There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world right now. While circumstances of global uncertainty are often rare, there are powerful types of forces that can happen in a person’s life that feel out of their control. On our latest podcast of Neurodiversity University, our founder, Dr. Brandon Park discusses ways to help neurodiverse students manage stress, anxiety, and worry during times of uncertainty.
What is Uncertainty Anxiety?
Anxious people, particularly those teenagers on the spectrum, are more likely to be intolerant of uncertainty. It is hard to deal with the unknown, especially on a daily basis.
They will often try to plan and prepare for everything as a way of avoiding or eliminating uncertainty. Sometimes, this works in their favor as a way to cope with the anxiety around the unknown. But, it is impossible to control every aspect of one’s life and live in fear of things they don’t know enough about.
Learning information, asking questions, and establishing routines can help teens find a sense of predictability and an internal locus of control. However, it is important to accept that there are some things in life that happen without warning. Learning to go with the flow and seek out support in positive ways is essential to minimizing anxiety around this.
Some of the ways staff at New Focus Academy support students during times of uncertainty include:
Validating their Concerns
Especially with a neurodiverse population, their emotional processes and thinking processes aren’t always very well aligned. This explains why they’re more vulnerable to emotional reactivity, atypical depression, and atypical anxiety. They are experiencing emotions that they can’t always figure out or understand cognitively. Sometimes they may feel intense emotions but struggle to pinpoint where they’re coming from. When teenagers on the spectrum display excessive worrying, it important to listen to their concerns instead of judging them for being disproportionate to the situation.
At New Focus Academy, we often begin processing groups by encouraging students to identify their emotions using our “monster feeling chart.” It’s not helpful for teens to say they’re feeling “fine,” or “good,” or “okay.” Naming specific emotions can help them to connect the dots on why exactly they might feel weird or feel scared or feel frustrated. From there, they are better able to process how their thoughts are connected to these emotions.
Communicating Information Directly
Teens on Autism Spectrum are more responsive to direct communication, as they often have a hard time picking up on sarcasm and tend to take things literally. When they begin to fixate on a situation that is out of their control, it is important to help them understand what is happening to them and people around them by providing information and psychoeducation. Being clear about a situation and explaining details, being prepared to answer questions and then the questions that come from there are essential to helping them manage uncertainty anxiety. Additionally, understanding how what they are doing can directly help them manage overwhelming situations can help them feel more in control.
New Focus Academy offers students access to personal devices, like cell phones, as part of their Technology Success Program. Students are able to contact families daily to share anxiety, to know that their families are safe, and to stay connected to them. Maintaining communication with family members helps students practice effective communication strategies with parents. This can be good practice for learning how to communicate fears and concerns and advocating for their needs without the conversation becoming escalated.
Focus on what they can control.
Many teens on the spectrum get fixated on certain concerns and struggle with rigid thinking. When they decide that something is out of their control, their thoughts are more likely to spiral from there if they are unable to identify at least one thing that will remain consistent or that can reassure them.
On their own, they might run from fire to fire, unless they can trust that other people can help them put out these sparks of fear or that these sparks of fear will not explode. While it is important to validate their concerns about what is out of their control, sometimes it is helpful to redirect certain conversations towards things they can control. Being able to talk through concerns is just as important as being able to name them.
For neurodiverse teens, making sure that they can establish or re-establish a clear routine and schedule when feeling overwhelmed can help them maintain consistency and normalcy.
Establish Emotional Safety
- Grounding techniques are essential mindfulness practices for coping with anxiety.
- Sensory awareness helps teens on the spectrum recognize when they are becoming overstimulated.
- Humor counteracts anxiety. It is hard to hold anxious feelings and laughter at the same time. Telling jokes, when appropriate, can help take the edge off events that are out of one’s control.
- Self-care encourages teens to take breaks when they’re feeling overwhelmed by uncertainty.
- Spending time outside helps teens avoid feeling stir-crazy and trapped in their negative thoughts.
New Focus Academy Can Help
New Focus Academy is a residential treatment center for boys ages 12-18 who struggle with autism spectrum disorder or other neurodevelopmental disorders. While many teens with autism have tried to mask the symptoms they experience, identifying situations they struggle with helps us create personalized treatment plans to help them meet their personal goals. The program utilizes positive reinforcement to increase the student’s self-esteem and independence. The social skills that teens on the autism spectrum learn at New Focus will help them learn to have positive social interactions, organization, and improve their self-management skills. Students are given the opportunity to gain the confidence they need to foster and maintain healthy relationships and lifestyle habits.
For more information, call us at (844) 313-6749. We can help your family today!