Autism and Fear

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 telepaths.

I speak about fear, anxiety, and fitting in at much greater length in my newest book, Be Different, on sale everywhere March 22nd.

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

This essay originally appeared at Psychology Today


JennieB said…
These are valuable techniques even to us nypicals, especially in difficult situations.

I appreciate your insight. I do not have autism, but my son does and I am so appreciative of adults, like you and Temple Grandin, who are willing to share your experiences.
Elizabeth said…
Thank you for your insight! I think my son, almost 12, will benefit from trying some of your tools. He, like you, hides anxiety well when he is in novel situations but having some ideas about how to actually work through some of these situations may help him develop more confidence.
Great post!!
Michelle said…

My son is 7 and although verbal for expressing basic wants and concrete desires, he can't communicate with me about feelings or experiences or even his school day. Thanks for the insight that may help me understand why he does some of the things he bounce and move constantly from sun up to bedtime...mental acuity...I can believe it's something like that! I do think at his tender age he's afraid of things as simple as losing our love. I always love your insights!

Anonymous said…
Hello John,

I'm so grateful for having read your words - a glimpse into your heart and mind. This vantage point, for me, helps to shed more light on the intricate challenges my 7-year-old son faces in articulating his emotional states. Thank you for your candor and bravery!
cath c said…
this is helpful, in that it helps confirm that what i try to teach my son about reading others is on the mark.

we do a lot of exaggeration on facial expressions at home in conversations with him, and if he misses the visual cues for say, sarcasm, we reinforce by taking it to the extreme. a raised eyebrow becomes jazz hands, for instance, so that he can later infer when he encounters someone else who isn't as extreme, but gives the initial clue.

he has become better about seeing the clues but he does still need regular reinforcement.
Dana Meijler said…
Thank you for sharing this so openly John. I read a lot of blog sites dedicated to autism but those blogs, including my own, relate to the joys and challenges of raising a child on the autistic spectrum. I always treasure your blogs since they are written by someone on the spectrum and give me a greater understanding of my daughter.

Thank you for that, and can't wait until your new book goes on sale!
Anonymous said…
Hello John:

I have Asperger Syndrome, and I have been struggling with fear for years. Mine was further exacerbated by childhood abuse and neglect, so that factors in trust issues too. What you've posted here is some great insight for us. I also have trouble detecting whether someone is sincere or not and I haven't yet figured out a way to tell the difference. Thank you. :)

Donna Michelle said…
This post really got ME thinking... and I am blogging about it. I quoted you, gave you full credit, and linked to your blog and this entry. I hope this is alright. Typically, I would ask first, then post, but I am so OCD that once I begin a post I must finish it. If for any reason you are unhappy with my linking or quoting you on my own blog- please just let me know and I will edit my post. You inspire and teach me so much through your blog... I cannot wait to get my hands on your books!
Cristina said…
Dear Mr. Robison,

I just finished reading your first book Look Me in the Eye . I think I received a very different impression from that book than what I perceive just in this entry alone. Initially, your book actually made me think about the age-old philosophical question: are people born selfish? Before anyone takes any offense, let me explain. In your book at least, there are many, many instances where you feel that other people are "mean" and are out to "trick" you. And yet when you yourself come off rude or insensitive, you are quick in your book to massage the harm that you cause because you have Aspberger's. One example in particular is when you became a manager and had to critique your subordinate's work. Rather than thinking about the many hours of blood and sweat the less than average engineer might have put in, you thought it was best to tell him honestly that his creation was trash. Your own personal response to a situation like this doesn't need any kind of facial reading or social cues. This is a situation where you are the sole stimulant-- you are in charge of the outcome of the situation. And it seems almost at odds that you have a genius ability to reason and think logically, but whereas I would reason and logically conclude that an encouraging rejection would be more profitable for everyone in the long run, your reasoning stopped at the obvious truth.

I think I was especially perplexed at the way you described your son. You say things like, "I couldn't wait for him to get bigger and do more tricks." You also said the same kinds of things when describing your baby brother. Even while calming down Cubby, you say things like, "Calm and docile animal." And when the more you characterized your brother and your son in terms of animals (Varmint, Cubby, etc.), I found myself becoming more distant. You seem to see people only in terms of yourself. Even in your epilogue your last few words are, "I wish for empathy and compassion from those around me, and I appreciate sincerity, clarity, and logicality in other people." But what those people around you receive in return? Do they receive the same empathy and compassion?

The OED defines selfish as "Devoted to or concerned with one's own advantage or welfare to the exclusion of regard for others." The definition holds true for most parts of your memoir, especially the chapters regarding your Unit Two and choosing the "best sister."

But I read this post, and I see someone different. I see someone making so much effort to avoid misunderstandings and to not just reason but to reflect before acting. And so I wonder if Asperger's makes people inclined to be selfish, are your selfless actions not something people should aspire to or actively work towards? Do you believe in a God? in a soul? in a lifetime effort to go towards Good?

Ironically, your novel Look Me in the Eye is about your inability to look at people in the eye, but it's about the universal inability to see past ourselves and through other people. And so I ask these questions and publish my thoughts with the hope that I am mistaken. That people are born good not selfish. That I in my only 21 years of age have misunderstood completely or have not seen enough perspective.
pintoshine said…
Mr. John Robison, I am Sherman Owen, electrical engineer, self taught mechanical and chemical engineer. I recognized my life in your show on discovery.
I have suspected for quite a while I suffer from autism, AS and sensory integration issues.
You mentioned the fellow who recognized your condition but you didn't tell what your next steps were. I would be interested in finding where to start. Currently my symptoms are interfering with my current job.
By the way I build complete distillery automation and control systems from my imagination as a side job.
You are the first one I have seen who is similar to me.

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