The spectrum-impacted and the worrisome

 By Julian Finholm

  Anxiety is ubiquitous on campus. Ever-concerned students are everywhere, from Diversions Café customers to the campus library goers. Nowhere on campus is completely safe from stress, and our many mental health resources are a testament to how prevalent anxiety is on campus. However, anxiety isn’t the only hurdle students deal with. For me, one of those hurdles is autism. According to the American Psychiatric Association, autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is characterized by “persistent deficits on social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts,” including repetitive behaviors, a hyperfocus on unique interests, and more. As someone with ASD, I can relate to these on an intimate level.

In 2000, data from the CDC indicated one in 150 children had ASD — by 2018, that statistic rose to one in 44 children. Another 2018 study from the American College Health Association found that 63% of college students in the US felt overwhelming anxiety. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports a 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide triggered by the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. Autism and anxiety are dynamic forces in university life, but I rarely feel that the intersectional struggle is seen or understood.

  My autism is something I’m sometimes ashamed of but that’s because I struggle managing it properly. I don’t always pick up on social cues despite always trying my best to be attentive. Other times, I have serious trouble saying what I mean to people. My quirks can either confuse or enrage people which in turn fills me with guilt which amplifies my anxiety.

  My anxiety is my greatest enemy. I’m constantly on edge that I might make people mad, I worry about not getting things done, and I’m constantly second-guessing my choices. I get scared that I might make people upset and feel so much overwhelming guilt when I do so. It’s like a mental film reel that never stops. I can’t live in the moment even when I want to be in it. Luckily for me, I’m not alone in this struggle.

  Reuben Fellman (‘25) manages both his autism and anxiety on a day-to-day basis, but is aware of the difficulties autistic people have with conventional anxiety management strategies. “Everyone is capable of developing tools for anxiety management, but it must be recognized that the majority of anxiety coping skills are not made for or by autistic people and are not relevant to us. Even when we are able to create an impressive arsenal of anxiety management strategies, we often find ourselves in environments (such as school or employment) that actively restrict our ability to apply those anxiety management skills,” he said over text.

  I relate to this. I try various strategies to cope with my anxiety. I try lightly rubbing my hand, replacing my thoughts with happy thoughts. But they’re always rebuffed by the intensity of my negative thoughts. What’s worse is that there are times I’m supposed to focus more on work or school than myself. Some strategies work for some but don’t work for others, myself included. Yet having these strategies to cope with anxiety is an amazing starting point.

  One thing that makes me feel better is, again, that I’m not alone. Yes, anxiety is a scary thing for people like me — not to mention the fact that managing it is a whole other battle. But these starting points, or strategies, give us hope that it doesn’t have to rule our lives. And our autism does have merits to it. This ranges from our increased focus on certain interests to our analytical approach to solving problems. So, all we can do is face these challenges and learn from them while living with them