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  • Writer's pictureAmy Duffy-Barnes

Autism and Heightened Threat Awareness

Don't expect a lot of mundane chitter-chatter when there are so many delightful, intense and in-depth topics of meaning that your autistic friend would rather talk about. Being an autistic human who is engaged with several autistic communities I have definitely noticed my own propensity to talk about threats I perceive in the current world and many of my autistic colleagues are on the same page.

Although there are variances in autistic brains, many of us (much higher than the average/neurotypical population) have a heightened sense of threat awareness, which can be defined as an increased sensitivity to perceived threats in the environment. This seems to combine with the autistic talent of noticing details and nuances and then patterning them together to make a bigger picture. So you have a number of autistic people who are reading journal articles, and news articles, stalking the r/collapse forum, doomscrolling, and then coming up with a big picture of the world which is pretty bleak. This heightened threat awareness can manifest in a variety of ways and can have a significant impact on a person's daily life.

A good example of this is Greta Thunberg, one of my personal autistic heroes. She quit going to school at a young age because after analyzing environmental data she realized that climate change and environmental degradation could possibly make our planet uninhabitable during her lifetime. She decided this threat warranted putting all of her energy into solving the problem.

But there are also consequences for us who have a heightened threat awareness. It is harder to sleep at night, we are more likely to engage in doom scrolling, etc. These things raise our stress levels and as adrenaline and cortisol go up our balance and well-being goes down.

Another consequence of heightened threat awareness can manifest as an excessive need for routine and predictability. This may be due to the fact that for some of us, changes in routine or unexpected events can be perceived as potential threats. This can make it difficult for us to adapt to new situations and may lead to anxiety and stress.

Another manifestation of heightened threat awareness is an increase in sensory sensitivities and OCD thought patterns. Many autistic individuals have heightened sensitivity to certain sensory inputs, such as loud noises or bright lights. This heightened sensitivity can make it difficult for them to function in environments that are not specifically tailored to sensory needs and can contribute to feelings of anxiety and stress. When stress goes up OCD symptoms tend to increase.

Heightened threat awareness can also manifest as difficulty with social interactions. Many of us have difficulty interpreting social cues and understanding the intentions of others on a good day. So on a bad day and with an increased perception of threats some of us struggle to feel safe enough to connect with others in a way that works for our brand of autism. This can make it difficult for us and may lead to social withdrawal feelings of isolation and loneliness.

It is important to note that while heightened threat awareness can be a significant challenge for individuals with autism, it is not a universal trait among all autistic people. Every person with autism is unique and experiences it differently. Some people with autism may not exhibit heightened threat awareness at all, while others may experience it to varying degrees.

A heightened sense of threat awareness is a strength and a challenge for autistic people. If it is leading to increasing levels of stress steps can be taken to reduce that stress, including deciding what you can and can't control in life. At some level, we accept the things that can't be changed and we focus on the things we can control. We can talk to a therapist, create a safe, predictable, and comfortable environment for ourselves. We can find community and connection. A forum that I recommend to other autistic people worrying about the state of the world is the Deep Adaptation Forum. This group was started by Jem Bendell a British Professor who works on helping people and communities both accept and adapt to a changing world.

For the bigger issues that worry us, we have to find a balance between being informed and concerned citizens and living and enjoying our lives.

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