What is it?
Self-care describes a conscious act one takes in order to promote their own physical, mental, and emotional health. There are so many different types and ways one can do this but I like to break it down into 3 key areas:
1. Physical: Are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating a balanced diet with all the right vitamins? Are you getting enough exercise? – this doesn’t necessarily have to be high intensity; going for a brisk 30 minute walk definitely counts! Are you getting enough fresh air? – though it may be tempting to stay inside all day going outside can have a significant impact on our mood.
2. Social: Are you making an effort to connect with others? – this does not always have to be in person, it can be messaging each other. What are you doing to nurture your relationships?
3. Mental: Do you give yourself time to do activities that help you recharge? Do you have healthy ways to process your emotions? Do you take part in activities that mentally stimulate you?
Why is it important?
Self care is vital for building resilience toward those stressors in life that you can’t eliminate. For example, everyday I have to walk to my lectures at university and this is something that although I might hate doing, I cannot avoid (unless I wish to skive the lecture). I have found that if I have had a good night sleep, eaten breakfast and given myself time on my own in the morning to prepare then I find it less distressing: I can listen to music without noticing the car sounds or birds; I am not as overwhelmed by the smells of food or coffee.
Challenges many autistic people face
A lot of us feel that even though we don’t take the best care of ourselves, there are more important subjects to worry about. Over the past month I have dedicated all my time and energy on social media and my job. I viewed self care as a luxury rather than a priority. Consequently, I was left feeling overwhelmed, tired and on the edge of burnout. Autistic people are much more likely to struggle with self care compared to neurotypicals for numerous reasons:
1. Executive dysfunction:
this can make it hard for us to plan things or fulfilll our plans. We may want to shower but just not have the energy to do so.
2. Sensory differences:
can impact our ability to look after ourselves. We may not be able to do certain things due to the overwhelming taste or feel.
3. Emotional dysregulation:
we may experience stronger, more intense, feelings than neurotypicals. These can be so hard to manage and may lead to mental health conditions, impacting our self care. Alexithymia, a condition in which one struggles to identify and express emotions, can make it harder for us to even recognise these emotions, let alone cope with them.
we can forget about everything and be so indulged in an activity, this includes self care. We may forget to eat, drink or even sleep. I once was so fixated on watching Criminal Minds (one of my special interests) that I didn’t realise it was night time so never went to sleep.
What self care looks like
As you may know, autism is a spectrum so everyone has different strengths as well as different struggles. This means that not all activities will work for everyone, it requires some perseverance to keep trying until you find the right fit.
Give yourself time to process things
Engage with special interests
Stim openly and freely
Take a break from social media and other people
Engage with pleasing sensory input
Spend time with people you can unmask with
Set calendar reminders
Use timers and alarms
Create a sensory comfort box
A comfort box is essentially an “emotional first aid kit”. The idea is to fill an unused shoebox with things that will help to calm you down & recharge. When putting together your comfort box think about your favourite things – do you have a particular fidget toy you like to use, do you have a favourite smell? Below are some examples you can use but try to make it personal to you.
Smell: candles, oils, lotion
Touch: stress ball, favourite teddy, fluffy socks,
Sight: pictures, colouring book, positive quotes
Taste: chocolate, safe food, gum
After a meltdown/shutdown
These are extreme emotional reactions caused by sensory and/or emotional overstimulation. Meltdowns are an ‘explosion’ and can involve crying, screaming, yelling, aggressive and/or self injurious behaviour – the signs can be seen from the outside. Whilst shutdowns are an ‘implosion’ and can involve crying, being unable to speak, becoming stiff and/or immobile – the signs are often internal. After experiencing one of these reactions, self care is more important than ever in order to help you recover and recharge.
Talk or write about what happened – this doesn’t have to be to a specific person; write yourself a letter, record yourself talking on your phone; find a way to put what happened into words.
Stay hydrated and eat your safe food – our nutrient levels are often depleted and we are also at risk of dehydration, especially if we have been crying a lot. Force yourself to drink a glass of water and eat something – I find something sugary often helps.
Stimulate your senses – given that these reactions are often caused by overstimulation this is one of the best ways to recover. Think about what makes you feel good for each sense. This may be noise cancelling headphones, listening to music, stimming – you could use your sensory comfort box as I previously mentioned.
Spend time with pets – autistic people often have a special connection to animals so pets can make us feel safe and relaxed. If you don’t have a pet yourself you could watch animal videos on youtube – I love dog videos as these are one of my special interests!
Breathe deep and slow – a lot of people recommend meditation or mindfulness (youtube videos or apps such as HeadSpace help guide you through this) but I can never seem to clear my mind. Instead I use the box method – breathe in for 4, hold for 4, out for 4, for 10 repetitions or so.
Lay on a bed or flat surface – this may sound a little odd but it works wonders. Lying down, similar to deep breathes, can really help us to just relax. I like to lie on my bed under a weighted blanket with my squishmallows.