Ah, cold and flu season. Never fun for anyone, but doubly less so for many Autistic people. I’m currently experiencing a particularly nasty virus and it’s been an interesting time reflecting on sickness while in bed with a virus for the first time since my diagnosis as Autistic. I’ve noticed a lot and it’s helped me unpack a lot of shame (and a little trauma) from a childhood of fairly frequent illnesses.
[Content warning: brief mention of trauma (in last bullet point), mental health complications of being sick (second bullet point).]
So let’s unpack some of it together, shall we?
- First let’s consider that many Autistic people have chronic illnesses and conditions like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue/M.E., Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, etc. We may seldom feel well on an average day, but may have learned to more-or-less cope with being chronically ill. Add in extra unpleasantness that only exacerbates our symptoms and we are champions for getting through any additional illness.
- Consider also that many of us also have chronic mental health obstacles like anxiety, depression, PTSD, and more. The point made above applies equally to mental illness. We have a lot to deal with on a healthier day and added illness makes that fight more difficult.
- Give some thought too to the terrible sensory components of being ill: inflammation, pain, fever/chills, aches, pressure, various disgusting fluids, the feel of a stuffy nose, sweating, headaches, being more overwhelmed by sounds, changes in sense of smell or taste, etc. For someone with Sensory Processing Disorder, that can be a lot. It can be so incredibly overwhelming and can induce panic and anxiety attacks.
- When sick, routines get chucked out the window. Many Autistic people thrive on the familiarity, predictability, and comfort of routine. One of our biggest comforts that allows us to mask and tolerate a good deal is suddenly and completely thrown out the window!!
- Brain fog from feeling unwell makes it incredibly hard to mask and communicate. Masking and communicating as an Autistic person can be a near-constant game of mental gymnastics and being sick makes it even more difficult to play that game.
- We may experience extreme changes in our ability to do things we normally can. We may struggle to speak, regulate or identify emotions, eat unfamiliar foods, avoid meltdowns, communicate efficiently, etc. And those abilities may change rapidly and often while sick.
- Lastly, consider the fact that many Autistics may have some level of trauma associated with being ill for a vast variety of reasons. I myself had several horrible bouts of illness as a child that were frightening for me. I also have gone through more medical testing than many people twice my age and things associated with being ill can make me incredibly scared and childlike.
Phew, that’s a lot going on, right??
So what can we as a sick Autistic or a caregiver of a sick Autistic person do?
1) Validate and praise
Really look at the list above of reasons why being sick as an Autistic might be extremely challenging:
-If you are being hard on yourself, please try to be patient with yourself and validate your feelings. It’s really hard to be sick. You’re doing well, and you’re going to get through this! Make a list of things you’re doing well: taking meds, sleeping a lot, drinking fluids, keeping calm, etc.
-If you are caring for an Autistic, please have patience. We might seem “dramatic” or “childish” from your perspective, but I challenge you to exercise empathy (lol here) and patience as you imagine what we may be going through. Validate the Autistic’s experience by saying things like “This is a really hard thing that you’re going through, but you’re doing such a great job. I’m proud of you for hanging in there.” Praise the efforts of the Autistic, even if they seem like small things to you. Do NOT make comments belittling the experience. If you need to, step away for a while (when safe) and practice some self care until you are calmer.
2) Consider temperature, texture, and taste
When ill, the very best things for me personally to combat the unpleasantness of sensory discomfort are the three T’s:
Temperature: Using a cool washcloth or a heating pad can give me some feeling of control over my body and my pain. Drinking a hot or cold liquid can also help to ground me and take some panic away. Taking a shower or bath can help majorly too.
Texture: Soothing stuffed animals, squishing silly putty, wearing fuzzy PJs, etc. are all small things that can make a big difference in keeping calm.
Taste: Using hard-candies like peppermint can help remind the body to stay present! (Be sure that you will not fall asleep and choke!) Sweet drinks or teas help me a lot too as do flavored things like Jello or similar.
3) Make a surrogate routine
Keep whatever you can in a routine–mealtimes, bedtime routines, etc. But of course many things will not be able to happen as usual. Try to make a temporary schedule with similar activities. For example, schedule times to read together when English class would normally happen.
If that fails, make a temporary schedule anyway! Examples of things to include could be: take temperature, take medicine, drink fluids, watch TV show, sleep, rest time, Skype friend/family, shower or bathe, sensory time, etc. Knowing what’s coming up with some degree of certainty can help so much and it’s great to have a reminder of when you need to take medicine and when you last drank fluids.
4) Chart a sick calendar
For whatever reason, I know logically that I will get well, but on some level, I don’t. Being sick is such an all-consuming, exhausting, and sometimes scary thing for me. I need reassurance that I will get well soon.
One thing I suggest is printing a week calendar and asking a loved one or doctor to help write out things like when the illness started, benchmarks for when the Autistic will probably be able to do certain things again, and a goal when they will probably feel much better. Feel free to make the benchmarks a period of a few days if you worry about making false promises.
Knowing how long you have to endure something is the biggest step toward tolerating it.
5) Make being sick less awful
Pamper yourself or the Autistic. Watch some TV or a movie. Eat something yummy you normally save for special occasions. Play some video games.
Now is a time for rest and relaxation. Put off whatever you can until another day. Those emails will still be there when you’re well. So will school projects and deadlines. If something is overwhelming, put it aside and do something to “indulge” in being sick: take naps, play games, etc.
Take care of you because you are so so important.