Overcoming social anxiety

There are many Aspie groups on Facebook and naturally I’m in a couple of them.  The following question showed up in my feed and my response sort of outgrew Facebook.

My 18 year old daughter is high functioning autistic and about to graduate high school with high honors. She does NOT want to go to graduation. As she so reasonably says, she will get her diploma anyway so why go through the anxiety of the ceremony. I am torn on how much to push her. The school is wonderful about making accommodations for her. Any thoughts about this?

My immediate response was to let the girl decide.  But then I thought about how different I am today than the unemployable, abrasive, and socially inept teen who preceded me.  So I still say let the girl make a decision and abide by it, but also approach it with a specific strategy.

Sometimes people say no to an opportunity because once the commitment is made, backing out later creates some cascading impact to many other people. So the first thing to find out is what happens, exactly, if she says yes and then backs out at the last minute.  It might be as simple as notifying someone who crosses her off the roll before they start calling names. That’s pretty low impact and if that’s the case she could make plans to attend, show up to the event and check it out, then if she’s overwhelmed, duck out and notify the appropriate person.  Even if there’s a bit more impact such as buying tickets, it’s still worth taking the gamble so long as the investment made and impact is truly disposable.  Don’t buy tickets, for example, unless you can afford to not use them without too much hardship.

Also, if possible check out the venue ahead of time. Find out where there’s a quiet room or green room. A baby nursing room is an option I don’t have but she might. Familiarity may breed contempt but it does so by first reducing anxiety. Also, where I live graduations all cycle through the same handful of venues over a week or two. Perhaps she can go to one ahead of her own as a spectator to get a feel for the dynamics of the crowd and the flow of events.

The idea here being to get as far down the road as possible to accomplishing the task, then back out only when she knows that it is too much instead of because she thinks it might be too much.

If she practices this consistently then she might not attend graduation, but will gradually learn where her boundaries are, how to push on them, how much to push on them, how to recover after pushing on them, and so on. None of these skills can be learned by deciding ahead of time that it will be overwhelming and then not making the attempt.

I’m not a doctor but I am speaking from personal experience.  In 2006 I took a job that required me to travel up to 40 weeks a year, and I hated the airport.  The crowds are suffocating and the serpentine lines even more so.   The first time out I took one look at the departures hall and ran for home. We had to reschedule the assignment and I did eventually go. By the time I landed I was so stressed out I could barely talk to the client.

But I kept at it and came up with some accommodations for the anxiety.  Eventually I was able to work by flying out each week a day early so I could recover in the hotel before going to the client.  This solved the problem at the client so I was able to keep my job, but not my problem at the airport.

My wife suggested I should leave for the airport earlier in the day thinking the rush of getting to the gate at the last minute was the problem.  To our surprise, this only made things worse. But because I made myself keep going, I eventually figured out that a airport club membership and TSA pre-check solves the problem. No security lines and then once I get past the checkpoint I go work in the club until my flight is ready to board.  Then when I arrive at my client straight from the plane I’m ready to work and I also get an extra day per week at home.

That first day when I ran out of the airport could easily have been my last day at that job. But after getting that far, I knew what to expect the second time and it wasn’t so overwhelming. With time and experience I next figured out how to solve the work-readiness problem, and that let me keep going until I eventually solved the airport problem.

It was an incremental progression achieved by taking, and then tenaciously holding onto, a little bit of new ground each time.  The key is to get as far as you can each time and that point should be far enough outside your comfort zone to be challenging, but not so far as to traumatic.  It is for the Aspie brain what working out in the gym is for the body.  It’s a strategy and it works, to the extent that you work it.

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