Self-Compassion In Autistic Adults
Back in the Fall of 2021, I’d discovered through a research paper that without planning it my therapist and I had stumbled into what I call “unmindful self-compassion” as a way to mitigate potential after-effects of some autism pathologies.
(It’s something I recently brought up when expressing some thoughts on another blogger’s anxiety because it really does seem like a key component for anyone whose “brain is gonna brain”.)
This week I came across a new paper by (partly) the same team examining the relationship between self-compassion and mental health outcomes in autistic adults. Asking the principal author for a copy also yielded a more recent paper on self-compassion and emotional regulation in the same population.
I’m not going to elaborate too much here, but I did want to highlight a few things across the two papers.
From the first paper:
Self-compassion is a gentle way of relating to the self that is based on kindness, mindful awareness, and common humanity rather than self-criticism, over-identification with negative emotions, and isolation. […] Self-compassion is most important during moments of distress or perceived failure and influences how people respond to these difficulties. […] [S]omeone higher on self-compassion might take a moment to ground their awareness in the body and feel their initial negative emotional experience (i.e., mindfulness) and use more self-reassuring language […].
As I’ve discussed before, my particular brand of self-compassion is unmindful, by which I mean that it does not tend to manifest “in the moment” but instead “after the fact”.
The paper has some interesting things to say about how when an autistic person was diagnosed impacts the subject of the study.
The self-reported self-compassion scores of autistic participants were significantly correlated with age [and] life stage of diagnosis (those diagnosed in adulthood had lower self-compassion than those diagnosed in childhood) […].
This makes sense to me, especially that last, as late-diagnosed autistics spent some number of years or decades trying to navigate a neurotypical world as an undiagnosed autistic, which can me a significant source of (latent, if nothing else) trauma for autistic adults. This is highlighted by one study participant.
“I spent most of my life thinking there was something really wrong with me and that I was a really broken, stupid, valueless person who had no place and wasn’t worth anything. So my mental health has been pretty awful for most of my life. But when I knew why I was feeling so terrible, and that other people had not only experienced that suffering but had also experienced that, that’s what really made me think, well, I can do that too. So I can commune with the suffering, but I can also commune with the success and the strengths.”
Interestingly, the authors note that two participants did not see the benefits of self-compassion: in one case equating it with being “overly positive” and “being too nice to myself”; in the other with “making excuses for myself” and “a cop-out”. I think this misunderstands or misconstrues self-compassion. It isn’t about making excuses or even being positive.
It’s about cultivating an awareness that sometimes—no matter what strategies you’ve developed to mitigate your impairments of accommodate your disabilities—your “brain is gonna brain” and not berating yourself over this fact.
One thing stressed by participants is that, per the authors, “their capacity to be self- compassionate developed over time through practice”. This is important and, I’d argue, it’s also true that use of self-compassion, be it mindful or unmindful, also helps build awareness of your most common stressors and triggers and helps prepare the ground for finding more ways to mitigate or avoid those things when your resources are too low.
Most importantly, “self-compassion was significantly correlated with most of the mental health and psychological wellbeing outcomes examined in […] autistic […] samples”. In addition, “for those autistic adults who actively practiced self-compassion, they developed more self-compassion and found it easier to be compassionate towards themselves”.
From the second paper:
[…] Being compassionate toward ourselves during stressful and difficult moments can help us better regulate our negative emotions such as anger, sadness, and fear. Better emotion regulation then improves mental health. Research in the general population supports this proposal. But no research has studied the relationship between self-compassion, emotion regulation, and mental health in autistic adults.
The authors say that “autistic adults with higher levels of self-compassion had better emotion regulation and fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression”.
Given that autistic adults tend to experience more emotion regulation difficulties than nonautistic adults,11,42 and there is a significant negative correlation between self-compassion and mental illness symptoms in autistic adults,34 it would be fruitful to determine whether this relationship between self- compassion levels and mental health is through emotion regulation. If this mechanism exists in autism, it is possible that increasing autistic people’s self-compassion levels may improve their ability to regulate emotions, which then has a flow-on effect on mental health outcomes.
This is interesting to me given what I wrote above: even if your use of self-compassion is unmindful and after-the-fact, at least in my experience, it benefits emotional regulation both at the time of reflection upon a stressful event and prospectively by helping you to define your stressor boundaries.
As predicted, emotion regulation mediated the relationships between self-compassion and anxiety or depression […]. Specifically, higher levels of self-compassion levels were negatively correlated with anxiety and depression symptoms through better emotion regulation. […]
The findings of this study suggest that participating in self- compassion interventions may improve autistic people’s emotion regulation abilities and mental health outcomes. We hypothesize that self-compassion practices may also positively impact autistic people’s well-being and management of social stigma related to being autistic.
This certainly has been my experience, and is why I come back to the subject of self-compassion from time to time.
I’d like to see more attention paid to the idea that self-compassion does not need to happen in-the-moment but also can be tremendously helpful after-the-fact. It’s important to stress this because if you beat yourself up for not being able to do it mindfully and in-the-moment. you might feel it’s beyond your reach.
It very much is not.