Autism. Anxiety and incompetence

Something that really helps me work out how to deal with Bright Eyes' high anxiety levels is to remember that anxiety stems from incompetence.

Imagine if you were plucked up from your comfortable home and moved to, I don't know, let's say Russia. You were then expected to run your household, go to work and make friends, all in a culture and a language that you didn't understand.

After a while you might figure a few things out that help you, like working out what the street signs mean, and getting a basic understanding of some common Russian words like 'yes', 'no' and 'get out of my way'. Imagine then, if you turned up at your Russian work one day, and the boss handed you a speech he wanted you to read out at the annual conference of shareholders. This would be a task that the whole world would judge you on, and your job and livelihood would depend on your performance of it.

Two things could happen. You'd either run away and pretend it wasn't happening, or you'd head to the loos for a panic attack.

If you're incompetent in Russian, you're not going to be calm about performing a high-level language task. You're going to be panicky, anxious and very uptight.

Similarly, children who are incompetent in a particular area of life will be anxious when it comes to performing a task that seems out of their league.

How do we help them?

First, we need to give up the expectation that they can perform at the level we expect - at least for now. We need to have more realistic expectations of them. We also need to give up the idea that they are 'naughty' for not trying to do it.

Secondly, we need to keep three things in mind: Break it down, slow it down, and guide them through.

To keep the language-learning analogy going, I'll never be able to give a reasonable speech in Russian without learning the basics of the alphabet. After that, I'll need to learn the words, and the grammar, and the pronunciation. I'll need to practice with Russian-speakers on a simple level to begin with. Then I'll be able to improve my business vocabulary, my speech-giving skills and my other anxieties related to speaking in front of an audience.

If I was able to do all of that with a sympathetic, competent and kind guide, so much the better. I don't feel I can do it on my own. Having someone there to walk me through is going to be a lot more productive than attempting to do it solo.

What seems to be unreasonable anxiety in an autistic (or even neurotypical child) can often be solved if we take the time to break the expectation down into manageable steps and help guide them through.