By Tom

A while ago, I had a conflict with my boss. She did something patently unreasonable and I “exploded”: I swore and left work for home. I am scared to death of conflict, so my Aspie brain immediately started reaching for the most extreme possibilities and dreamt up a worst case scenario where our working relationship was shattered and I would be forced to find another job. I even thought it a stretch to go back and collect the personal things I had lying around at the office. In the end it wasn’t nearly that dramatic: I haven’t lost my job, we talked about what had happened and decided to “put it behind us”. Sure, damage has been done to our relationship, but it hasn’t vanished completely: there is a grey area between the white of perfection and the black of abject failure. Fear had made me jump to the most extreme conclusions.

Since I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome three years ago, I have learnt a lot of things, especially about fear: a very basic and powerful emotion that triggers the “fight or flight” reaction. At its most intense, it actually disrupts the normal functioning of the body by flooding it with adrenaline, thereby heightening sensory perception and muscle tension. In acute danger (like a wild animal running towards you) it can save your life: in most other situations it is next to useless.

Unfortunately, fear can be triggered by any number of abstract threats and although it isn’t always equally intense, measuring and managing fear is notoriously difficult for everyone. Prolonged states of fear can (and often do) trigger stress and in more extreme cases, anxiety. Just look at the “self-help” section in a bookstore, overflowing with books with advice on how to deal with stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, people on the autism spectrum are extra vulnerable: emotions can be very overwhelming for us and we are often worse at managing them than neurotypicals (or “normal” people). I know I am much worse at it than I used to think. On top of that, people on the autism spectrum experience much more uncertainty, which often causes fear. Small wonder then, that fear and anxiety are prevalent for people on the autism spectrum.

All is not lost, though: since fear is such a basic and powerful emotion, it’s also very universal: everybody gets scared. A lot. So don’t beat yourself up when you are scared, even if you think you fear something no-one else would be scared of. Allegedly, it was Benjamin Franklin who said, “Nothing in life is certain except death and taxes.” I would like to coin the phrase:

Nothing in life is certain except death and fear.

The trick is to accept that you’re scared (and not panic because of it) and then try to manage the fear. Basically you try to take the edge off by combating that awful feeling that something needs to be done and it needs to be done now (it rarely is that urgent: if it is — and you are in real danger — you will have acted before you start to think). Some people use medicines to achieve this, I use meditative “mindfulness” techniques adapted for people on the autism spectrum, but it doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t make the fear disappear: you just get better at accepting it (and other emotions) and worry less about it. To sum up: don’t worry about worrying or being scared, it’s the human condition. In that respect we really, truly are human.

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