Safe Spaces: A Post That is In No Way About Whiny College Students and Is About Home Decorating

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When you’re autistic, most of the world doesn’t feel particularly safe. It feels confusing, unpredictable, overwhelming, and irritating. Basic daily living is like being bombarded, whether from a sensory perspective, a social perspective, or an ableist perspective.

So we’re going to talk about what I do to make myself one damn space that feels safe. I’m taking back the concept of a safe space from those who want to use it as evidence of weakness or infantilization. I’m a grown ass woman and I need a safe space to survive. If you’ve never lived feeling as if your home is unsafe, then you get to shut up and sit down. Yes I’m salty because this is important.

And because I’m autistic, this conversation about safe spaces has nothing to do with free speech, with what words you can and cannot say, or with interacting with other people at all. It has to do with creating yourself a haven.

I spoke at a conference about making life more sensory friendly as an adult recently, and after my presentation, a young woman asked me about a specific problem in her apartment that was causing her immense distress. She started to tear up when she said “I just don’t feel safe in my own home.” I have been that person. I have lived with people who didn’t understand or respect my sensory needs, while I was unable to articulate those needs and ended up on the brink of suicide. I have known what it’s like to find any nook or cranny out in the world so you can hide late into the night before you force yourself to return home.

Every person deserves at least one place in the world where they can feel truly relaxed. One space where they are not guarding against trauma or triggers, where their senses feel calm, where they can let their guard down. Humans are not built to constantly exist in a state of heightened stress and anxiety. It’s exhausting and it’s unhealthy.

The solution? Prioritize having a safe space in your own home. This is not always possible. Sometimes you have to live with roommates you don’t love for financial reasons. Sometimes you’re stuck with your parents. Other folks might have the ability and luxury to say that it’s a trade they’re willing to make. I suggest that neurodivergent folks think carefully about the toll that living somewhere uncomfortable takes on them. I know that it was not something I could tolerate. Even when you do share living spaces, it’s possible to ask for an area that is yours and yours alone, which you can decorate and fill as you choose. I highly recommend trying to create even a single room where you feel as if you can breathe easy.

That’s a lot of preamble when what I really want to talk about are the practical steps and solutions to a variety of sensory and anxiety related problems and stressors, and the variety of ways that you can create a contained space to address those stressors.

Let’s start with sensory concerns. I’ll note that when it comes to sensory needs there are two directions you can go: you can be hypo sensitive (under sensitive) or hyper sensitive (over sensitives). Both of those are real needs and should be addressed when creating a safe space in your home.

We’ll briefly run through the different senses and talk about ways you can accommodate them, but I highly suggest being creative. Googling “sensory gym” is a great place to start if you want ideas, otherwise you could consult with an occupational therapist. Make it your own: I like to have artwork that makes me smile to look at, colors that are mine, etc. Even if it’s not sensory perfect, it feels so much better when I’ve set it up MY way and it’s MY things

Sight
Sight will in many ways determine how you decorate any space that you consider a safe space. If you tend to be sensory seeking you’ll probably want bright colors, a lot of decor in pictures and textures, and possibly some fidgets with movement (a la a lava lamp). On the other hand, if you’re sight sensitive, you’ll want soft or dim lighting (definitely avoid fluorescents), decor that is minimal and easy on the eye, simplified workspaces with minimal clutter, and low screen brightness if you’re using screens.

Sound
If you’re sensory-seeking around sound, it can be tough to get your fix without irritating other people, so I’d highly recommend getting some noise-cancelling headphones so that you can crank up your volume without bothering housemates. You may also want to spend time identifying which kinds of sounds appeal to you: maybe you’ll want to learn an instrument, maybe you’re into ASMR, maybe you like to listen to music. On the other hand, if you’re sound-aversive there are a few different levels at which you can manage noise. First, if it’s possible to find a room in your home that is well insulated and add wall coverings or thick carpet, you can dampen most of the noise that way. If that’s not possible or enough, you can also use headphones or earplugs. Finally if THAT’S not enough you can also try a white noise machine to keep particular irritating sounds from getting to you.

Touch
Creating a safe space when you are sensory-seeking around touch can be quite the undertaking. That’s not because it’s hard to find ways to get input: it’s because there are so many and it’s so hard to choose and make space. You may also want a variety of types of touch and may need to have more than one space to properly meet all those needs. So for example you may want a comfy, cozy nest, which you could build with pillows and blankets that are incredibly soft. But you may also like other textures, and want mermaid pillows with sequins, or something with a bumpy or prickly texture, or perhaps something squishy. If you can incorporate all of that into one space then awesome! If not, you may need to be able to switch out your safe space, have more than one, or choose soft as a major texture and then use fidgets to bring in other textures (fidget rings, sponges, pillows, etc.)

On the other hand, if you are sensitive to textures you’ll want to think about when textures feel the least intrusive. Is it something soft? Is it when you’re taking a bath? Is it when you’re getting deep pressure? Do your clothes cause irritation? Based on your answers to those questions, you can build the space you need.

Smell
If you are the kind of person who seeks out interesting smells, your house is a great place to go wild. Bring in some flowers. Get some scented candles. Buy a variety of perfumes you can play with when you want to. If you’re not into chemical scents, Lush has strong smells that aren’t quite as harsh, or you could try essential oils. You may also want to pay attention to the different things smells can do: do you want to feel more alert? Try peppermint. Would you like to relax? Lavender is a great option.

If you cannot handle most scents, you’ll want to go in the far opposite direction. Scent-free cleaning products can reduce the overall smells, and you’ll also want to discuss with housemates if they can avoid using scents in communal areas (no candles, plug ins, etc.). Having a window nearby for fresh air is essential if scents get to you. You may also need to have headache meds on hand or whatever it is that helps you when you do get overwhelmed by scent.

Proprioception
Proprioception is the awareness of your body in space. It’s typically activated by pressure or movement. People often will regulate their proprioception with jumping, flapping, toe walking, etc. So if you need more on the proprioceptive side, your safe space may actually be more like a sensory gym, with crash pads that you can run into, a hammock or climbing wall, places to crawl or push up, stress balls and grip strengtheners, weighted blankets and vests. There are many people who report needing more proprioceptive input, and this can often be very active input. Even if you don’t have space for a full sensory gym, there are small fidgets you can use, you can roll around on the floor (yeah it looks weird but it works), or you can use resistance bands to create pressure. A final thing to note: low proprioceptive input can lead to clumsiness, so you may want your safe space to be cushy and easy to land on in case you fall or run into things easily.

Other folks feel overwhelmed by proprioceptive input. You’ll want somewhere that’s easily loungable, where you can feel low impact on your body through pillows and soft seating. You may also want to consider loose clothing, or even a bath as that can feel soft on the joints. Looking up ways to decompress your spine or ease your joints can also help: maybe you like heat on your joints or hanging upside down for decompression.

Vestibular
Last but not least we have the vestibular sense, which is what helps us balance. For folks who want more vestibular input, the sensory gym is again going to be a great option. Inverting your head gives good input, as do things like rock climbing, aerial arts, dancing, swinging, balancing, bouncing, and rocking. If you have the space, you can hang swings, create a small rock wall, or add bars to hang from. If you have less space, exercise balls are a great option for balance, spinning can help, and even wearing high heels gives some great feedback. 

On the other hand, if you dislike vestibular input, you’ll probably get nauseous easily and dislike those types of movement. Slow, predictable movements with deep pressure can help to calm your vestibular sense. That might mean lying on your back and gently moving your legs, or even staying totally still. Another thing to keep on hand would be nausea meds.

 

 

You might notice that there are a couple of senses that I’ve left out, specifically taste and interoception (the awareness of your internal processes, like hunger or the need to use the bathroom). The reason I left them off is because those generally are senses that either you have to seek out (taste) or that you simply have to respond to. If you want yummy food or reminders to pay attention to your interoception, you can customize your space as needed!

The second set of considerations for your safe space are supports for anxiety. Again, this will be something that you’ll need to customize to your own likes and needs, however I like to keep reminders of all the skills that I typically use for managing anxiety. That might be a list of DBT skills, or a list of the people I trust, or notes of common mindfulness practices. It’s also important that your safe space has all the tools that you need to actually use those skills.

For example I often use my weighted blanket when I’m anxious so I would want that to be stored in my safe space. If I do a guided meditation, I’d want the script or app at hand. Speaking of having things at hand, another important element of a safe space for anxiety is to have all the things you might need for basic fulfillment (like food, sleep, drink) easily at hand. One of the easiest ways to quickly reduce anxiety is to ensure that all those needs are fulfilled, so it’s important to include them in a safe space.

I also like to make sure that if I need to, I can have another person around, but that it’s generally solitary. Pay attention to your preferences about socialization. You might want to have a trusted someone around all the time.

Finally, I try to create a space that is full of things that make me smile. You might like to include mantras or reminders that help remind you of how great you are. I personally prefer having pictures or decor that’s 100% me and that makes me smile. I personally have Pinterested quite a bit to figure out what aesthetic helps me feel calmer, then tried to incorporate that in my spaces. Sometimes it’s as simple as “I really like hexagons and colors” so you put a mural on the wall.

It might seem frivolous, or like that will never make a difference, but don’t knock it till you try it. There’s something surprisingly calming about a space that feels like your own, and one of the fastest ways to put your imprint on a space is to add things to the walls or put up some paint.

What tips do you have for creating a safe space in your home?

Interoception, Tokophobia, and Dysphoria: Sorting Out Gender in a Confused Body

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I have a phobia of pregnancy. A full on, nightmares and panic attacks phobia (it’s called tokophobia). When I think about the idea of my body growing and changing in ways that are out of my control and often highly unpredictable, I feel sick. The idea of another being using my body is terrifying. Add in the fact that pregnancy and childbirth often come with weird and wacky side effects that either no one tells you about or no one can predict, and I am 100% out. These are all the things that terrify me about having a body and that lead me to instantly imagine diving headfirst back into my eating disorder.

Unrelated fact about me (but maybe it will be related soon, we’ll find out together): when I was a child, I had some issues with going to the bathroom. Not like I wet myself. Like if I held my pee for too long, it would reverse and give me bladder infections. All of my earliest memories are related to these experiences: I remember the awful bubble gum flavored antibiotics I had to take every night. I remember the testing they did, where I’d go to the hospital and they’d pump my bladder as full as possible to see when it would happen (while my mother desperately tried to distract me from the pain and discomfort). I remember the surgery I got to correct it, which left a scar right over my pubic mound. I spent somewhere between 3 and 5 days in the hospital. I didn’t eat or sleep. I spent one full day after abdominal surgery puking. I just remember pain and boredom.

That was some personal shit, so let’s talk instead about genitals and reproductive organs.

You’ll notice that neither of these stories revolves directly around my experience of my genitals or my experience of clothing/gender roles/etc. Instead, it relates to my internal experience of my body (a sense called interoception). I don’t have great interoception. I’m pretty bad at noticing when I’m hungry or when I have to pee or when I’m thirsty (I used to think thirst was just a craving for ice cream. Not a joke). However, to me, it is still intimately tied to gender and sexuality. Most of these internal experiences come from the area around my genitals, the areas tied to sex and reproduction. While my bladder isn’t directly tied to giving birth, my stupid lizard brain only knows that it’s the same area where I get period pain and where sex happens, so it all gets tied in together.

My experiences of my own body feel foreign and fearful. I don’t know how to interpret this in my gender. Reproduction is so deeply gendered in our society that giving birth is intimately tied to being female (despite the fact that non women do give birth, and many women do not give birth). My phobia of pregnancy is inherently gendered because of that fact. I have dysphoria around experiences that in this society are explicitly “female”.

Where does this leave me in terms of gender? I KNOW that one of the elements of my gender identity is not only that I do not want to reproduce but I don’t want the ABILITY to reproduce. The fact that there’s still a uterus in me makes me vastly uncomfortable. My period makes me want to die (and for reference, my period is literally the chillest period ever to period. It lasts 5 days tops, is always a light flow, and rarely comes with cramps. But it still makes me hate myself and my body). I have dysphoria about these parts of my body.

What I don’t have is a particular desire to be a man. A penis with fucking sperm in it sounds just as bad as a vagina that makes babies. I don’t hate my genitals per se. But I have so much fear and anxiety about them that it almost translates into that.

I don’t have any clear bow to wrap up this series of thoughts. I’ve never heard a story like this one before, where the dysphoria is almost entirely about internal experiences and reproduction rather than the social role that is gender. I so rarely hear the discussion of “is this I hate my body or is this gender dysphoria?” How do traumatic body experiences create gender? I don’t know how to fit it into the narratives that currently exist. I don’t know how to name it.

Add in to the mix the fact that hating pregnancy is seen as an attack on women and you’ve got a recipe for silence and exclusion. So here I am. Talking about it. Letting it be seen. My gender is the kind that doesn’t reproduce. The kind that’s no uterus, no penis, no ovaries, nada. I’m me, not a parent. That’s it.

 

Sensory Processing: When You Need To Go Up

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So I have a new therapist and I love her. Which means that there are about to be a lot of posts about personal insights coming your direction, because it’s been literally years since I’ve had a therapist who is pushy enough to get me to talk and insightful enough to make suggestions I haven’t heard before. And let me tell you she dropped some insight on me yesterday and it’s only our third session and I was not ready for her to pick up on my needs so dang quickly. This is your regular reminder to get you a therapist that feels right to you, because I have struggled through about five therapists who weren’t right and got nothing, and in 3 hours this lady has done more for me than any of them.

But today we’re not going to be talking about therapists and how awesome they can be. Today we’re going to talk about an element of sensory needs that is so rarely discussed that I work at the autism society and I flipping forgot about it: when you need more sensory energy instead of less. To clarify: I’m not talking about needing more sensory input vs. less sensory input. I’m talking about which direction the input takes your nervous system.

This can be a confusing distinction, so let’s take a couple of steps backward and see if we can work from there. When humans are faced with conflict, our nervous system activates: we hit fight or flight. But some of us have a freeze tendency. We leave our bodies, we dissociate, our energy and adrenaline seem to disappear. On an everyday basis it’s always useful to be balanced between that high energy reactivity which you may need because it activates you to go and do, vs. the calm that keeps you from getting overwhelmed and overstimulated.

We often think about sensory input as a way to bring people down: are you having a meltdown? You may need different sensory input. Are you running and screaming and have too much energy? Maybe you need some deep pressure. We think of the senses as a way to calm people down because it’s much easier to see if someone is dysregulated when they’re highly energized and all over the place.

But sensory input can go the other direction too. It can also bring someone’s energy levels up. The example that we were talking about was my average workday. Therapist asked what I do for self care at work (and I laughed), so we discussed where I tend to be on an anxiety level at work. I tend to be hugely disconnected from my body. I dissociate. I ignore my bodily needs. You know, the usual. What we realized was that I was getting really minimal sensory input of the type that makes my body feel good and capable: the proprioceptive, vestibular, spinny, pressure, bouncy goodness that keeps me awake and connected to my body.

It had literally never occurred to me before that I needed to be more activated at work, since we spend so much time thinking about reducing anxiety, staying calm, bringing our emotions down, etc. But here we were, talking about ways to hype me up. Get that nervous system flaring and energized. It was wild but made so much sense, as my responses always tend towards shutdown rather than meltdown, fatigue rather than insomnia, just falling asleep instead of facing my problems. When I do hit high anxiety or high activation, I know how to respond: I know the breathing techniques, I know the mindfulness, I know the sensory input that helps to calm me down.

What I DIDN’T know was what wakes me up and gets me excited. I didn’t even know that I needed to think about that. I think that this is one of the downfalls of focusing our discussions of autism and sensory processing disorder almost exclusively on children. Kids tend to have more energy than your average adult. It’s rare that I hear discussions of sensory supports that talks about people who fall asleep at the drop of a hat, or people who won’t get out of their chair or move. Those are the folks whose nervous systems are down down down. And I’ve noticed that the older people get, the more likely they are to deal with the fatigue, low energy, no activation style of sensory processing.

In order to deal with the fatigue and low energy, we’ve decided that I need to introduce sensory breaks into my day to get up and walk around, as well as start using a yoga ball for seating at least some of the time (so I can do a bit of the bouncy input).

I think it’s incredibly common that issues like sensory processing disorders get pigeonholed as one thing, and the people who fall on the reverse side get a bit boned. I’m always excited when a therapist points out the quieter side of a spectrum and reminds me to notice those needs.

Hacking Your Executive Function Masterpost

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Now that I’ve finished all of the content for my Hacking Your Executive Function series, I want to make sure that there’s a relatively easy way to find everything, since scrolling back through 50 odd posts doesn’t sound super fun. To help you all with that, I’m going to link every post organized by topic here. Hope you enjoy!

Emotion Regulation

  1. Emotion Regulation Definitions and Basics
  2. Emotion Regulation Skills From DBT
  3. The Logic of Emotion Regulation
  4. Emotion Regulation and Self-Care
  5. Emotion Regulation From the Outside

Inhibition

  1. What the Heck is Inhibition
  2. Ignoring Distractions and Controlling Attention
  3. Resisting Temptations
  4. Using Mindfulness to Increase Inhibition
  5. Using Momentum to Manage Inhibition

Transitions

  1. Transitions
  2. Ending a Task
  3. Starting a Fresh Task During Transition
  4. Transitions That Aren’t Tasks
  5. Unexpected Transitions

Working Memory

  1. Working Memory
  2. External Reminders
  3. Ritual, Repetition, and Routine for Working Memory
  4. Sensory Memory
  5. Memory Tricks

Initiation

  1. Initiate Initiation Sequence
  2. Breaking Down Large Tasks
  3. Use These Weird Initiation Tricks: Doctors Hate Them!
  4. Don’t Let Anxiety Get in the Way
  5. Use Behaviorism

Organization and Planning

  1. Let’s Talk About Planners
    2. It’s Tech Time
    3. Organizing Physical Spaces
    4. Time Management
    5. Rewards and Reinforcements

Self-Monitoring

  1. Practice Your Self Monitoring
    2. Using Goals to Monitor Your Progress
    3. Identifying Your Strengths and Weaknesses
    4. Noticing Your Own Emotions
    5. Supported Self-Monitoring

Hacking Your Executive Function: Supported Self-Monitoring

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Welcome to the end my friends. I’ve been so happy to work through all the skills that I know in executive functioning (and a few I’ve grabbed from other folks) with you all. I hope you found the series as helpful and interesting as I did, because writing it gave me quite a few ideas. But here we are at The Final Post of Hacking Your Executive Function. To finish up we’re going to end on an area that always makes me happy: letting other people support you. In this case we’re going to talk about marrying self-monitoring with a support system that can help you be self-aware.

It might seem a bit counterintuitive that other people can help you be self-aware, since it’s a skill that’s self-initiated and self-directed, but I like to use other people to help me tune my perceptions to reality, as well as to help me practice. I also know that sometimes I don’t have the ability to be as self-aware as I would like, and in those cases I think it’s a-ok to ask someone else to step up and be aware for you.

Let’s break down those functions.

The first way that I like to get support in my self-monitoring is by comparing my own perceptions to other people’s perceptions. I find that it’s not uncommon that I think I’m coming across one way, but other people are perceiving me a different way. It’s important to me to know that. There are a few people that I trust deeply (my husband, a few friends who understand being on the spectrum, etc.) who I check in with when I’m uncertain about something. I might say “Hey, I thought I was being friendly but people didn’t react to me like that. Any ideas what’s up with that?”

I also will sometimes use explicit verbal communication when I’m having difficulty with my self-monitoring. So sometimes at work or with a friend I might say “Hey I think I came across as irritated or sarcastic, but I want you to know that I’m being completely sincere, I’m just anxious about x unrelated thing. Are we on the same page?”

I can also use other people’s perceptions to help me check reality. I might think that I’m being really quiet, but it turns out I’m using a loud voice. I can ask a trusted friend to let me know if I’m getting super loud. In a completely different direction, my anxiety often means that I have really bad self-perception. I think I’m awful at literally everything. This is in some ways a failure of executive function (I literally cannot tell if I’m being accurate in my perception of how I look or if I’m talented). So I check in with my friends. I ask them to remind me on the regs that I’m awesome. I ask them to point out specific things they think I’m good at. It helps me recalibrate.

On the other hand, there are some areas where my self-monitoring isn’t very good right now but I think I could improve it in the future. In those cases I’d rather try and ask someone to help me practice. Perhaps I’ll work on a project and then show it to a friend and ask for feedback (e.g. I think this paper is a little unfocused but that the thesis is very strong. What do you think? How could I make it better?).

For something less concrete I may just ask someone to check in with me regularly while I’m working on a skill. For example, I have a hard time realizing when I’m talking about things that are too personal or embarrassing involving my husband. He pointed it out to me, and I tried to be more aware of it, but it wasn’t sticking very well. Not super consciously, I started debriefing with him after we were out together to check in about what fit within his comfort level and what didn’t so that I could understand what I was doing. If I told a story involving him, I’d ask later if it was ok. Over time, it became second nature not to violate his boundaries without thinking.

Finally, there are some circumstances where I might just ask someone else to be my self-monitoring for me. This is something that I’ll use in particular circumstances where I don’t have the spoons myself, or where a situation is particularly challenging. For example, if I’m going somewhere in which the social expectations are particularly challenging or specific, I would ask the person I was attending with to give me a nudge or a signal if I do something outside of the social norm. Typically I don’t care, but at an important place (let’s say a relative’s wedding) I might want to behave more neurotypically for the sake of ease and politeness. Having another set of eyes on you to let you know if you’re using the wrong dang fork or breaking some other silly expectation can be really helpful.

As always, that’s a tool to use as you see fit! If anyone else says that they want to fix a behavior for you or tell you when you’re behaving a way they don’t like, screw them. You get to choose if you want to be flappy or make eye contact or script or whatever.

And that’s all from me. Thanks for coming on this weird journey with me folks!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Noticing Your Own Emotions

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At the end of the last post, I dipped gently into the waters of emotional self-monitoring and regulation, which we’ve talked about in depth during the emotion regulation section, but which we’re going to talk about here in regards to “behaviors” and self-awareness. I’m going to spend a full post on this because for us neurodivergent folk, acting in ways that don’t make sense to neurotypicals can cause serious issues, if not put us in danger. Being self-aware of how your emotions are affecting your behavior and how to get what you need in a neurotypical society is a pretty important coping strategy in my experience.

In addition, I also find that it becomes much easier to engage overall emotion regulation tactics if you’re aware of your own behavior and emotions, and in turn that helps you become aware of the progress you’re making on tasks or productivity. It’s all linked.

So what am I talking about when I mention the self-awareness of behaviors and emotions?

Some people would see emotions and behaviors as very separate forms of awareness, but they seem quite linked to me. Let’s start with behavior and then talk about how it relates to emotions. Because people with executive dysfunction or neurodivergence tend to have unmet needs (thanks living in a world that’s not built for us), we are more likely to do things to get our needs met. We might fidget or stim. We might meltdown. We might yell or become aggressive. In my personal experience, these actions tend to be less conscious than some other behaviors. I’m not always aware that I’m stimming, it just happens, as opposed to something like cooking where I have to decide to do it and consciously follow the steps.

Every person has some behaviors that they do unconsciously or semi-consciously. Where it becomes a problem is when those behaviors a. hurt you or someone else or b. get in the way of you accessing spaces and getting your needs met or c. are illegal. I will also include a qualified “it’s socially inappropriate” because that really depends on the level of social appropriateness. Flapping or not making eye contact? That really isn’t a problem. Sticking your hand down your pants in public? Yeah, probably a problem. Screaming in church or laughing a funeral? Definitely up for some debate.

Executive functioning comes into play in that it helps us be aware of what we’re doing, when we’re doing it, and how others are responding to it. The reason that emotions are important here is because behaviors don’t happen for no reason. We need to be aware of the motivations and needs that underly each behavior before we can really intentionally decide when and how we choose certain behaviors.

That was a lot of preamble. What can you actually do to become more self-aware of what your body is doing and improve your self-monitoring?

Unsurprisingly, I’m going to recommend making a schedule for yourself, because if a task isn’t regularly integrated into my life I immediately forget about it. Basically, I try to schedule in time during which I explicitly pay attention to what I’m doing and how I’m feeling. Those can be break times so that you can reset or it might just be an alarm that goes off while you’re at work so that you pause for 30 seconds and take stock.

That kind of noticing is the beginning of mindfulness. As I’ve mentioned before, mindfulness is just being aware of what’s happening right now and staying present in the moment. It’s the opposite of imagining the future or replaying the past. The more aware you are of the now, the easier it will be to notice what you’re doing and how to respond.

When I schedule in breaks I like to use a mindfulness practice to check in with myself. I might try progressive muscle relaxation or a five senses activity. If you specifically want to check in on a particular behavior or emotion, you might jot down a couple of questions to ask yourself each time you have these short breaks. Let’s use me for an example! This is a technique that I really should be using because I want to stop picking at my fingers as much. It’s a fairly stimmy behavior, but it hurts and I do it to the extent that my fingers bleed so I’d prefer to stop. If I set three alarms throughout the day to check in and see if I am picking at my fingers or have been picking at my fingers, I’m likely to stop doing it so unconsciously.

The second element of these mindfulness breaks is to note your emotions. I know that I finger pick more when I’m anxious, however if I wasn’t sure what emotions were connected with the behavior I would have a harder time knowing why I do it. Once I understand why I have an easier time of replacing it with something that works for me (I try to use fidgets instead of my fingers) or to use my emotion regulation skills before I hit the level of anxiety that leads to finger picking.

Regularly checking in on emotions also helps to increase your emotional awareness overall so that you can deal with emotions before they become a problem. Your emotions can also help let you know when a need isn’t getting met so you can decide what you want to do to meet it before your body starts meeting it without your consent. That might be too abstract. Let’s say you are someone who has meltdowns. The really big, unpleasant, awful ones.

You practice noticing your emotions for a few weeks and you start to get better at it. One day you start to notice that your anxiety and fear are going up over the course of the day. You notice that people are placing a lot of social demands on you and you need a break. You also notice that you’re starting to feel incredibly sensitive to sounds and that it’s making you angry. The awareness of what you’re feeling and why give you the opportunity to decide how to manage it. Maybe you find a way to be alone in a quiet space for half an hour. Maybe you get some deep pressure because that calms you. The idea is that you get to decide how to respond to keep yourself safe and continue your life uninterrupted.

This kind of awareness can also help with some of the more on the fence situations. Let’s say you are at a somber or quiet event (like a funeral) and you know that when you’re uncomfortable you tend to laugh. Knowing that will allow you to pay attention to how uncomfortable you’re growing at this particular event. Now is there anything inherently wrong with laughing because of discomfort? No. Is it possible that it would feel really disrespectful to some of the other people there? Yeah. Do you want to stop yourself from laughing at a funeral? Maybe. But knowing that it’s your tendency allows you to make the choice.

You can use many of the skills we talked about in emotion regulation to identify emotions and decide how to respond to them, but it’s important to note that being aware of your behavior and emotions (as well as the link between them) is an additional skill you can practice. Good luck friends!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Identifying Your Strengths and Weaknesses

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One of the elements of self-monitoring that I find challenging is determining what skills you can bring to the table, and how to apply them to the task at hand vs. what elements will be particularly challenging and how you can get support. I like to think of this as a two parter: one is determining the parts of the task that seem like they will be challenging and which will be easy. The other is reflecting on yourself and figuring out what you can do well vs. not so well.

Let’s start with assessing tasks. You may need to rely on someone else to begin with if you really struggle to know what you can and can’t do. If you’re looking at a project or task and aren’t sure about it, you can pull in a trusted friend and ask them whether they think it will be difficult or not. Offer your own reasons you think it might be hard or easy and ask them for feedback. Work together to develop a strategy that addresses the difficult element (this math problem will be challenging because it has many steps. We can work on that by clearly writing out each step and checking our work for each before we move on to the next). Afterwards you can reflect together on whether your predictions were right.

That might seem kiddish, but I do find it helpful to talk through things instead of getting stuck inside my own head. If you don’t like working with another person you can follow those steps on your own. If you’re struggling with the first step, you can think of tasks that are similar to the one you’re doing and whether those were hard or difficult. I do this a lot with my aerial practice. When I watch a new skill being demonstrated I try to connect it to something I already know. If it’s made up of pieces that I can already do, then I know I’ll be able to do the new thing. If it includes an element that I know I struggle with, I know I’ll have to focus specifically on that area.

It’s easy to use these types of exercises to focus on what will be hard or what you’re worried about. I want to encourage you to remember that part of assessing your own skills is knowing what you can do well. You’ll also want to try to identify the elements of a task that you know how to do. Have you done it before? Were you successful? Have you completed something similar? What skills did you use?

Sure, we can learn from failure, but we can also learn from success. It teaches us what works. It teaches us what we’re capable of. It can also help you to understand how to approach a task. Let’s say in the past you had written academic reports. Now in adulthood you’re being asked to write a short description of a project you’re working on. They may not be exactly the same, but you’ll understand that you start with brainstorming, then you create an outline, then you draft the story. I always try to start a project by comparing it to something I’ve done successfully in the past, then drawing out the elements I understand so that I can approach something new with skills that are comfortable and familiar.

In addition to paying attention to the task itself you also want to notice what you bring to the table for any given problem. I find it pretty challenging to know what I’m actually good at (thanks depression for lying and saying it’s nothing), so I often ask others to reflect back to me what they see me doing well, and I try to carefully note when I see myself do something successfully. I might literally take notes on it, like a self-review. For me personally, I’ll note that I’m good at writing, I’m good at organizing, I’m good at completing tasks quickly, but I’m not great at details and I’m pretty bad at reviewing my own work. Other people think they’re great at everything and might need reminders of the places they struggle.

You can put your own strengths and weaknesses together with what will be challenging or easy about the task and notice the places that you might need some help. I also think that it’s important to recognize that accurately assessing your own strengths and weaknesses as well as the challenges of a particular task doesn’t just apply to things like work or school.

It’s really common for providers or caregivers to talk about self-monitoring in regards to “socially inappropriate” behavior. So a provider might say that a person with low self-monitoring just doesn’t notice when they’re doing something inappropriate, and that’s why we need to increase their self-monitoring abilities (so that they stop stimming or start making eye contact or whatever).

I’m not super into that. I think a lot of the behaviors that providers want to extinguish are a-ok. However, I do think that it can be helpful to be self-aware because there are circumstances in which you might want to choose not to do them or choose to do them less (I change my behavior pretty drastically during a job interview for example).

Strengths and weaknesses or goal-setting aren’t really frameworks that make sense for things like stimming. Instead, I prefer to think of them in terms of needs. Many, many people have a hard time identifying what they need in a given moment, and for those of us whose needs are out of the ordinary, it can be even more challenging. In addition to noting strengths and weaknesses, I try to take time to be aware of my body and what it’s communicating to me (I’ve mentioned mindfulness in other areas of this series, but you may prefer something else), as well as noting basic needs like sleep, hunger, or social comfort.

If you can identify the need that a particular behavior is satisfying, then you can make decisions about how you would like to satisfy that need, whether it’s bringing a very small fidget to a job interview so that you can stim quietly under the table, or being loud and proud about your hand-flapping in public. This can also be helpful for dealing with behaviors like self-injury.

You can also use the strengths/weaknesses lens to think about how you want to approach “socially inappropriate” behaviors. For example, I know that I’m pretty great at sitting still and focusing, but I am balls at small talk. I also know that it takes a lot less out of me to sit quietly in the corner than it does to try to be polite and friendly. So when I need to mask or when I want to be unobtrusive, I use my quiet, camouflaging skills rather than trying to interact with other people. Masking is a personal choice, but if you decide you’d like to do it, there are easier and harder ways to do it. Pick the ones that work for you.

I always prefer to use as many strengths as possible and circumvent my weaknesses. Instead of trying to force myself to do something I struggle with, why not find an alternative way that uses my skills? The more you pay attention to what you’re good at, the more you’ll find your own methods of success that actually work for you.