Lawyers with Disabilities Division

Autism and anxiety in life and at work

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Jonathan Andrews, future trainee solicitor at leading law firm Reed Smith and on the Parliamentary Commission for Autism, writes on his own experiences of ‘autistic anxiety’, and how it can manifest both in employment, and in everyday life. 

Anxiety is one of the most common ways autism can express itself – it’s believed the vast majority of autistic people experience some form of anxiety as a result of autism at some point in their lives, particularly in their childhoods before they are able to develop any coping strategies. This article won’t all be about dry statistics and second-hand sources, however – I want to discuss something I haven’t really written about before, which is how anxiety personally affects me.

It’s said by many autistic people that ‘autistic anxiety’ is different from ‘regular anxiety’ because it is heavily situational; and while I think anxiety is far too varied a condition for any kind to ever be ‘regular’, and have no idea if others without autism might experience it the same as me, the highly situational nature of anxiety is something I personally experience.

It’s very difficult to describe this type of anxiety, though, because on one level it’s largely an extreme version of the nervousness most people feel when around new people or in new situations. But because of this, people often respond that ‘I do that’, so it couldn’t possibly be autism. That’s true, you say, but with autism it’s more pronounced – the anxiety is simply stronger. ‘How do you know it’s stronger than others?’ They quip back. ‘You can’t read their minds!’

And it’s strictly true, that, no, I can’t tell exactly how other people are feeling when they first meet someone all the time, so they might well be worse affected. But if so, they’re a lot better than hiding it than I am - few others will be so overcome with nerves that they really have to focus to remain clear, to find themselves stopping and starting their opening words three to four times because there are too many thoughts firing off in their head at once, and generally presenting as very nervous, unclear and unsure of themselves – even if this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Internally, I make perfect sense – and once I’ve been in the environment for a few minutes, this starts to come through – but initially, I’m quite aware I don’t come across as calm and composed. I’ve had different reactions to this – some have said they were startled and impressed by ‘how confident I became’, others that I am able to suddenly switch from being an introvert to an extrovert.

Some have theorised it’s a ‘game plan’ I have to make people have to really focus on me to hear and understand my contributions before I then reveal my ‘true, confident nature’. Some have taken it as a sign my confidence has suddenly shot up for some reason after meeting them the first time – funnily enough, they always cite their own involvement as the key in my ‘inspirational journey’.

The truth is rather more mundane. Most of the time, I come across as calm, confident, composed – to a greater extreme than most people. In a new environment, I become anxious and lost – to a greater degree than most people. And that’s the first thing to note about autistic anxiety – it tends to be more stark and more noticeable, but also more situational.

And the situational side of autistic anxiety really shouldn’t be understated. Because I very often find myself meeting completely new people, of a level most would find intimidating – CEOs, Charity and NGO heads, senior politicians – and am completely calm around them, able to conjure up small talk of just the right complexity and length, and otherwise interact professionally. In meetings, it’s often commented that my points, are astute and valuable – which includes comments on the behaviour and viewpoints of others, something which according to the stereotypes, I shouldn’t be able to do.

In this environment, I’m confident; in the words of others, I ‘own the room’; and I can always make myself understood. But that’s because I have a clear understanding of the purpose and parameters of the interaction. I know the objective I’m meeting for, I’ll often have been able to prepare in advance, and I know everyone is aiming for a tangible result. It makes everything seem rather a lot calmer.

And this calmness and lack of anxiety doesn’t just apply to work situations - once I’m settled in and used to a social environment, it’s just as true. And in some social environments, I find it’s also true on the first visit or meeting – and I’ve tried to find some dividing line to explain why, but can’t. Sometimes I’m anxious, it seems; often I’m not, and often I won’t even know what the case will be until I get there.

Not all autistic anxiety is the same, however – many people report feeling continually on edge, eternally anxious and able to be ‘set off’ by very minor problems, whatever the situation. Some days people say I’m like that, but rarely, and it doesn’t marry up with how I feel inside even then. The vast majority of the time I’m very calm, and I’m told I look it, too. But often when I’m internally anxious, I still look calm; and when I appear unsettled, often I’ll be more in control internally. In that respect, my autistic anxiety factors into another shade of one of autism’s key aspects – that internal feelings and external signals don’t match up, so people interpret your body language, tone or words significantly differently.

There’s a saying that ‘when you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person’; and the same sentiment could just as easily be applied to anxious people. All are different – anxiety can be debilitating, or it can spur people to achieve great things, or both in the same person. Similarly, no two autistic anxieties are the same – perpetually stressed and incredibly Zen people can coexist on the same spectrum, and sometimes the same person can experience both extremes within a matter of minutes, in different situations.

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