Dan Shipper over at Every reposted an old interview with Robert Sapolsky, the guy in the news for his new book about the nonexistence of free will, about stress. For reasons you’ll understand if you read me regularly enough, I was struck by the strategies suggested to reduce it.
Here’s three of the four:
- Increase your sense of control
- Increase your sense of predictability
- Create outlets for frustration
When it comes to a sense of control, the argument is that just having a way to exert some degree of control over a stressful situation can reduce the stress, even if you never actually do exert that control.
This is the sort of agency frequently denied autistic people, despite being a strategy that works wonders for our ability to self-regulate. There’s much about life that few people can exert much control over, but for autistics especially this means that the exceptions are areas where our agency needs safeguarding.
It’s no surprise that I fully concur with the idea of increasing predictability. I’ve argued repeatedly that things considered autistic pathologies in fact are more likely to be adaptive strategies to manage our susceptibility to stimulus overwhelm. All those “restricted and repetitive” behaviors? That’s us creating predictability.
“When CEOs keep the same routine every day,” writes Shipper, “that’s the benefit of predictability in action.” Would that we autistics were afforded the same opportunities as these CEOs.
Here’s what Shipper has to say about the ways in which we should deal with frustration:
When rats that are exposed to repeated stressors are given a piece of wood to gnaw on, they are far less likely to develop ulcers. Outlets for frustration are another important coping mechanism for stress.
There’s another word for these outlets: self-regulation. Or, more autistically, stimming. Stimming is one of those things that’s been pathologized about autism when in reality it’s part of what gets us through the day. Stimming, in fact, is part of how we create predictability. It’s part of how we exercise control.
There are certain ways in which the autistic brain functions that to the normative uninitiated can look like self-involvement and self-indulgence, and yet it’s not entirely uncommon to celebrate those traits when exhibited by, say, a CEO. This weird sort of ableist divide over who gets agency and who doesn’t is wild. What seems to matter is how productive your agency is, and of how much use you are being.
I’m not saying that either Shipper or Sapolsky demonstrate this ableist divide. I’ve just been set off a bit by a CEO being the go-to example given how other people would be, and indeed are, mistreated for trying to behave in the same agentic way.
(Without going down the rabbit hole of Sapolsky’s latest book, having read neither it nor more than, I think, one of the articles about it, I do find it weird that his strategies for stress all hinge on agency, which I guess he also thinks we don’t actually have?)
Really, I just wish that when people read advice like this about how to accommodate, manage, or mitigate stress, they’d realize that the core premise in each of them is just that: agency. Then I’d like them to think about how autistic people must face—in ways they don’t—stressors both like and unlike those that they themselves face.
I feel like it shouldn’t be any kind of surprise to see that agency reduces stress. (It’s why money reduces stress: it’s mostly the only way our society knows how to give people agency.) I certainly feel like it shouldn’t be any kind of surprise that it works for autistics, too. It just might look a bit different.