Autism and Fear

Don't let your life be ruled by fear and anxiety

Posted Feb 08, 2011

My friend and fellow autistic author Temple Grandin said something at last week's autism conference that really got me thinking.  She said, The principal emotion experienced by autistic people is fear.

Temple went on to explain that fear is the foundation of many other feelings are built upon for autistic people . . . anxiety, rage, even depression.

If my life is a guide, she's right. In this essay, I'd like to ponder why that may be . . .

Last December, in The Meaning of a Smile, I wrote about my vulnerability to insincere people. Like many people with autism, I have difficulty discerning who is sincere and who's not. I can look at another person, and recognize their expressions, but I do not "share their feelings" the way nypicals (people without autism) do. Many scientists believe that problem is caused by a weakness in autistic people's mirror neurons. Whatever the cause, it's a profound element of disability that rears its head when you least expect it.

In my earlier story I wrote of the inability to distinguish the real from the fake when it comes to expressions. That makes it sound like I'd be an easy mark for emotional predators, and maybe I am. However, the larger problem is that my inability to "feel" another person when I look at them leads me to draw incorrect conclusions about their desires or intentions, to my occasional great detriment. The people I misjudge are not usually bad people, trying to do me harm. They're just people, going about their lives, and I get into trouble when I misread them during my dealings with them.

I project my own hopes or desires, even when they are totally at odds with what the other person is really thinking. I want something, I look at another person, and tell myself, They must want this too, even though their face is saying, No way! Sometimes the result is funny. Other times it's embarrassing, or hurtful, either to me or to them. Occasionally, it's harmful.

Autistic people often talk of being bullied and taken advantage of. I believe that emotional blindness is one of the main reasons that happens. In many cases, we bring the hurt upon ourselves through misinterpretation followed by misstep.

So where does that leave me? Like many others with autism, it leaves me fearful and anxious whenever I must deal with new people, or strange situations. I know this anxiety is shared by countless others on the spectrum. I hide it well, but the fear and anxiety is always with me.

Yet fear does not rule me. I am reasonably successful, on a number of fronts. How do I do it? I have thought hard about that, in hopes these tips will help others escape the weight of fear and anxiety.

First of all, I pay very close attention to the actions of other people. My weakness is in picking up nonverbal signals, whereas my hearing is totally unimpaired. Consequently, I have a natural predisposition to favor a person's words over their actions. However, the saying actions speak louder than words still holds true, and I have trained myself to pay close attention to the actions and compare the observation to the words. Any discrepancy between them, or between the actions and my goals or desires, is cause for concern.

Second, I have taught myself to ask the other person what they feel, and what they want, as often as possible. That won't protect me from intentional deception, but as I noted, most of my problems are the result of innocent misunderstanding, not intentional deceit.

By asking others what they want or feel, and also stating my own desires, I increase the chance that others will pick up on any misalignment between us and put it on the table for discussion.

Third, I have learned the wisdom of living in the moment, and relaxation through meditation. I can't do these things very well, but I observe others who do, and I see the benefit to that ability.

Fourth, I have learned to reflect before acting, and to engage in cardio exercise while reflecting. It seems like vigorous exercise slows or stops the internal dialogue in my mind, and allows me to approach emotional decisions with a clear and fresh mind. That, and the wisdom of time taken pondering, yields better decisions.

It's also likely that the increased heart rate and the associated increased flow of oxygenated blood to the brain, improves my mental acuity.

Finally, when all else fails, there is always anti-anxiety medication, or even antidepressants. I prefer to be drug free, but there are times when that fails, and I know there are people who would not be functional without the assistance of medications.

I present these thoughts as beneficial to autistic people, but for all I know, anyone might benefit from these same processes. After all, anyone who is not telepathic must be blind to the signals of others to some degree.  And most of you are not telepathic.

I speak about fear, anxiety, and fitting in at much greater length in my newest book, Be Different, on sale everywhere March 22nd.  You can preorder it through the links on my profile page, to the right.

I also encourage you to watch me on the new Discovery Science show Ingenious Minds. My episode airs Feb 24th at 10PM Eastern Time.