Sensitivity to stress

Each and every one of us, including young people with ASD, has our own way of reacting to factors that cause stress. Stress is a situation where we are faced with so many challenges and demands that it takes a lot of effort to cope with them. Some of us maintain our balance in difficult situations, whereas others can get stressed even about minor things. Various life events and external stimuli can further increase stress levels. Since the stress levels of young people with ASD are often high to start with, the effect of a new stress factor is often greater than usual.

Sensitivity to stress and everyday life

“I keep of list of relaxing things on my fridge door and I try to do something on the list every day”, says Veeti, describing his experiences about the stressfulness of everyday life and his life management tips.

Stress factors and their effects

There are various types of factors that increase your stress level: brief, situation-specific things or events, such as sensory stimuli, or more long-term factors, such as changes in the living environment. Going on to further studies, for example, often increases the stress level of a young person. This stress is partly caused by the fact that everything is new – the fellow students, the demands related to the studies and even the place you are studying in. Stress can also be caused by the workload related to studying and the feeling of not being able to control one’s studies as a whole. The social demands of school, increased social awareness and fears about the future as well as peer pressure can increase stress during transitions.

“I get stressed by extensive assignments. It’s hard to get started when the assignment brief and the requirements are unclear. The most stressful thing is to leave something undone and wait to see what happens.”

The nervous system of young people with ASD easily becomes overloaded. This can be triggered by a noisy environment, changing and unclear situations and social interaction. The difference between the basic stress level and chaos is typically much smaller in young people with ASD than in people with no ASD diagnosis. If this chaos threshold is crossed, it can cause visible challenging behaviour (meltdown) or, instead, passiveness and withdrawal (shutdown). It is important to realize that positive events and situations also increase stress levels.

“All my thoughts vanish when my brain becomes overloaded. I can’t do or think about anything.”

Challenging behaviour is always associated with higher levels of stress. Lowering the stress level will therefore also reduce behaviour that is seen as challenging. Challenging behaviour often stems from special sensory features, challenges in executive functioning, difficulties in interaction and communication and overload associated with social situations. Changes in the environment, such as new people or surprising situations, can also affect people with ASD strongly and increase their stress levels.

If it worth keeping in mind that a certain amount of stress is useful. It helps us remain alert, keeps our senses and our mind sharp and helps us perform tasks better. However, extreme, prolonged stress has harmful effects on both mental and physical well-being. It may be challenging to learn to distinguish when you need rest and recovery instead of higher performance.

Stress regulation can be learned

Stress can be regulated not only by eliminating stress factors in your life, but also by learning ways to identify personal resources and ensuring that you have plenty of moments of rest. Learning stress regulation strategies is also important. Adequate sleep, regular meals, walking in nature or the company of people you like can also help lower stress. Stress prevention involves considering the special needs associated with the autism spectrum in terms of executive functioning, communication and interaction and making the environment and approaches more autism-friendly.

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