Really high anxiety levels

Hi, I have a 14 year old son with ASD and since before Christmas his anxiety levels have been really high, but this week things have got a lot worse...he can’t go in any lessons at school and his whole personality has changed.

The one thing that scares me is his eyes, at times they shake from side to side though anxiety I think but he is snapping and just really isn’t his happy smiling self.

would anyone have any advice for me to help him? 

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  • Although I didn't know about my autism at the time (diagnosed in my 40s), I went through an incredibly difficult phase in my life at around the same age as your son.  The changes we're surrounded by at that age can be particularly bewildering for an autistic person.  Not only are you experiencing changes in yourself due to adolescence, but all of your peers are going through those changes too - which changes the social fabric around you.  I can remember being so frustrated that I had almost worked out most of the social "rules" for getting through a day at school, and then feeling totally lost as the rules started changing - gender becoming more of an issue, friends experimenting with flirting, peer groups changing as people grew into their adult personas.

    It may be important to make sure that your son is fully aware of what anxiety is and how to identify it.  For many autistic people, the links between our conscious mind and our body, or between our conscious mind and our emotions, don't always work quite the same as for most other people.  Even at my age, I find myself sometimes thinking, "I'm aching from sitting all hunched up", "Why can't I carry this drink without spilling it?", "Concentration seems so hard today." - but I don't always make the connection between those physical feelings and my emotions.  I need to very consciously work through the physical feelings so that I can identify what emotional state is causing them - "Aha! The shaking and poor concentration could be a sign that I'm stressed out today."

    Before I learned to monitor my physical feelings like this, they used to be extremely confusing, because I didn't know what they meant.  Because of this, anxiety could (can still) creep up on me unawares, as I see no warning signs and will simply do my best to behave as I normally would - the idea of asking for help wouldn't even occur to me. Eventually, the anxiety gets so bad that my mask slips, which to everyone else, looks like a very sudden collapse into extreme anxiety (shaking eyeballs is almost certainly a sign of this if there's no physical cause, it happens to me too.)  Of course, it may be that there is a specific trauma which has led to such a sudden change, but don't rule out that it may be the result of many lesser stresses which have accumulated over time, and which have finally brought the facade of "passing as normal" tumbling down.

    If you, or a counsellor etc., can help your son to make this connection between the physical sensations of stress and the emotional state we call "anxiety", it will give him two major advantages...

    Firstly, he will now know that, while it is not pleasant, anxiety is a legitimate way to feel - an emotional state which could occur to anybody, and which is usually only temporary.  It's important for him to realise this so that that his inability to function normally doesn't itself cause even more anxiety in a horrible vicious circle.  He can then move forward from worrying about his current state towards working out the cause and seeking a way to manage it.

    Secondly, it will help him to spot the warning signs of building anxiety, so that he can ask for help or use other coping mechanisms to tackle it long before anything more acute can befall him.  This also makes it easier to identify what is causing the anxiety, because the low-level warning signs happen close to the time of the things causing them, rather than having weeks or months of previous experiences to sift through.

    Having a wonky link between emotions and consciousness can make it tricky to identify what has caused us to feel a certain emotion sometimes - the emotional feeling can be delayed for a while after the event.  So do be very patient with him.  Let him know that you're concerned, and there for him when he is ready to talk, but try to avoid bombarding him with questions about it.  Very often, when someone asks me how I feel about something, I simply can't answer, because I don't know yet myself - answering "I don't know" doesn't usually mean that I'm being evasive or that I'm ashamed to tell; it's often just the honest answer.  When he's ready to talk, you may need to gently go through the possibilities with him one at a time.  Hearing them from somebody else may help him to make the connections that he needs to.  I even find that scenes from books or even children's cartoons can help me to have that "Eureka" moment where I grasp what I'm feeling and why.

    I hope you find this advice useful, and that your son recovers soon.  Best Wishes.

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