This post was developed via a partnership with BetterHelp.
If you’re an autistic adult, you likely experience the unfortunate prejudice and assumptions that are made about autism. Many people assume that only children are autistic and struggle and that the only topics that should be spoken about should be directed to the parents of an autistic child.
However, autistic adults exist, and many are without parents or social support. Autistic meltdowns and panic attacks still happen as an adult, and without the correct support, it can be difficult to calm down. If this sounds like you, this article is for you.
We aim to help you learn to regulate your emotions and turn your energy into something helpful and calming for you when you experience panic attacks in public or at home.
Utilizing Tools to Make Life Less Stressful
A large reason for a panic attack for many autistic adults is feeling rushed or completely overwhelmed with everything in their life. If you’re someone that needs a strict schedule and understanding of what you’ll be doing, time management apps and software can help.
There are many other assistive devices and technologies available as well, including:
- Note-taking apps
- Digital calendars
- Communication devices
- Project management software
Leave the Situation if Possible
Sometimes a situation is too overwhelming. Whether it’s the colors in the building, the sound of lots of people talking at once, or the way your clothes are sitting on your skin, sometimes you need to get away and remove the complexity of a situation.
If you struggle with understanding why you’re panicking, that’s to be expected. Often panic attacks can take away your critical thinking and judgment skills. You may feel like stimming or hitting yourself or even running away physically. These are common urges for autistic people when they become stressed.
You don’t need to try to rationalize or understand your panic at the moment it is happening. You can simply leave and come back when you’re ready. Find a safe space where you can go. If you’re panicking at work or in public, sometimes going to the bathroom for a quiet break or going to sit in your car can be useful.
Bring a weighted blanket or a calming item that you can utilize if you need it. Take deep breaths and let yourself feel how you feel. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed. You don’t need to be hard on yourself. If you want to stim in a way that isn’t physically harmful to you, go ahead and do it.
Find a Space That Makes You Feel Most Comfortable
You also want to make sure to find somewhere to calm down that is the most comfortable for you. All autistic adults are different, and some people prefer tight, closed spaces, whereas others appreciate large open spaces.
If you like tight spaces, try sitting in your closet underneath all of your hanging clothes. Or you can try curling up in a hammock or adult autism swing. You may find that hugging someone or having a weighted blanket also provides you relief.
If being trapped or confined makes you more stressed, or you need a more minimalistic environment, it’s time to get somewhere that’s open-spaced and doesn’t have much to look at or experience. Here are some great environments for those that want to reduce the number of stimuli they’re experiencing:
- An empty field
- An empty room with floor seating and gentle colors (tan, beige, white)
- A clean bedroom with all doors closed and clutter put away
- A modern lobby of a workplace that doesn’t have much decoration or color
- Your backyard
- A hiking trail where you are alone/safe
- A building/room where there is no noise, not a lot of distraction, and you don’t have to think about anything
Remember that the way you deal with panic is unique to you, and if someone else likes to be confined but you want to take a short jog in an empty field, both methods are valid.
If you prefer to be alone, make sure to try to communicate that to the person you’re with. You can even come up with an emoji code if you need to. You can send a certain colored emoji when you need space and use a different color when you don’t mind the company.
Consider a Service Dog
Did you know that service dogs can be utilized for autistic people? Service dogs are simply dogs trained to perform tasks for a disability, defined under the ADA in the US. For autistic adults, service dogs can perform the following tasks:
- Leading you out of a crowd when you have a meltdown
- Helping redirect harmful physical stims
- Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT)
- Bringing comfort items or medications for panic attacks
You can have your dog trained to benefit you specifically. If you like the idea of training your own dog, you can do that in some states. You’ll want to make sure you verify that your state recognizes owner-trained dogs and allows service dogs in training in public.
You can also have your service dog with you in non-pet-friendly housing, and they can accompany you in public once they are fully trained or trained enough to behave in public and know how to perform at least one task.
Disclaimer: You don’t need a registration or card to enter a location with your service dog. If you get asked for “papers” or are asked more than the two required questions by a business, you can report discrimination.
Ask for Help From Someone You Trust
You’ll want to try this one before your panic attack starts. When you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed, it’s probably pretty hard to communicate.
If you have a partner or live with your family and they are a safe person that you can trust, it’s a great idea to give them an idea of how they can help you when you do have a meltdown or panic attack.
For example, you’ll want to explain to them beforehand if you’ll likely have a barrier to communication. If you have difficulty communicating this, sometimes writing or using an emoji system can be helpful. Codewords can also help. You can even set up a communication app to allow you to communicate if you are non-verbal if that is comfortable for you.
If you’re not comfortable speaking or communicating with someone when you panic, let them know beforehand what works best for you so that they don’t need to speak to you when you are panicking.
Here are some ideas of ways others can help you:
- Have them bring you a weighted blanket
- Have them hug you if possible
- Have them help guide you out of a crowd or situation when you become unable to speak or extremely panicked
- Have them help redirect your attention to helpful stims
- Have them lead you to one of your safe spots until you calm down enough to communicate freely
Ask for Clarification or Accommodation
It’s totally acceptable for you to also ask for accommodation or clarification from someone who might have unintentionally caused you panic.
For example, you may be feeling panicky because your boss or a coworker is speaking rapidly with you and isn’t slowing down to allow you the time to absorb the information.
If this is the case, you can ask for accommodation to the way they’re interacting with you. Something as simple as saying, “can you please repeat that more slowly and in a little more detail. I’m having difficulty understanding what you mean when you speak quickly.”
In work settings, this may not always work out, but you may find that a lot of people just don’t understand that they’re stressing you out and will work with you to help you understand when you ask.
Panic attacks can feel debilitating at times. If you’re an autistic adult that struggles with panic attacks, there are many ways to calm down quickly and accommodate yourself. Remember that you don’t have to do it alone, either. If you have someone in your life who you trust, work with them to come up with a way that they can help you if you’re unable to help yourself.
If you want to learn more about how panic attacks work, check out BetterHelp here: https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/panic-attacks/. You can learn new ways to handle panic and learn how the body and mind function during an attack, as well as ideas for how to get help.