Updated: Jun 3, 2019
A “trigger” is anything that sets off very uncomfortable feelings, and sometimes negative behaviors as well, in individuals on the autism spectrum. Triggers sometimes result from unwanted change such as stopping a preferred activity or transitioning to a new activity, and often involve anxiety. Triggers are very diverse, however, and can be quite idiosyncratic: they can be a sight or a smell, a place, a person, or any of a number of other things that bring on anxiety and discomfort for a particular individual. Triggers can even be individual words or topics that elicit an intensely negative emotional response. Problems with anxiety, rigidity, difficulty processing sensory information or reading social situations, over-focus on minutiae and inability to see “the big picture”, intensity issues, problem perspective issues, difficulty accepting criticism, and many other problems common to the autism spectrum, may create or exacerbate triggers.
Triggers can become a continuing, fixed, repeated issue in the lives of individuals with autism and their loved ones. Parents sometimes set up their lives to try to keep triggers from occurring or to minimize how often they occur, and over time may even become unaware of how much they are altering their lives to avoid triggers. A family may, for example, miss out on trips and special occasions to avoid schedule changes or places or people where triggers may occur. They may dodge trigger topics or have to talk around certain trigger words. It is natural after all to want to move through life as smoothly and peacefully as possible, and there is of course the hope that a strong negative response to a trigger will fade or even disappear as time passes. However, it can happen that the years go by, the trigger continues and/or more triggers develop, and the family simply becomes very good at sidestepping them. When the child with ASD moves into adulthood, his or her continuing triggers, and the issues with insight, problem perspective, and coping skills that are associated with them, will become barriers to employment and independence. In adulthood, and especially where independence is the goal, it is often impossible to remove triggers from the environment; the independent adult person on the autism spectrum must cope with a wide variety of anxiety-producing elements while maintaining a job and relationships.
It seems that much of the advice to parents on the internet and in books on what to do about triggers suggests that the way to handle them is to avoid or eliminate them, or at the very least minimize them. I totally understand that parents need to choose their battles, and especially while their child with ASD is young and the trigger is new, they may need to avoid the issue area altogether at least initially. This may allow them time to regroup to figure out what to do about it, or even monitor it for a period of time to see whether some maturity, comprehension, and experience will suffice to extinguish the response. However, I believe that simply avoiding, eliminating, or minimizing triggers over the long term is short sighted, misses many teachable skills and moments, and may alter family dynamics and parenting in negative ways. Most importantly, it is not preparing the young person for the workplace and independence, where there will surely be triggers.
What I suggest instead is to introduce and practice a variety of concepts with your child that become tools to help you to work through, rather than around, your son or daughter’s triggers. These same tools have many applications on the job and in relationships, and can help them navigate adulthood generally. Most of the suggestions below are introduced in blogs at this website, with more about them in our books (see Books tab), and if you can attend our classes and workshops we are able to go into greater detail there. The following are my suggestions for helping your son or daughter with high functioning autism or "Asperger's", to help them with trigger issues.
Make sure that you have covered the basics and discussed/promoted positivity, intensity awareness, and problem perspective. (Please see our blogs at this website and our books for these topics and more. There are actually a number of blogs at IFAutism.com on a wide variety of skills we consider foundational, and all may help you to work through triggers.)
Set up rating scales, post them, and use them, for positivity, intensity of feelings, and problem perspective (again, check out our blogs for immediate help on how to do rating scales, and submit questions to IFAutism.com Connection if you need more guidance.)
Make sure your son or daughter identifies “comfortable” vs “uncomfortable” feelings, and can express their specific uncomfortable feelings in real situations, with or without your help.
Make sure your son or daughter has a list of coping strategies that will help them “dial back” their intensity over uncomfortable feelings. They should practice using these with or without your prompting every time they experience anxiety and other uncomfortable feelings, and become skilled at bringing their intensity down.
When you have covered the bullets above and are having some success in using the tools, look objectively at how you may be controlling your environment to avoid or eliminate triggers. Begin to let go of the control, and allow the triggers to touch your lives, slowly and in a measured way. I think it is a good idea to be proactive by explaining to your son or daughter ahead of time about the changes you will make, how this will help them to grow, and how you will support him or her through the process. Again, look to our books and blogs for support, and please also reach out to us with questions you may have. Good luck!