. It’s probably like returning to child’s pose during a vigorous yoga workout; his brain needs the break. What is relaxing and necessary chit chat for me is a full-on marathon of spontaneous blather for him.

I try not to inundate him, but as he gets older, his questions become more complicated to answer. I’m grateful he asks complicated questions, though. It shows me that he has the mental stamina and desire to continue to be curious about his world and make connections. As long as I remember to keep the blather to a minimum, we do OK. I’m finding that I “run lines” as well because sometimes it’s easier to help him understand my context if I start from something he’s heard repeatedly. The important thing is the exchange, the look of understanding, the smile of a shared moment. Nobody “in their own world” would care, but Chris seeks it out actively. I think that speaks volumes, and we would all benefit from listening.

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