Many people on the spectrum report intense feelings of anxiety that may reach a level where treatment is required. For some, it is the treatment of their anxiety disorder that leads to a diagnosis of ASD. People with ASD are particularly prone to anxiety as a consequence of the social demands made on them. Also, changes to daily routine can exacerbate the anxiety, as can sensory sensitivities.
One way these individuals cope with their anxiety is to retreat into their special interest. Their level of preoccupation with the special interest can be used as a measure of their degree of anxiety. The more anxious you are, the more intense your interest. Anxiety can also increase your rigidity in thought processes and insistence on set routines.
One of the best ways to treat anxiety in ASD is through the use of behavioral techniques. This may involve your NT spouse (and others) looking out for recognized symptoms (e.g., meltdowns, shutdowns, the need to isolate, etc.) as an indication that you are anxious. You will need to learn how to recognize these symptoms yourself (although you might need prompting from others).
Specific events may also trigger anxiety. When certain events (internal or external) are recognized as a sign of imminent anxiety, action can be taken (e.g., relaxation, distraction, physical activity, etc.). The choice of relaxation method depends very much on your unique needs.
Some techniques include: meditation; using positive thoughts; the use of photographs, postcards or pictures of a pleasant or familiar scene (these need to be small enough to be carried around and should be laminated in order to protect them); physical activities (e.g., going for a long walk perhaps with your dog, doing physical chores around the house, etc.); massage; deep breathing; and aromatherapy. It’s best to practice whatever method of relaxation is chosen at frequent and regular intervals in order for it to be of any practical use when your anxiety occurs.
Whatever method is chosen to reduce anxiety, it is crucial to identify the cause. This should be done by careful monitoring of the “antecedents” (i.e., the thing(s) that happens before the anxiety manifests itself) to an increase in anxiety. The key issues to address when considering this strategy are: What can be done to eliminate the problem (i.e., the antecedent)? What can be done to modify the anxiety-producing situation if it can’t be eliminated entirely? Will the antecedent strategy need to be permanent, or is it a temporary "fix" which allows me to increase skills needed to manage the anxiety in the future?
The importance of using antecedent strategies should not be underestimated. People on the autism spectrum often have to manage a great amount of personal stress. Striking a balance of short and long-term accommodations through manipulating antecedents to anxiety - and the subsequent relationship problems - is often crucial in setting the stage for later skill development.
More resources for couples affected by ASD: