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Calming the Autistic Nervous System

Desperately wanting to begin moving from your instinctual fight-flight-freeze-fawn response to stress to a state of chill, but not sure of your first steps? Calming your sensitive nervous system takes some extra work but can completely change your life.

Hand reaching over a pool of water, creating a ripple affect
Creating Calm

Many adults with ASD experience an amplified response to what can be perceived as a potential threat, causing horrific stress.

There are multiple reasons this happens, such as:

  • Overpowering sensory sensations which lead to overwhelm.Transitions and changes in routine.

  • Your focus to detail may be your strength. Unfortunately, it isn't always appreciated by others, sometime causing unexpected, defensive reactions you did not expect.

  • Living in a world that expects you to interact in ways that don't feel natural. (Ex: prolonged eye contact, less direct "requests" that are really orders, or ambiguous deadlines.) Childhood trauma from bullying and not getting your needs met. As an adult, you find your anxiety is heightened when others do not understand your needs or desires and you are not sure how to communicate them or maybe even what they are.Your unique skill sets may not encompass abstract thinking or strong executive function abilities. When faced with situations that require these particular competencies, it is natural to experience apprehension. Inability to obtain enough support and the appropriate resources.

Your nervous system is trying to help

The sympathetic nervous system is trying to prepare you for real threats. You feel your adrenaline pumping, your heart beat becomes more rapid, your muscles tense, and you find yourself more vigilant.

Your parasympathetic nervous system is there to calm you. It allows your mind and body to recover from the stressors of life. Many of my autistic clients have difficulty getting good sleep. One reason is because their parasympathetic nervous system has not been activated to allow their minds to actually rest.

Adult struggling in bed with white sheets and eye mask
Relaxation and Rest

Our parasympathetic nervous system helps us stay well, stabilize our heart rate, deepen our breathing, relax our muscles, and decrease our vigilance. When it is activated, our immune system functions best and allows our body to repair itself. When your mind is on high alert, it is more difficult to properly assess our surroundings and determine it to be safe.

The goal is to get the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems to be in equilibrium. When you are feeling present and calm and managing your reactions to stressors, you are able to handle more of what life throws your way. It takes time and practice to be able to stop yourself from getting triggered.

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Suggestions for Finding Empowerment and Equilibrium

Special Interests

This is first on our list because taking time to do something you are passionate about can be more helpful to autistic adults than nearly anything else. Your nervous system is nearly always on high alert and you may have found that there are not many people you feel comfortable around. But, spending time doing what you love can make a huge difference, especially if you have to focus on your interest and your mind cannot think about everything else that may be bothering you.

The Calming of Cold

Cold can decrease your sympathetic nervous system’s responses to stress. Washing your face with cold water is a good first step to try when you feel overwhelmingly stressed. Studies show that cold exposure to our necks is especially impactful.

Ice Cubes
Cold can be calming

Movement and Mindfulness

Gentle movement and weightlifting calms the body and brain. Mindfulness with breathwork can calm us and has the added benefit of helping us monitor our internal states like thirst or exhaustion.

Laughter, Singing, Humming, and Meditation

Laughing 5 minutes a day has been shown to mellow our nervous system. Singing, humming, or even gargling can give you a reset. And, deep, full-belly breathing and meditation can also decrease our response to perceived threats.

Two adults laughing and holding each other
Touch can be soothing

Stimming & Sensory Tools

Allowing yourself to stim (self-stimulatory behaviors ) can help you unwind and cope with overwhelm. (Examples: rhythmic, repetitive movements such as pacing, rocking in a chair or swinging on a swing. Hair twirling, walking in a pattern, and rubbing textured objects.)

Healthy Boundaries

Creating and keeping healthy boundaries can provide a sense of security, predictability, and well-deserved calm. Consider coaching to help you create a goal centered around boundaries and support yourself as you take steps toward positive and supportive interactions with people who allow you to be your incredible self.

Soothing Touch

Soothing touch stimulates the production of serotonin and creates a sense of safety. You can give yourself a deep pressure hug or allow yourself soothing touch by someone you trust. Cuddling with your animal family members can also help you feel safe and self-regulated.

Adult snuggling with his striped kitten
Unconditional love of our pets

Relaxation Exercises

Calming practices can help the body out of dysregulation. Using them when preparing for conflict can allow you to react better. Some start their day grounded in relaxation exercises while others find doing them before sleep works best. (Examples: progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, journaling or expressive writing)

Leaning into the Calm

In the journey from anxiety to empowerment, it is crucial to recognize that your nervous system is ultimately trying to protect you. By understanding this innate mechanism and embracing strategies that promote calm, self-discovery and self-care, you pave the way towards empowerment and serenity in your life. Contact us for coaching if you would like assistance with calming your autistic nervous system.


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