The buzzword for the past few years in wellness circles and in the mainstream has been "self-care." What is it really? How does one practice self-care? What does it mean if you aren't? How is self-care different for Autistics?
The origin of the term self-care comes from the medical community to refers to caring for one's medical condition without assistance. It was a way to measure patients' abilities to provide care for themselves and improve self-efficacy.
In the 1960s and 70s, Black activists adopted the term and the action of self-preservation in order to sustain the Civil Rights Movement and its participants from fatigue and burnout. The Black Panthers created a system of community care to combat racism in the medical community and the poverty that comes with racism. Dr. Alondra Nelson writes about this work in Body and Soul found here. Activists have continued to focus on self-care and have taken the concept to the next step: radical self-care, which is the idea that caring for one's self is required in order to do activism, advocacy, and more.
Jump back to now: self-care is all bubble baths and me-time--And it is! But it's much more than that. There are also some special extras for Autistic (and other neurodiverse people).
What IS self-care then? Self-care is any action that restores and maintains oneself without taking any collateral. Self-care exists in every domain of life. For most neurotypical people, self-care is getting a break to recharge. It's not that simple for Autistic people. A regular break is certainly a need, but it's not enough. We need to practice micro-self-care, daily self-care rituals, and BIG to-do self-care to keep up with the toll of being a person in a late-capitalistic society especially if we are doubly marginalized by being in another group subject to oppression.
Self-care for Autistic adults
A lot of the same rules that apply to general self-care also apply to self-care for Autistics. Yes, breathwork is great, and guided meditations can be wonderful too (if it's trauma-informed!). Tara Brach's compassion meditation R-A-I-N? Perfect! However, we have additional considerations to attend to that neurotypical people do not. First, let's examine basic human needs using the hierarchy established by psychologist Abraham Maslow.
Hierarchy of Needs
Take a moment to look at the hierarchy of needs. I'll add with some additions that are specific to being Autistic below. Maslow's hierarchy of needs isn't the end all of understanding the needs of humans and may not be in the exact right order for every person, but it's got the general rules in place, especially for the lowest levels.
Image credit etsy.com/CounsellorCronan
At the bottom of the pyramid are things that must be addressed. The idea is that in order to be able to attend to things higher up, you have to have the lower levels act as supports. I don't think this is necessarily the case. I believe you can have issues with housing and safety and still have morals, for example. However, our morals and ethics can certainly be more pliable if we need to do things to allow ourselves to be housed and safe.
The bottom of the pyramid are things that keep us alive and comfortable.
When I'm in a slump, burnout, or think I'm headed that way, I focus on these things: quality sleep, drinking enough water, eating nutritious food, getting fresh air outside, and cleaning my home. I would also include health in this--exercise--even if it's light.
"When things are the most difficult, focus on the basics: sleep, food, water, fresh air, exercise, clean areas in your living space, sensory needs, and unmasking in safe spaces."
Depending on how you are doing, you may move up the pyramid to focus on higher levels of self-care. In the safety section, I would include sensory supports, stims, and unmasking. Some sensory issues may be down in the most basic, but meeting one's need for comfort is decidedly important.
Here's what you're here for:
Self-care practices for Autistic Adults
Attend to those basic needs and do some of those general self-care practices suggested for everyone like meditation, relaxing walks, baths, etc. But, wait, there's more. I know you've seen dozens of articles on specific relaxation techniques, so I won't belabor them here. As an AuDHD person those that include movement help me most like shaking, progressive muscle relaxation, and physical grounding techniques. I also love breathing gifs as a person that benefits from visuals.
If you have issues with executive functioning, you may be behind on making appointments for your health or teeth, getting your car registered, or calling maintenance to fix the dripping sink. These are self-care tasks too. I suggest pairing an unpleasant task with a rewarding task to make it easier. I make appointments when I'm out somewhere I want to be on a solo mission. Ok, so now that those are out of the way, let's focus on Autistic specific self-care items.
Take off the Mask
Masking is a coping mechanism to help us blend in as much as possible. It's an enormous amount of cognitive labor. Autistic self-care must include having a safe space to unmask. I advocate for unmasking in every space that is safe to do so while understanding that everyone's situation is different. Unmasking just means mindfulness around affecting behaviors--that is noticing when you're "buttoning up" and choosing instead to "let your hair down" and be yourself.
Stim (Regulate your body)
Autistic bodies need movement and/or stimulation. Do what feels good and explore stims that are safe and comfortable for you. Dancing and physical exercise might be a great fit for you, or if you have physical health issues or chronic pain, other ways may be the better choice. Visual stims, audial stims, fidgets, try to pay attention to what sensory experiences you enjoy best and give into them!
Those subjects that make your brain hungry for more, yeah, those. That's nurishment for Autistic minds. Indulge in those for self-care. Do keep in mind that self-care doesn't take any collateral damage, so if your SI requires spending a lot of cash, be mindful about what won't break the bank to keep you happy.
There's something special about having neurodiverse friends who get you. Keep in contact with old friends--and new ones and ones you don't know are friends yet! Online spaces for Autistics aren't perfect but they can feel very supportive.
In addition to maintaining relationships with friends, utilize resources in your family, friends, neighbors, non-profits, or religious organizations if you belong for supports you might need.
Self-care practices can help avoid burnout and are part of the process of ending burnout as well. They are so important, and honestly, the tougher the time you're having, the harder it is to engage in them. It's worth it to make them a priority. Just like the converse, engaging in them is easier when you feel better--try to keep that as a motivation.