Starting in middle school, about when I was diagnosed with Asperger's, I started to get really stressed out once I got home from school. It became a problem for my parents to get me to do homework while at the same time honoring my need to unwind and have that decompression time. What they ended up doing (and what has worked really well ever since) was following this after-school/work schedule that we created through trial and error. Here it is:
The biggest thing that makes this schedule work is the understanding that people do the best they can with the emotional capacity they have. So if you want to do better, you need more emotional capacity. That’s why this schedule starts with one hour of non-electronic decompression time. It allows you to unwind without getting subjected to the endless draw of the internet. Many people that we talk to on a daily basis don’t understand the difference between recreational time and relaxation time. Both are good. Both are necessary. Confusing one for the other leads to what I call “The Tylenol Problem.” See, when you take Tylenol, it doesn’t really make the source of your pain go away. What it mostly does is remove your ability to measure if you are in pain or not. The source of the pain is still there, but under the influence of Tylenol it is very easy to forget that you haven’t resolved the issue, because it FEELS like you have.
The same thing happens when you get on YouTube or Netflix or your phone. It FEELS like your stresses are melting away, but in reality, you are just being distracted from them. Your nervous system is still working overtime due to stress, and it needs that decompression time to calm down. Think of it like a bottle of soda. If you shake it and throw it around, a lot of bubbles are produced. Once that happens, there are two ways to “calm down” the bottle of soda. You can either let it rest for a while, or open the top and let it explode all over you.
So when you are doing this non-electronic relaxation and decompression time, the focus is on NOT giving your nervous system new things to worry about and new things to emotionally process. Give it time for your “bubbles” to calm down, lest you burst.
That could be going on a walk, reading a book (my personal favorite), doing LEGO or some other project, meditating, or staring at the sky. The trick is just to make sure that you aren’t giving your nervous system more to do. You’ve had a hard day! Give it a break!
However, there's a big problem that a lot of people with Asperger's face: Relaxing is VERY uncomfortable to them. If we define comfort, not as the warm, fluffy pillow, but just as what you're used to and what you know, then it makes sense that the definition of discomfort is what you don't know. If you aren't used to being relaxed, you don't know it, and therefore it is very uncomfortable. . . . which makes you stressed.
So the trick is just to start small. Do a small bit of relaxation, get used to it, and then do some more. If this becomes stressful, you're doing too much at one time. Take it slow!
So how do you actually do the relaxing? Well, we're about to discuss a few different ways to relax, recharge, and do self care, but before we do it’s really important that you understand this: You don't need to do every technique mentioned here. If something isn't working out for you, don't force it! Just choose a different technique! With that being said, let's get started.
The easiest way to relax, in my opinion, is meditation. There are many forms of meditation, but my favorite is gratitude. Close your eyes and think about five things you're grateful for and why. That's it. Science has found that the more gratitude you have, the better your immune system works, the better your nervous system works, the more resilient you are.
There are many other forms of meditation, such as a traditional sitting meditation, a walking meditation, and a seemingly infinite number of guided meditations that you can find on YouTube and through various apps on your phone. Again, if you find that a certain meditation technique doesn't work for you . . . don't do it! The whole idea here is to do more of what works for you, less of what doesn't, and try new things to see if they work.
Breathing exercises can also be a great way to relax. If I am really stressed, sometimes I just stop for a few moments and focus on a slow, steady exhale (like I am blowing out of a straw). I've found that to be incredibly relaxing, and it only takes about thirty seconds to a minute for me to achieve the effect.
Once you’ve done the non-electronic relaxation and decompression time, THEN it is time to go be productive. Do your homework (if you are still in an educational institution), catch up on chores, or be productive in some other way. You’ll find that, oddly enough, being productive in this way is almost effortless. Why? Because you’ve given yourself a chance to recharge and now your body and mind are ready to participate in the world again.
Now what happens if there is no “after school” or “after work” for you? If you are between jobs, or just wondering what to do in life, and sitting on your computer a bit too much, waiting for the stress to go down or something to change so that you can finally interact with the world?
If that is the case, I’d start by doing the non-electronic decompression time right when you wake up. Be serious about it. I’ve found that on the days where I take care of myself as soon as I wake up, I get more done before 11am than the days where I wake up and immediately check my phone.
The ultimate source of truth on this, however, is your own experiences and experiments. So try this out for three days. See how it works for you. Take note of how you feel before and after and follow this golden rule: Do more of what works, less of what doesn’t, and try new things to see if they work.
When my parents and I were first implementing this schedule, a typical day for me would be getting home and having that one hour of non-electronic decompression time where I'd literally just read a book, sometimes in the bathroom (OK, most of the time I hid in the bathroom and read). Then I would go and do my homework, and once my homework was done, THEN I would go have fun.
Note: This is an excerpt from our book "Surviving & Thriving With Asperger's". Learn more about the book and purchase it here.