Thriving While Neurodivergent: Seven Resilience-Building Skills

White dogwood flowers with rain drops on them.

For neurodiverse people like myself, building resilience is an intentional practice. Not only do many of us struggle to learn basic self-care skills, we have to contend with our unique neurologies that neurotypicals do not. We have relationships to sensory input, to attention and interests, capacities and flows of energy that do not fit the normative mold. Many of us run ourselves into the ground trying to mask as neurotypical, believing that we are failing if we aren’t able to fit into the society around us. 

The neurodiversity model for understanding “disorders” such as autism and ADHD rejects the idea that we need to fit into society around us. Rather, it seeks to understand that we are all unique and that understanding ourselves- our limitations, our strengths, our needs- and accepting and creating space for these differences is the key to creating a diverse and inclusive society.

Below I share seven resilience-building skills for neurodiverse people that I have written over the course of fourteen weeks of practice and reflection. Some of these may be familiar to you, others may be new, but I hope that they will be useful in that they are written from an autistic lens and are meant to be harnessed as tools for understanding yourself and building resilience that will help you move through your day to day life in full love and acceptance of your beautiful neurodiverse self.

#1 Affirmations

I have listed affirmations as number one because they serve well as a first response to overwhelm. They are a practice of re-structuring our inner voice to better care for ourselves.

Affirmations are a great way to rewire your brain to feed you positive messages during times of distress. When our bodies are overstimulated, our nervous system is highly activated. Our alert systems are telling us that there is something dangerous or wrong, even when there is no real physical danger present. Affirmations as a tool can help us to calm down enough to soothe our nervous system and allow us to tap into the decision-making part of our brain. Once we are able to access some higher brain functions, we are better able to figure out what exactly our body needs in that moment to reduce the external or internal stressors.

The most simple ones are what I have found most effective:

“I am safe”

“I am okay”

“I am strong and capable”

Try these the next time you notice you are in a state of distress. Then take a look at the following tools to see what it is your body needs right now.

#2 Solitude

Solitude is a crucial resilience skill and resource for neurodiverse bodies. Solitude gives us space to tend to our bodies in the ways they need without having to be tuned in to the nervous systems of others or worry about responsibilities. Spaciousness and grounding are gifts that solitude can give us. 

To practice solitude, try creating a space and time in which you get to be completely by yourself. It could be somewhere far away from everything like in the middle of the forest, in your bedroom, anywhere you can be alone. 

Setting this time for yourself can also be great practice in setting good boundaries with others. Asking for what you need can be intimidating, but with practice becomes easier. 

You can spend this time structured or unstructured, depending on what works best for you. If you prefer structure, it’s a good idea to plan ahead of time what you will do with the time you have. If not, then give yourself permission to feel into the time. You can spend the time staring at the wall, playing games, watching a movie, taking a bath or a walk, really anything that sounds nourishing to you in that time. Don’t feel pressured to be relaxed, or feel like you have to do solitude “correctly”. Just allow yourself the time and ease into it as much as you can.

Something I enjoy doing is watching movies. I intentionally put my phone away on do not disturb and immerse myself in a different world for a couple of hours. I take my time before and after to get comfortable, grab a drink or a snack, and allow myself to forget about everything else in the outside world. By the time the movie is over, I usually feel more spacious and grounded.

Some may struggle to honor their own needs and boundaries without guilt. If you struggle with this, try some affirmations like in skill #1. Here are a few examples:

  • I deserve time to myself to reset, ground, process, and tend to my overall wellness
  • I am at my best when I have time to myself
  • It is my right to take care of myself as I see fit

#3 Sensory Explorations

Sensory explorations are a powerful tool for neurodiverse bodies, diverse sensory processing experiences perhaps being one of the things that unites us all. For some of us, loads of sensory input can be soothing. For others, minimal sensory input. No matter your preference, exploring your body’s reaction to various sensory input can be one of the quickest ways to calm your nervous system.

One of my favorite therapists started our work together by having me put together a sensory tool-kit. I like to share this practice with others who are looking for something that can help them soothe themselves when their higher cognitive functions are offline in states of distress. Remembering the things that bring us sensory pleasure or soothing is not easy, so writing these all down in one place that is easy to access when you’re in an activated state can make a world of difference.

Know what works best for you- more or less stimulation, or if it changes, figure out what you might need in that moment. Create a list of sensory input that you enjoy. The five senses many humans have are sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Though these will vary as not everyone has five senses. For each sense choose five different sensory tools. Even better would be to have a small box in which you can keep physical reminders of your tools. 

Try to keep a physical reminder of your list that you will notice a few times a day. It can be a pretty stone on a table or in your pocket, a phrase taped to your wall, a piece of jewelry, a stuffed animal- anything you want. Whenever you notice this object, take a moment to think about your list and remember where it is. When you are in the midst of a stressful time you are more likely to notice this object and it will remind you of your list.

#4 Follow Your Interests (with care)

Following your interests is something that can come pretty naturally to neurodiverse people. If you’ve ever found yourself diving down a wiki hole, pursuing projects with intense focus, wanting to learn and experience everything related to a topic of interest, you have done this before. 

The skill here is to use this natural ability to take care of yourself. There are a couple aspects of this that require work if you’re like many others who face some of the more challenging parts of following your interest. The first is dealing with internalized guilt. The second is learning to manage hyperfocus so that you are making sure to take good care of your body.

For managing guilt, affirmations may be helpful. Reassure yourself that your brain is wonderful, that the way you dive deeply into topics is a gift, and that you are allowed to enjoy your interests and hobbies. Remember that you are allowed to have your own interests. The joy and meaning you get from them is real and important.

Learning to manage hyperfocus can be very tricky and will likely require assistance and creating habits that support executive functioning. If you have a smartphone, there are many great apps that you can use to set up reminders for everything from drinking water, eating meals and snacks, to keeping appointments. Using a planner and setting aside a time once a week to look at your calendar and jot down appointments and obligations can be indispensable for creating a sense of flow to your week and help you remember to pay attention to time management.

This is important for following interests because hyperfocus often causes us to completely forget about important self-care. You may be deep into a project and suddenly find hours have passed and you’re hungry, thirsty, and your mood is low. Remembering simple self-care and creating structures in your life to assure you are tending to them make a significant difference in your basic functioning, and creates a safe container within which you can dive deep into your interests without worrying about forgetting important tasks and obligations.

Once you’ve created some kind of structure and framework for pursuing your special interests, you truly can get the most out of this gift. Allowing yourself the freedom to pursue your interests can be extremely regenerative and inspiring and leave you feeling excited and refreshed. Our interests are like a spark of life that help us create meaning and connect to a sense of awe and joy in the world. Tapping into that awe and joy is crucial for our sense of purpose and wellness.

#5 Feel Your Feelings

Feeling your feelings is a crucial skill to develop to avoid becoming stuck and to lessen the overwhelm that can arise when challenging emotions show up.

While it may feel intimidating or confusing because culturally we regard emotions as mysterious experiences controlled by our mind, this practice becomes much more straightforward when we re-frame feelings as their name implies: a sensory experience.

A feeling is a sensation as much as the experience of softness when we pet a cat is a sensation, or the warmth of a cup of tea in your hands. 

When we turn emotions into something that we have to fix, we begin to objectify them and disregard them for what they truly are. We get stuck and hyperfocused on making the experience stop, when the role of emotions is simply to be felt and “heard”. 

When you notice a feeling arise, pause for a moment to experience the sensations. Sadness may feel empty and cold, anger may feel hot and buzzing, anxiety may feel like tingles all over your body and a fullness in your eyes. Simply notice it and watch it. Feelings will often move and shift- this is a good thing. When a feeling moves and changes it means we are processing them. A hot, fiery anger may turn into a cold and longing sadness, which may then turn into a warm acceptance. You may find many feelings coexisting. The more you do this, the more you build your resilience and your capacity for holding complexity.

Sometimes emotions are trying to tell us something. For instance, anger can be a sign that a need is not being met or that a boundary has been crossed. When we come across a feeling that has a message, don’t jump into fixing, but do take note. Act like a scientist making observations. Once you’ve given proper space to the feeling, you can decide what to do, if there is an action to take, and how you can take that action in a way that feels good to you.

#6 Self-Discovery

Understanding yourself, your needs, your boundaries, your triggers, is crucial to maintaining wellness and building resilience. Not only does it make day-to-day obstacles not feel as insurmountable, but it can also gift us with self-understanding and acceptance.

Self-discovery can be most profound stripped down to the bare essentials of life, things you may take for granted or have never paid attention to.

For instance, I have found that sometimes I struggle to catch my hunger cues and find myself suddenly hit with a foul mood or a migraine (or both!). Without understanding my body well, I might just think I’ve hit some bad luck coming down with a migraine, or I may launch into a shame spiral around my mood and get stuck trying to figure out what is wrong, how I can fix it, or just blaming myself for having difficult feelings. However when I have full knowledge of how my body responds to hunger, I know what I can do to fix it. The problem is not as mysterious or overwhelming. This can be applied to pretty much any basic need such as staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, showering, etc. You may be amazed at how much these basic things can affect your general well being.

The goal isn’t to be perfectly on top of these things, but to disarm how much you are destabilized when these needs aren’t being met. If you haven’t showered in awhile and you notice you’re feeling sad and grumpy, yet you do not have the capacity to shower in that moment, you can sit with the sad/grumpy feelings and know that they have an easy remedy and that they will pass.

In this endeavor we can also begin to think about little actions we can take to make life easier for our future self. When we think to drink a glass of water, we will be nurturing future us to be more resourced to handle the day’s challenges.

#7 Mindfulness

Mindfulness is one of the keys toward cultivating so many of the skills we have discussed here. Mindfulness can be understood as simply awareness of the present moment or being consciously aware of something. As our conscious awareness deepens in our experience, the more control we have over our responses.

This goes back to skill #6, self-discovery. Mindfulness is the practice that helps us in understanding ourselves. It is those moments when we recognize that we are feeling agitated, and take the time to zoom out, look at the bigger picture, and gently probe the circumstances in which the agitation arose. Mindfulness allows us to move through life as scientists, collecting data and experimenting to see what the outcome might be. 

Mindfulness can be difficult to practice for brains that move very quickly, and full warning that for those with a lot of trauma, mindfulness can be an overwhelming and triggering experience. It is nevertheless an important practice, but with these considerations in mind, I’d like to offer a mindfulness exercise that should be safe for those with trauma, as well as short and simple enough for those who have trouble concentrating to do as a short daily exercise.

This exercise might be well known to you if you have done any mindfulness work in learning to manage trauma triggers. It’s a simple sensory exercise that involves naming the things you are experiencing through your senses. Go through each- smell, touch, sight, taste, and feel, and name 1-5 things you notice. For instance “I am hearing a leaf blower and my cat drinking water. I can feel a cool breeze and my clothes against my skin.” This can be used as an exercise to calm your nervous system when triggered, but it can also be used as a simple daily exercise to strengthen your ability to notice things as they arise. It doesn’t need to take any longer than a couple minutes.

As you get better at this, begin to focus your mindfulness efforts inward. Notice thoughts and feelings as they arise. Pay special attention to the sensory experience of them- for instance, when you feel sad you may feel heavy as lead, or as if there is an empty hole in your gut. You can go back to skill #5 Feeling Your Feelings to guide you in this.

It is important to take in these observations as data, because it is easy to get caught up in judgement around our inner world. The idea is to notice them and get to know them. When these sensations arise again, slowly begin to notice the circumstances that triggered them. In this way, you work backwards from a state of overwhelm until you reach the cascade of events that brought you there. You slowly acquire the ability to notice crucial things like tiredness, hunger, thirst, need for companionship and connection, etc, until you are able to proactively meet your self-care needs before you enter a state of dysregulation. 

With mindfulness, you can go backwards over this list and notice what you might need to care for yourself. Eventually you will be able to navigate situations with greater ease and resilience. 

Mindfulness as a skill for maintaining our bodies and minds is like learning to play a new sport- there are lots of moving parts and variables, but once you get an intuitive feel for the game you can flow through with greater ease. You also know how to spot better where you went wrong when you make a mistake and spend less time shaming yourself or obsessing and are more quickly able to dust yourself off and move on.

Wrapping Up: A Word About Time

If you are like me and have devoured self-help books and follow lots of self-help social media pages, many of these skills are things you are already aware of. It can be daunting to look at a list like this and feel shame that these aren’t things you’ve “mastered.” I want to encourage you by offering the perspective of time. As a transformative justice advocate, this principle has formed the foundation for everything I do and I come back to it time and time again (no pun intended).

Think about your whole life that has led up to this moment. If you are like me, the chances are pretty high that you’ve lived many many years in a neurotypical-centered world trying to meet neurotypical standards. Maybe you also did not come to know that you were neurodivergent until later in life, and maybe on top of that you’re grappling with a background of trauma and abuse as many neurodivergent children were subject to. Additionally, we still fight the daily battle of existing in a world that forces disabled people into poverty, that denies us the right to exist, that treats us as a burden and wants to erase us from existence. 

We cannot, under these circumstances, expect to be resilient and well beings overnight. These are practices that are acquired slowly, with intention, spiraling back over old mistakes and learning lessons anew many times over. I started therapy as an adult seven years ago, and it is only within the last year that I have really begun to feel confident in these skills. Undoing the programming of a lifetime is going to take a considerable amount of time, intention, and practice. 

The perspective of time is this: we take ourselves out of the tunnel vision of the present moment, and we watch how situations grow, change, and shift. The world around us is ruled by the natural life cycle of birth, growth, and death- as old habits and ideas die, they become the place from which new ideas are are born and grow into something else. This is the essence of what it means to be resilient, to flow with the dynamic nature of life.

We can only know where we are in this moment, accept it, and trust that with time things will change. We can partner this awareness with our intention and we can begin to shift the very way we experience our lives. Even as our control over the circumstances around us may be limited, we still can build resilience from within. This resilience can then grant us the strength to build sustainable movements of change. The practice goes both ways: as we transform ourselves, we build the foundations from which we transform the world.

Rather than allowing your inner voice to shame and guilt you for not having these skills down, remind yourself where you are in the grand scheme of things- where you are in your journey towards building resilience, where you are in your life, where your life is in the scheme of your culture- in the history of this world. Approach this work with kindness and acceptance, and awareness that this moment is fleeting and you have so many moments ahead of you to keep growing. The point is not mastery, it is growth.