How To Reduce Fear For Autistic Children

Scared little girl with her head on her knees

The world can sometimes be a confusing, unpredictable and threatening place to be for autistic kids. But that’s only half the reason why they experience fear so often – it’s not just that they feel more threatened, but that their reactions to those threats are very often misunderstood.

Autistic children don’t always experience fear in a way that most people expect or understand. This can result in three very common situations in which their fear is overlooked:

It’s not recognized:
The behaviours don’t look like fear and are misinterpreted as something else.

It’s not expected:
The situation is one in which kids don’t usually experience fear, so carers aren’t prepared or watching for a fear reaction.

It’s not acknowledged:
They seem afraid but the object of that fear is not something that most people find scary.

The result of this confusion is that these kids then miss out on receiving protection and comfort when they need it most.

Misunderstanding their fear means that they have to experience so much more of it, which is not only detrimental to long term health but also to the trust they feel in the people who take care of them.

Let’s take a look at these situations in more in detail.

Ways that fear is misunderstood in autism

1.  Recognizing fear

We think we know what fear looks like – rapid breathing, pounding heart, sweating, crying, hiding, wanting to run. But what about yelling? Refusing to do something? Ignoring you? Talking back? Standing still?

Fear is about escape and avoidance, and these reactions are not always as straight forward as they might seem at first glance. Clinging to routine, stimming, echolalia, aggression, toileting accidents, fidgeting, removing clothes, constant and repetitive questioning… these can also be reactions to feeling afraid.

As our bodies get ready to run or defend we feel dizzy, queasy, fidgety, shaky and tense – this sudden rush of sensations can be unpleasant and overloading for hypersensitive kids. Fear makes our throats tighten and we can have trouble talking or making ourselves understood, which can be uncomfortable and frustrating. It’s hard to swallow too, and our digestion starts to shut down which makes it tricky to eat.

When adrenaline kicks in, we’re suddenly wide awake and our muscles tense up in preparation for battle which can make settling down or sleeping difficult. The pupils dilate to take in more light, and we might get goosebumps and other sensations which feel weird and uncomfortable to little bodies, even painful for some.

All of these involuntary reactions are propelling the body into “I’m going to do whatever I can to protect myself from this threat” mode – which can look exactly like non-compliance, withdrawal, hyperactivity, aggression or being stubborn, as well as setting the perfect conditions for a meltdown.

2.  Anticipating fear

Kids with autism often experience fear in situations where it’s not the usual reaction – sitting in the classroom, visiting the mall, eating a new food, singing Happy Birthday, a windy day at the park, a sudden change in plans.

Situations like these can be scary or even terrifying for them, but it’s easy for that fear to be overlooked, trivialized or misinterpreted when it’s not the expected response. This is especially true in situations which kids usually enjoy, like birthday parties or getting a surprise or having their achievements acknowledged with a round of applause. We’re so accustomed to assuming that everyone loves these things that we’re less prepared to notice that some kids might in fact be afraid.

3.  Acknowledging fear

I hear things like this all the time in reference to autistic kids:

  • “He has a lot of needless fears”
  • “She’s really scared of things that are harmless”
  • “Why are they so afraid of things that aren’t scary?”

But nobody is afraid of something that isn’t scary… to them.

Fear is a natural survival response to things that are painful, confusing, unpredictable or unbearable. And this is one of the reasons fear is such a common reaction for autistic kids – there are many things in their environment that are painful, confusing, unpredictable and unbearable for them. This is evident in how strongly they cling to the things that can help to reduce those fears, like rules and routine.

Kids are expected to respond with fear to ‘valid’ threats such as moving cars, being separated from a parent, growling dogs and heights. But that same fear response in reaction to bright lights, sensory overload, waking up, smiling faces, lumps in your food, unexpected changes or the shape of a cracker is considered odd simply because these things are not threatening to most people.

The fact that these fears are less common doesn’t make the reaction any less real or lessen the distress that they can cause for these kids. Something that seems harmless to one person may still pose a threat to others, and whether the threat is real or only perceived has no impact on the amount of fear that is experienced.

The cost of misunderstanding fear reactions

There are very few people who would ignore a frightened child or respond with irritation, anger, frustration, criticism or discipline… but what about the times when you don’t know that they’re afraid?

Imagine that a terrified woman runs out of her office, being chased by a bear. Her boss stops her and says “Don’t be silly, that’s not a bear. Now get back in there or you’re fired.” This sounds ridiculous, and yet it’s exactly the kind of reaction that these kids usually get when their fear is misinterpreted. Instead of comfort and support, their impulse to run, hide, avoid or otherwise escape the perceived threat is met with disapproval, punishment or attempts to modify the behaviour.

Which is not only unfortunate but inappropriate, because fear is not a choice. It’s a chain of chemical reactions, and no amount of reward, punishment or willpower is going to change an involuntary survival response.

We don’t choose to be afraid of threats, and can neither consciously trigger nor shut off our physiological response to them.

Misunderstanding their fear can also be damaging in many other ways:

  • They have to experience it more often than they need to
  • They miss out on much-needed comfort and support
  • They believe that their reaction to fear is wrong or bad
  • They learn that there’s no point in getting help when they’re afraid (or worse, that they need to keep it a secret) because it will only get them into more trouble
  • They lose trust in the ability of caregivers to protect them

This last one is so important. A kid who is afraid believes that they are in danger – without sharing your knowledge that they’re safe, it’s easy for them to assume that not only are you failing to protect them but you’re actively putting them in harm’s way… so now they need to defend themselves against both you and the threat.

All of this can be hugely detrimental to developing trust with autistic kids, especially those who are experiencing fear – they need to know that their caregivers are a reliable and consistent source of protection from the threats around them, whether real or only perceived.

Tips to help reduce fear for autistic children

1. Learn to recognize what fear looks like for them

It might be different to what it looks and feel like to you.

2. Acknowledge and respect their fear

When you notice what you think might be a fear reaction, let them know that you understand. Reassure them that their reaction is okay, that you’re not an adversary and that you’re going to help.

3. Provide safety

Your job is not to convince them that their fear is unwarranted but to protect them from the threat in a way that feels like protection to them. Fears don’t disappear merely because we’re told to stop being afraid or that ‘everything is okay’. We need to believe that there is no threat. We need to feel secure that there is a safe place for us to retreat to and that protection is available to us.

Threats feel scarier when we have no control over them or our ability to protect ourselves. A lot of autistic kids have fears which fall into this category – they’ll break a rule they didn’t know existed, someone else will break the rules, they’ll randomly get in trouble for something, someone will suddenly start a conversation with them… the threats feel constant and unpredictable.

Providing some control over these things where possible can give a reassuring feeling of safety. For example, kids who are afraid that the fire alarm is going to go off may feel safer having both an advance schedule of any planned fire drills AND a response plan in the event that the alarm is accidentally set off by someone.

Make sure your solution doesn’t inadvertently involve another fear as well. A common example of this is “Go and tell the teacher” or “Find someone to help you” – both of these things can be terrifying in and of themselves, even more so than the original threat that the child is trying to get away from.

4. Investigate the threat

It can sometimes be difficult to understand exactly what’s triggering the fear or why it feels dangerous to them, but identifying and avoiding potential threats will help to reduce the amount of fear that they have to experience.

Keeping a diary of times they seem afraid might reveal some clues you’ve overlooked, or help you to piece together a pattern. Some kids might be able to explain it themselves once they feel safe, but you may also never know why something feels like a threat to them… just remember that this doesn’t have to stop you from providing protection from it.

The bottom line

The way that autistic children respond to perceived threats is often misunderstood and misinterpreted, which results in them having to experience more fear than necessary. It doesn’t have to be this way – understanding, respecting and acting on their fear reactions will go a long way towards making them feel safe and reducing the amount of time they spend feeling afraid.

So the next time your child runs away from the blue socks and not the red ones, or your student runs out of the classroom during a fire drill, just remember that all they know is that their body is trying to warn them about a danger that feels very real. They’re trying to keep themselves safe, and they’re looking to you to help them do that.

Last updated 22 Nov, 2017 by Bec Oakley

Bec Oakley is an autistic writer and proud parent, with an intense passion for 80s text adventures, Twizzlers and making the world a better place for autistic people and their families.