Facing Frustration

Dania Jekel, MSW

Dania Jekel, MSW

Sonia Janks, Contributing Editor

About the Author

Dania Jekel, MSW is co-founder and former executive director of AANE. She was one of the first people to develop programs to train professionals about the needs and strengths of people on the autism spectrum, especially adults, women, and those who receive a diagnosis later in life. She also served on the Massachusetts Autism Commission.

There are many words and phrases connected with autism that we hear a lot — like anxiety, executive functioning, bullying, passions, social communication, and sensory sensitivities. But I think there is one word that underpins many areas, but is often ignored. That word is frustration.

The definition of frustration is “the feeling of being upset or annoyed, especially because of inability to change or achieve something.” Over the past 25 years, I have seen this emotion become a common thread when Autistic individuals feel they are unable to change a circumstance or achieve a goal (whether that is actually true or not.) The root causes are many and vary depending on a person’s traits and lived experience, but here are some of the main reasons why I often see frustration accumulate:

  • Delayed, inaccurate, or unacknowledged diagnosis. This can often be the first frustration that is the core of all of the other frustrations. Before a person’s neurological differences are recognized or understood, many things just don’t make sense. Why are certain tasks harder? Why are things confusing? Why do things seem easier for others? Even after a diagnosis is realized, frustration can continue if people you come in contact with dismiss or minimize it. 
  • Not feeling understood. Whether communication challenges make it hard for the person to convey their thoughts the way they want, or they are trying to interact with those who lack the ability to relate to different neurologies, the absence of understanding can cause deep frustration.
  • Unsuccessful attempts at social connection. Frustration is common when repeated efforts to form friendships or find a partner do not result in the kind of social life a person desires.
  • Cognitive rigidity. An Autistic individual may unrealistically expect perfection in themselves, others, or daily events. When it is difficult to be flexible, frustration is inevitable.
  • Repetitive thoughts. Dwelling on worries or reliving painful moments can overwhelm the mind, and a person may feel frustrated they can’t seem to let things go.
  • Perceived unrealized potential. Whether it is not meeting one’s own expectations or the expectations of family, friends, or society, or comparing one’s self to peers, feeling stuck can cause deep feelings of frustration.

All of this can have the unfortunate result of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion for a person on the spectrum. Continual frustration can lead to displaced anger, hopelessness, wanting to give up, and a sense of despair. The person’s behavior may appear irrational to others who only see the outward reactions. If frustration is overwhelming for you, I would like to make some suggestions that may help you reduce its presence:

  • Recognize how frustration is impacting your life. Is it keeping you locked in habits that don’t work and stopping you from trying new strategies? Are you making assumptions about yourself or others that may not be accurate? Take stock of the barriers frustration may be creating in your life. 
  • Prevent frustration in the first place if possible. We can’t avoid all frustration, but maybe we can identify patterns and come up with different approaches to address the things that routinely cause frustration. Perhaps it is possible to get outside support to help minimize the frustrations that feel overwhelming. 
  • It’s ok to pause. Stopping in the middle of a task or project is not a failure. Know it’s okay to stop and return later, especially if a break can help you recharge and gain perspective.
  • Prioritize mental health, and learn when you need a break. When you feel the first moments of frustration seeping in, find ways to divert your attention to release it. Put stuff on your phone that relaxes you or spend a few minutes refocusing with an activity you enjoy. This is not avoidance; it is a reset that can give you space and allow you to return with a clearer mind. Build in time to unwind when you know you will face frustration so you won’t approach the next situation already in a frustrated state.
  • Disclose your autism as needed. It is absolutely your choice how and with whom you share your autism. Sometimes requesting an accommodation or asking for a change is easily granted and all that is needed to diffuse a frustrating situation.
  • Outside perspectives or new strategies can help. If you find yourself in a frustration cycle and nothing seems to be working, a trusted coach, therapist, or friend may be able to help you view the problem with fresh eyes and discover new strategies to try. They could also help if you have difficulty letting go of painful memories. There may not be a quick fix, but isolating the frustration points and coming up with a new plan may help.
  • Remind yourself of your strengths and successes. Sometimes a good antidote for frustration is doing something you enjoy and which comes easily. It could be doing a jigsaw puzzle, playing a video game you have mastered, or spending time on a favorite hobby.

Above all, take off the pressure. You do not have to be defined by your work, your social status, your level of ease in communicating, or any other metric. You get to define what a fulfilling life means and what will make you happy. Shifting your focus from the things that cause frustration to the elements of your life that bring you joy will help keep things in perspective.

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