Tag Archives: aging

Coping Strategies Survey

This week’s questions are all about coping strategies. Traveling, panic attacks, aging, job hunting, emotions, obsessions – it’s a great mix and I think we’re going to come up with a great big pool of potential strategies that we can all draw on when needed.

You know the drill–if you’re on the spectrum, either formally diagnosed or self-identified, you’re welcome to join in. Answer as many or as few as you like. Do it here or anonymously at Survey Monkey.

 

1. I am wondering if travelling is hard for all Aspies as they age or if it is just me?  I like my home at night and my own environment. I prefer to be as close to it as possible…and I get sick or upset if I stay away…my tolerance is two days from home max and two weeks to recover…Does anyone else feel this way? Does it get worse with age or in certain decades? more details here

2. Is liking or disliking foreign travel related to ability to pass for NT at home?

3. Do you experience problems with long flights? If yes, which aspects are most problematic? (which travel stages: e.g. planning, navigating airports, flying, unfamiliar surroundings at the destination etc – and which problematic factors: e.g. sensory overload, executive function issues, anxiety / panic attacks etc) How do you cope with long flights? (what are your coping strategies)

4. How do you cope with panic attacks in unavoidable situations that you can’t leave, such as during flights?

5. Do you find yourself getting more autistic as you get older? Did your coping strategies improve with age due to experience or psychological assistance (I shy away from the word ‘treatment’) or did they deteriorate over time because of a decrease in overall energy?

6. How do you cope with strong emotions, especially strong negative emotions, especially if you’re also alexithymic? How do you support someone going through a very difficult time emotionally (nothing practical to be done)? How do recognise what the feelings are, and how do you respond in a way that comforts the person?

7. How do you motivate yourself to job hunt? more details here

8. A question that is specifically for people who menstruate: do you notice changes during your menstrual cycle. With changes I mean changes in sensory perception, abilities to cope and/or compensate, EF, etc.

9. If you’ve been heavily obsessing about an interest for a while do you find you have to have a short break from it because it has got too intense?

10. Has anyone taken concerta/ritalin/other stimulant drug prescribed to help ADHD type symptoms and reacted very badly to them physically? What effect did it have on you in the short and long term?

 

Building a Base

When I was sick earlier this summer, I had to take 6 weeks off from running–the longest break I’ve taken in years. I was concerned about how soon I could get back into shape, but happily, within two weeks I was back to running 60-70 minutes comfortably.

Runners often talk about building a base. By running a minimum distance every week, your body makes adaptations and the long distances eventually feel less long. When you take time off, it’s easier to get back to running long distances again than it would be for a new runner because you’ve already taught your body some important things about running. Things like: no, we’re not stopping, so quit grumbling and get on with it and yes, you can make it up that hill because you have before.

Each run makes the base a little stronger, a little deeper. Over the years, all those miles create a sort of long-term physical memory. Aerobic conditioning is a big part of being able to run for an hour or two or four, but the act of having done it before is the difference between this will be hard and this is impossible.

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“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

I used to think this meant that surviving difficult things makes you tougher. Which it does. But tougher is not the only way to be stronger.

Surviving difficult things makes you fear less.

Not fearless, but less fearful.  Continue reading Building a Base

I Can, But I Won’t

In Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, Ellen Notbohm talks a great deal about the difference between “can’t” and “won’t.”  Often for children on the spectrum, behaviors that appear defiant are actually a result of the child’s developmental deficits. It’s not that Johnny doesn’t want to clean up his toys and get ready for bed. He literally has no idea where to begin so he does nothing.

Understanding the difference between can’t and won’t feels huge to me as an adult. So much of what I struggled with as a child was treated by the adults in my life as a simple refusal to try. I was endlessly prodded to do things like have more friends and participate in class. While my parents and teachers seemed to think I just wasn’t trying hard enough–after all I was a smart, likeable little girl–to me it felt like I was making a superhuman effort.

Raising my hand to answer a question in school required overcoming all sorts of fears: the fear of being wrong, of being ignored, of being teased, of not being understood or heard, of being asked a follow-up question that I didn’t understand or couldn’t answer.


I learned early on that there were many things that could go wrong and only one scenario in which everything went right. Those odds weren’t exactly encouraging.

Like so much of what I struggled with as a kid, I’m not sure whether this was a case of can’t or won’t. There were certainly elements of can’t–particularly when it came to being able to express my thoughts clearly and respond spontaneously to follow-up questions. But there was a large measure of won’t born from the can’t.

If you fail enough times, it’s inevitable that trying becomes too costly.

As an adult, I don’t think there is anything I can’t do because of my Asperger’s. I’ve learned enough hacks and workarounds to navigate life on a daily basis.

Won’t is another story.

The older I get, the more resistant I’ve become to activities that are going to have a high emotional cost. There is a long list of things that I don’t want to do–that I won’t do–even if I can.

Notbohm defines can’t as a lack of knowledge, ability and opportunity. Won’t, she says, is about backing away from difficulty and challenge.


Middle age has become the season of won’t for me. I can go to every social event that my husband gets an invite to, but I won’t. I can seek out more opportunities to practice social skills, but I won’t.  I can try to make friends, but I won’t.

The gulf between having the ability to do something and wanting to do it has widened as I’ve grown older. I no longer see as much value in toughing something out. I’m no longer as eager to grit my teeth and just get through an event. My desire to fit in lessens with every passing year.

I’m sure there are people who would tell me this is unhealthy and limiting. It may be, in the sense that I’m missing out on potentially enriching experiences. Perhaps at some point I’ll find some of those experiences attractive enough that I’ll want to give them a try. My won’t list isn’t set in stone.

But right now I’m at a point in my life where I’m not interested in enrichment so much as peace. There are days, a lot of days, when I’m content just to be left alone, to not have to deal with the confusing muddle of social interaction that is constantly scratching at the door to my mind.

As I grow older, I find myself becoming more and more okay with my list of won’ts. They no longer feel like the failures they once did.

In fact, it’s no longer a matter of everything coming down to  the deficit-based can’t versus the failure-to-try-based won’t, as Notbohm frames the childhood paradigm. As autistic adults, we have the option to step beyond the deficit/failure-to-try model and simply decide that there are things we prefer not to do, just like everyone else.

Growing Older on the Autism Spectrum

What does it mean to grow older on the spectrum?

Thanks to my Aspergarian nature, I don’t feel middle-aged but my body often tells me otherwise. My hair is going steadily gray and I’ve got the beginnings of arthritis in my hands. My joints pop and crack after I’ve been sitting too long. I’m in denial about my need for reading glasses. Pretty standard growing older stuff, whether you’re on the spectrum or not.

It’s the nonstandard stuff I’ve been . . .

. . . worrying about?

Not quite. I don’t worry about much and certainly not the distant future.

. . . afraid of?

Too strong a word.

. . . wondering about?

That sounds about right. I’m perpetually curious about all sorts of important and unimportant stuff. Before I started writing this, I searched for studies about Asperger’s and aging. Not surprisingly, I only found one and it wasn’t conclusive. (It did have one slightly alarming hypothesis about why autistic adults might not fare as well as neurotypical adults in old age. I’ve summarized it at the bottom of this piece if you’re curious.)

So, here are the things that I’m wondering about as I get older.

1. I wonder if I’ll be able to avoid a serious fall when I’m less physically resilient. I have a tendency to trip, fall and bump into things. No matter how vigilant I am, it happens. In the past month I’ve taken a couple of dives, one while running on a country road and one on the slippery locker room floor after swimming. The first got me a nasty case of road rash and the second resulted in a sore shoulder–relatively minor injuries considering how hard I went crashing to the ground both times. I doubt that will be the case if I take a similar fall a couple of decades from now.

2. I wonder if the recent decline in mental endurance is the beginning of a downward trajectory that will eventually limit my capacity to concentrate or work as I get older. Since hitting my forties, I’ve noticed that I tire more quickly during tasks requiring intense concentration. Powering through is no longer as appealing or even as feasible as it was 10 years ago. To compensate, I’ve been taking more breaks during the work day and giving myself permission to rest when I need to. I set smaller goals and reward myself for reaching them. I try not to have unrealistic expectations of what I can accomplish in a day.

3. I wonder if my decreasing willingness to endure things for the sake of pleasing people will turn into a liability. So far it’s been a positive development–increasingly allowing me to say no when I want or need to–but I can see how, if I’m not careful, I might wake one day to find I’ve become a crazy old cat lady.

4. I wonder if I’ll be able to keep up my exercise routine. Exercise keeps me sane. I need to run or swim regularly to burn off my excess energy and generate the cocktail of good chemicals that balance my brain. I figure this should be possible at least into my sixties, assuming I don’t seriously hurt myself first (see #1).

5. I wonder what life will be like if my husband dies before me. I enjoy his company in a way that I don’t enjoy being with anyone else. He and my daughter are the only two people I feel truly comfortable being around. I can’t imagine wanting to meet someone else. I’ve never lived alone. Whenever I read a new story about a married couple who’ve died together–in a plane crash or some other horrible accident–my first thought is always how lucky they were to have passed away together and avoided being widowed.

Wow, where to go from there? How about some positives?

As I get older, I’m softening up. I’m more patient with myself, more accepting of my faults, more compassionate. I’m less concerned with pleasing others, less worried about being accepted or thought of as “normal”.

Since learning about my Asperger’s, I feel like I’m actively healing the scared little kid that I was and integrating the fragmented parts of my self. I don’t think this would have been possible in my twenties or thirties.

In a lot of ways, I feel like time is my ally. I still have a lot of it left and I’m determined to make the best of it.

Geek Alert: What the Science Says about Aging on the Spectrum

A search for some scientific background about aging and autism turned up only one study, which evaluated people over 60 with autism (mostly with Asperger’s Syndrome) against similar age controls on a variety of cognitive domains. The results were mixed, but the researchers threw out an interesting hypothesis in their discussion. Adults (and adolescents) with ASD tend to use more and larger areas of their brain than neurotypical adults when performing certain cognitive (executive function) tasks. As we age, the NT brain makes a similar adaptation so that elderly NTs also use more and larger parts of their brain to compensate for the degeneration of the brain associated with aging.

The researchers suggested that a faster decline in certain cognitive areas among elderly people with ASD might be a result of the brain’s inability to recruit additional areas for cognitive processing, since this was adaptation that they’d already made earlier in life. On the positive side, there were some areas where adults with ASD performed better than controls. Obviously this is only one study with a relatively small sample size so it what it can tell us about aging on the spectrum is limited. Either way, I suspect we can learn more by listening to older adults on the spectrum than by cognitive testing in the lab. If you’re an autistic person in your fifties or sixties or older, I would love to hear from you in the comments.