Rethinking Well-being

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH

About the Author

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH, is the executive director at AANE and the author of Parenting Without Panic. Brenda is a mom of three, and her eldest is an Autistic transgender woman. Brenda has facilitated parent support groups for over 20 years and thoroughly enjoys creating an environment where parents can find the support, information, and the community they need.

Most models of wellness include at least six dimensions: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social, and environmental. General advice on how to increase one’s well-being is plentiful – from getting enough sleep, to eating nutritious foods, to making time to be physically active. These guidelines can help any of us, whether we are Autistic or not. But I’ve also learned that there are specific areas of wellness that are crucial to Autistic well-being.

Addressing sensory processing needs

Many Autistic folks feel overwhelmed by sensory stimuli. Smells, noises, lights, movement, or touch can be too much to tolerate and require wellness strategies to lessen their impact. I’ve seen Autistic children and adults wear hats or replace florescent lighting with lamps. They might also request that co-workers refrain from strong smelling perfumes or keep windows open all year round for fresh air. Many Autistic people use noise canceling earbuds to dampen the sounds around them.

That’s certainly true for my Autistic daughter, Rachel, who gave permission to share what strategies are necessary for her own well-being. She started using earbuds to block out sound in middle school. Many parents told me that she shouldn’t be allowed to wear them because she was being anti-social. But I felt that the opposite was true. The earbuds allowed her to be with other kids and families because it muted the sounds that would have overwhelmed her and sent her running from the room with her hands over her ears. I can’t imagine what it feels like to not be able to ignore or block out sounds that others consider background noise. I’m so glad Rachel has options so that she doesn’t have to experience so much discomfort from everyday noises around her.

Acknowledging interoception blindspots

Interoception is the perception of sensations from inside the body. Many Autistic people report difficulties with the internal sense of what they feel or need. For example, some don’t realize they need to eat. So they might go too many hours without food and wonder why they feel tired or moody. Others find it difficult to feel or accurately describe pain. 

One day when Rachel was in elementary school, she didn’t look like she felt well; her cheeks were red, and she seemed more quiet than usual. She said she felt fine, but she looked sick to me. The pediatrician took one look in her throat and ears and said, “I can’t believe she isn’t crying or screaming in pain.” Rachel tells me that she still has difficulty describing how her body feels, but her doctors have learned how to ask more concrete questions to help her communicate what she is feeling physically. For people who have difficulty discerning the messages their body is sending to their brain, building in regular routines to eat, move, or check if they feel unwell may help.

Time to pursue interests

Spending time engaged in activities of interest helps relieve anxiety and stress while increasing a sense of joy. John, an Autistic teen, shared that he made sure he had time each day to read Manga, a style of Japanese comic books and graphic novels. He loved the stories and characters and could get lost in their worlds. Building time for interests into each day is a great preventative routine to promote well-being. For John, knowing he had a new Manga to read at lunch helped relieve the anxiety that often built up during the school day. Although sometimes he found it hard to put the book away at school, his teachers were committed to helping him have time to read. They saw how much reading calmed him down and helped him get through his day.

Everyone has their own wellness needs – there is not one approach that will work for all. It is important to extend as much compassion as we can and support each other’s wellness journeys.

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