One particular trait of autistic anxiety which affected me when young – and still does, though it’s become progressively less and less influential as I’ve grown older – was a sort of huge, irrational fear of any new environment coupled with over-thinking as a defence mechanism. If that’s hard to understand as a reader, then you have a good idea how hard I found it to understand myself.
In short, I’d think of a great motivational idea – a campaign to get involved in, a charity to contribute to, a big social or political event to volunteer for, a story or article to write, and event to attend or host – and be briefly ecstatic at the prospect of it. Then I’d start thinking of all the things that could go wrong – not a problem in and of itself, because any proper planning ahead needs to consider this. But then, having considered anything which could happen – including outlandish, unrealistic things, which autistic anxiety has a habit of making you think – I’d then conclude, rather illogically, that it would happen.
I’d then start overthinking reasons as to why my great idea wasn’t really such a great idea after all, and there was no point me trying to pursue it – and that in fact, those people who were positive and passionate enough to be doing something they believed in were making a mistake. They couldn’t possibly solve everything wrong with the world, so why should they bother doing some of it? Looking back now, I can see this was motivated largely by frustration that I found myself unable to follow my passions whereas others seemingly could – but at the time it seemed such a logical, rational conclusion (largely, ironically, because it made me feel emotionally happy) that I saw no reason to challenge it.
The result? A lot of mental energy expended, a lot of time taken up, for nothing of value at all – and a lot of negative thinking about the potential to change anything with the world, or to make a difference however small. Social isolation followed too. Another part of my anxiety was a persistent fear, odd as it may sound, of having my views “corrupted” by disagreement. In retrospect, I realise such thinking ran completely counter to logic, and my personal views, namely that one of the key benefits of freedom of expression is that if someone has a view which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, this can be debated – whereas if people are silenced, and views protected from debate, they remain unchallenged and remain reinforced.
I was so used to viewing the opinions of others I disagreed with through this lens, and applying the philosophy solely to views firmly beyond the pale – racism, homophobia and sexism, for example – that I never stopped to consider this belief should also encompass my own views. Mine were sacred, and I remember this factored often into my rationale of why I wouldn’t meet people out of school. It was, in all reality, an attempt to rationalise an irrational anxiety of new situations, not least because I spoke to people regularly in school, oftenhaving vigorous debate (perhaps too vigorous for them!), and was completely fine with this.
My anxiety was allowed to hide under a cloak of faux-rationality. This is due in part to my inability to recognise my own feelings, and partly due to my desire to think logically at all times even when I clearly wasn’t . This desire was not helped by the persistent stereotyping of autistic people (and to a lesser extent, men) as being purely logical thinkers, as though emotion simply didn’t cross our mind. It was a stereotype which I naturally internalised more as a child than I ever would now.
My social relationships were also affected heavily by feelings of anxiety. I always had a latent urge to speak to people more and to socialise, yet fear of the unknown – specifically, fear of unlikely, terrible things happening – prevented me. The result was I had few “true” friends I could confide in and I had a habit of being over-accommodating to those who wanted to spend time with me. This over-accommodation, though I didn’t recognise I at the time was out of fear of what might happen were they to leave. This, naturally, meant I developed close bonds with them over time, and increased my anxiety of ever ending those relationships – though I’m pleased to say I now have, and while this might have been difficult short-term, it was worth it.
But it also meant I had a habit of being “over-social” to those I was friends with, while being under-social with others. Because I had far less people to speak to than I actually wanted to speak to, I had a tendency to “hog” people wanting daily talks about everything under the sun and setting the world to rights when, realistically, they either wanted a relaxing break or to get back to work. This aspect of anxiety has become less of an issue as I’ve grown and expanded my network after breaking through my initial anxiety to meet more people – and I don’t really experience it at all now – but I’ve no doubt many others in the position I was once in still do.
Moreover, it didn’t always help that people overlooked my lack of socialisation because I was autistic – while it meant I was better understood in certain ways, it also meant people too readily assumed I wanted to behave in all the ways I did, rather than recognising the anxiety holding me back in certain areas. It wasn’t anyone’s fault – autism on its own is hard enough to understand, let alone the link between autism and anxiety – but it meant it took longer for me to alter my behaviour than it may have done otherwise.
I’ve written this not to wallow in the negatives of anxiety, but to demonstrate to others who might be going through it that they’re not alone, and that it’s still possible to succeed. Anxiety might be a part of you but it shouldn’t define you negatively, any more than a diagnosis of autism should, and it certainly isn’t something to be ashamed about.
If you're affected by anxiety or any other mental health condition and you would like further information, then visit www.mind.org.uk