Many of us on the spectrum, especially at the ‘higher-functioning’ end, suffer life-long from ‘anxiety disorders’, spending a large part of our lives fretting about all manner of things – social, emotional, academic, work-related, etc, etc. I know that for a large part of my adult life, I probably met the criteria for some kind of ‘social anxiety disorder’, or ‘social avoidance disorder’ – the latter because I was trying to avoid the situations that sent my anxiety spiralling.
But let’s call this anxiety what it really is – FEAR. Fear of change, and new things that we’re not sure we can handle, so we refuse to try. Fear of making an error, or making a fool of oneself. Fear of ridicule, jeering, sneers, snubbing or bullying. Fear of tripping, either literally - our ‘clumsiness’ is often our curse - or figuratively, over other people’s unspoken expectations of us. Fear of our façade slipping, and people noticing our ‘weirdness’. Fear that other people will not want to know us, or be our friends. Fear of their anger or rejection. Often, just fear of other people, full stop. It is generally a constant background presence, nibbling away at our self-esteem. And sometimes this fear mutates into outright terror, which sees us frantically retreat into whatever refuge we can find. But at whatever level it manifests, it rules our lives. And ruins them, often.
Fear feeds our secret shame, and is fed by it. It lies behind our desperate attempts to construct that façade of the ‘imposter syndrome’. It arises from our pain, gives fuel to our anger, worsens our meltdowns, and propels us into ‘bridge-burning’. It keeps us ‘in hiding’ from the world, preventing us from trying new things that might benefit us, approaching people who might help us, asking the questions that we need to ask. It destroys our relationships, or prevents them even beginning. It can ruin friendships, whether budding or long-term. It’s a huge block to us having the lives we want, and deserve.
It’s my belief that the biggest thing we can do for ourselves, is to work on this fear. We may not ever be able to get rid of it entirely – I certainly haven’t – but we can reduce it to manageable levels, find ways to cope with what remains, and hopefully prevent those times when it spills over into sheer panic and terror. There are many ways to learn to handle our fears. I have found meditation works best for me. In the first few years after I began to meditate regularly, I went through a process of confronting my worst fears. I realised that what I was ultimately most afraid of was other people. It was a difficult time, yet ultimately rewarding, as by facing my fears, I began to dismantle their power over me. Even today, if I find my fears starting to ‘wind up’ again, putting more effort into my meditation is a key part of defusing them.
There are of course many other ways to confront and control our fears, and we each need to find what works best for us as individuals. Counselling and CBT, being more ‘up-front’ with people about our needs, lots of thorough preparation before facing new things, keeping a journal, writing poetry, painting or sculpting, dancing or listening to music, rigorous exercise, long solitary walks, being alone with nature, or – as a last resort, and if nothing else works – anti-anxiety medication. I have tried most of these at times (except the medication), and still use a lot of them regularly, along with meditation.
Yes, I know it’s hard, and I’m certainly not trying to minimise how difficult it’s likely to be. Our fears are HUGE, and often well-founded. But I feel it’s the one thing we can do, that’s within our control to change. We can’t change other people’s behaviour towards us – or very rarely – but we can change how we relate to the world, and change our lives for the better.