The needs of autistic women are clearly going unmet — they have higher rates of depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorders, eating disorders, and self-harm. (Check out Self-Care for Autistic Women for more information on why self-care is important for autistic women.) However, they often lack the proper tools and support necessary to find healthy coping mechanisms for anxiety and stressors from daily life, which leads to even more stress and fatigue. This makes finding time to cultivate a self-care practice that much more difficult because they constantly feel tapped out and exhausted.
Additionally, autistic women often experience sensory differences, which can lead to sensory-overload, fragmentation, or shutdown. Many self-care strategies don’t address sensory needs and can actually exacerbate negative reactions and symptoms. Tasks like washing, getting enough sleep, and eating properly are all important in self-care but the sensory experiences that accompany these actions can be unpleasant or overwhelming. With that in mind, below are some suggestions for self-care for autistic women (or for anyone who finds these suggestions helpful).
Recognizing cyclical patterns of triggers and actions can be vitally important in minimizing future stress and figuring out what kind of self-care strategies work for the individual. Common triggers include crowds, smells, showering, food, unplanned events, uncomfortable temperatures, unstructured time, dental or medical visits, young children, masking or camouflaging, and unfamiliar social situations, amongst other things.
By creating a record of sensory experiences and triggers, the individual can then adapt and create an individualized routine that avoids their unique triggers. This experience of tracking and understanding can be incredibly empowering and build an increased emotional self-awareness. It can also serve as a way to determine soothing sensory experiences, which can help with self-regulation, improve executive functioning, and build cognitive flexibility.
There are a myriad of helpful therapies and options for autistic women and can be an integral part of self-care. The goal of therapy varies depending on the individual and type of therapy but it usually aims to improve functioning and support development.
Occupational therapy (OT) uses a holistic approach to “promote, maintain, and develop” different types of functional life skills. One autistic woman described her occupational therapist as the “idea generator/expert troubleshooter,” who has helped her gain a better handle on her sensory difficulties and self-harm behaviors.
Talk therapy can be used to work through social isolation, anxiety, fear, perfectionism, and many other difficulties autistic women often face, though may not always be available if the person has limited communication. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy, challenges an individual’s distorted belief system, which is often the root of anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, and OCD, all of which are comorbid with autism in women.
Music and expressive arts therapy provide an alternative to verbal therapy and can help address sensory challenges and build social connections. Mindful movement and other types of creative activities can also be incorporated into daily life to help with communication, social connection, and sensory needs.
Support networks are the cornerstone of any self-care or healing journey. However, many autistic women struggle with making and maintaining meaningful social connections and usually have “one or two close, intense friendships” rather than a large group of friends.
Instead, many autistic women often use online communities as a way to create friendships and support. Online communities like the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network, Spectrum Women, and countless other blogs, Facebook groups, and websites can bring autistic women from around the world together. Connecting with other autistic women who can truly empathize with their struggles can go a long way in decreasing loneliness and improving self-understanding.
Therapists can also offer emotional and social support for autistic women. Unlike most social relationships, the therapeutic relationship is entirely one-sided and gives the patient room to untangle and process their emotions outside the confines of traditional social rules.
Deep within all of us is the desire to connect and feel deeply seen. This is no less true for autistic women yet because it is difficult for them to read social cues, social relationships often pose an additional challenge. They often grew up feeling isolated, the victims of bullying, and not quite feeling at home in their bodies. This is only exacerbated by sensory processing challenges which makes trusting their perceptions of the world and their bodies that much harder.
Autistic people crave repetitive behaviors as a way to self-soothe for four main reasons: to relieve muscle restlessness, to obtain sensory feedback, to avoid or distract from stressful sensory stimuli, or issues with motor control.
Mindful movement such as yoga, tai chi, Nei Yang Gong Qigong, jumping, and dancing can be an incredibly freeing experience for autistic women. Moving, in whatever way feels accessible, brings motion to stagnation, both physical and emotional. It is the one universal language. It fulfills the need for repetition and sensory feedback; combats restlessness; engages the tactile, proprioceptive, vestibular, visual, and auditory senses in a safe way; and can build motor control.
It is communication without words. It is pure energy. It is the courage to let go and release control. It is permission to feel, to observe, to nurture, the internal and external landscapes of the mind and body.
You Are Enough
There will always be messages that make you feel like you aren’t doing enough, that you are too much, not enough, and everything in-between. So many self-care strategies push you do more, as if meditating, going vegan, or buying this product will be the magic fix. No matter what you are already doing, it will never be enough in some people’s eyes. They will cast judgement because of internalized ableism and try to blame you for everything that is wrong or difficult.
But it is not your fault. You are not wrong, broken, or a problem. Your emotions are real, your pain is real, your joy is real. In the words of writer and activist Lindsay Mohler, “It’s okay not to be okay… remember that you are trying your best to cope, even if it is hard in the moment… You are very valid, and no one should tell you otherwise. You’re allowed to feel how you feel.”
Although this list was by no means comprehensive, I hope reading this has helped you in some small way. If nothing else, know that you are not alone and you are doing your best and that it is enough.