Fear and Autism

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The Examiner had a really good article outlining the prevalence of fear within the autistic mind.  Quoting Temple Grandin, perhaps the most well known scientist with autism, they mention that daily tasks fill the autistic mind with fear.

Imagine, if you will, you are in a closed room with a lot of people.  Then, suddenly, one of the guests tell you they let loose several hundred snakes in the room.  Instantly you would be constantly distracted and aware of any slither, movement, or irregularity in the room.  Because of this, you will be distracted, and possibly even considered rude by other people in the room. 

That, according to Temple Grandin, is exactly what autism is.  Autism is all about the detail, but as an autistic person experiences the world around them, the details of every day tasks become at once overwhelming.  Walking becomes a complicated process of moving the joints just right, keeping balance by moving other joints and shifting weight, and the reaction of nerves to let you know you have accomplished your step.  Putting an object away becomes a complicated process of grasping the object with just enough pressure to keep from damaging it, lifting it with just enough force to still keep a grasp on it, and then walking with that same complex process to the place to put it away.  Then once you start the process of putting it away, how should it be placed?  The details becoming quickly overwhelming, filling a person with autism with a fear of attempting something so complicated. 

This is why an autistic person does not become "cured", whether through intensive therapy or magically with drugs or chants.  The human mind can work around that fear, manage it and overcome it, and as such appear to be normal, but the threat of panic attacks and failing at the task is ever present. 

When I was growing up, particularly when I moved from elementary to junior high school, I started experiencing panic attacks regularly.  I didn't know what they were, or what they were caused by, until I graduated from high school.  It was then that I realized that the panic attacks came when I would over-think a task.  I would break it down into several pieces.  All of a sudden doing homework became so overwhelming I couldn't start.  Studying for a test was so complicated, because of the unknown variables, I couldn't focus.  It wasn't until I learned some relaxation techniques that took me away from the task for a minute that I learned I could deal with the fear, and accomplish the task.  If it were that bad for me as not being diagnosed on the spectrum, how bad can it be for someone on the spectrum?

So how to we help those with Autism overcome the fear?  Repetition, routine, and a supportive environment.  Once they know they can accomplish a task, they can feel comfortable with it.  Specialization is perfect for someone with Autism because of the focus in detail and process.  Help them identify the process, and each part of the process, within a comforting and safe environment.