Self-Care Is Not Optional When You’re Autistic
Some people see self-care as a luxury, albeit a “necessary” one. Hot baths, face masks, and time spent on hobbies are considered just as important as drinking plenty of water and eating good, nutritious food. But when you’re autistic, self-care is not optional. It’s not a luxury – it’s a necessary part of life to make sure we can function at our best.
What Is Self-Care?
Self-care is not spending your evenings on the couch eating ice cream or having a wine and cheesecake night every couple of weeks (although both of those are good occasional treats). It’s also not just giving yourself free rein to do nothing. Self-care means actually taking care of yourself.
Good food and proper nutrition, plenty of water, adequate rest, and regular movement/exercise are all forms of physical self-care. Mental and emotional self-care includes not pushing yourself to the point of burnout and taking the time to rest your mind from the constant hustle and give yourself a break. Reading a book, watching a favorite show, or practicing a hobby allows your brain to calm down and reset from all of the to-do lists and deadlines and obligations.
Autistic Self-Care is Self-Preservation
The point of self-care is to reduce stress. And autistics undergo more stress than other people due to our amplified senses and the social pressures we experience. Simply living in the NT world every day puts us through a lot of sensory stress that makes us more susceptible to burnout.
Self-care is a necessary daily ritual for us. We have to work against and counteract the unpleasant, stressful input we get every day with good, pleasant sensory input to maintain a balance that will allow us to function well.
How Can Autistics Practice Self-Care?
Autistic self-care can take many forms. It’s all about what feels good, what relaxes us, what helps us to breathe easier and think more clearly.
Stimming is not only useful in stressful situations – sometimes it’s just fun! Beyond that, stimming helps the brain reach a calm state similar to that achieved during meditation. (I’m almost certain that I’ve read studies that show stimming increases alpha waves, but I can’t find any literature that doesn’t immediately start talking about deficits and why autistic brains don’t work “correctly”, so I’m not going to link any here. Please do your own research and if you find the studies I’m thinking of, please drop me a comment.) Spending time in this brain state is restorative and helps to improve anxiety and promotes relaxation and clear thinking, so stimming is an important part of autistic self-care.
Special interests are things that make us happy. We may love musicals, or cats, or biochemistry, or Old Hollywood, or slasher movies, or theoretical physics, or coloring, or Lego, or roller skating, or painting, or whatever – the possibilities are literally endless! When autistic people engage in a special interest, our brains naturally focus, despite how much we may have to fight to focus on other things. It creates a relaxed, pleasurable focus that allows our brains to do what they love to do. Just as an NT person gets a feeling of refreshment from spending time on a beloved hobby, we feel refreshed and renewed after going deep into a special interest for an afternoon.
The easiest and possibly the most important form of autistic self-care is good sensory input. I say this may be the most important because it’s the one that can really work against the build-up of little sensory stresses that we encounter throughout each day. Each little bit of enjoyable sensory input can directly counteract a little piece of stressful sensory input and a few easy changes can go a long way toward maintaining our balance.
GoodFeel textures in our clothes and compression or loose fit, whichever we prefer, are little bits of happy sensory stimuli that we can carry with us all day long. As much as a single scratchy tag can drive us crazy, clothes that feel wonderful to us can keep us comfortable even in the face of some forms of sensory stress. Scents that make us happy or relaxed can bring us back to a good place with a sniff – I don’t care whether you think aromatherapy is bunk or not, the right scent can work wonders. The same scents may not work for everyone, but when you find one you like, use it! Pleasant sounds are helpful, as well, especially favorite songs. Most of us have some emotional or sensory associations with many songs, and we can use them to access a state of calm or happiness as we work or during breaks. Favorite foods and flavors can give us a boost of pleasurable sensory input at mealtimes, which can help us get through the day or come down from stress in the evenings.
I won’t pretend that there’s a one-to-one equivalence here – I’m not saying that a soft, comfy shirt directly cancels out one loud conversation or that a good lunch of favorite foods cancels out an afternoon of working under annoying fluorescent lights. But the more sensory joy you can add into your day, the better equipped you are to handle any sensory hell that comes around.
This Takes Time
All this self-care takes a lot of time.
When I was working 30 hours a week, I took a 45-minute hot bath with some relaxing, good-smelling oils and my favorite audiobook playing nearly every day after work. And because I left work at 3pm, I still had time to do other things afterwards, when I could focus properly. This doesn’t work nearly as well now that I’m working 40 hours a week again, and I miss it.
I work full-time, plus I write this blog, plus I do some freelance writing as well – I call it working two and a half jobs. And sometimes it just about kills me. Basically, if I’m not at work, I have to be doing something productive toward this blog, my contract work, other writing, or my intended book. But I can’t, because I would burnout so incredibly fast.
So, instead of pushing myself to always be productive, I have to give myself at least two nights every week to do absolutely nothing – to just sit and knit and watch YouTube or a show I know by heart or occasionally even something new. By doing that, by taking two days a week to not be productive, I actually make myself more productive because I keep myself functioning at my best.
I dedicate several hours every week to all these forms of autistic self-care. I knit in spurts of thirty minutes to an hour at a time while watching kitten videos and QI, I get that aromatherapy bath about once a week or so, and I play my favorite audiobooks before bed. I stim as much as possible by dancing, rocking, chewing, and rubbing stimmy sequined pillows. I take every opportunity to play my favorite music in the car, and I always, always, wear sensory-pleasing clothes. At least once a month, I take one solid day on a weekend to watch an entire season of one of my favorite shows – and nothing else.
Making time for self-care is key to my productivity and functioning every day. Because I take the time to get my sensory joy, stim, and relax my brain as much as I can, I can keep up with everything that I need to do as well as the things I want to do.
How do you get your self-care in regularly? What’s your favorite form of autistic self-care? Do you have any tips for streamlining self-care for those of us with executive dysfunction?