Exposure Anxiety: a definition
Exposure Anxiety is the internal parent watching its vulnerable and exposed baby being stolen by the world outside or given away by ‘the self’; being robbed of control by what are felt as ‘outside forces’. Exposure Anxiety is a self-parenting survival mechanism, an intense often tic-like involuntary self-protection mechanism that jumps in to defend against sensed ‘invasion’. When it becomes chronic, it is self-perpetuating – like a boulder hurtling down a hill, gaining momentum. Chronic, uncontrolled, acute Exposure Anxiety is about addiction to your own adrenaline. We all experience stress and some of us are more driven, more passionate, more fixated and intense, more independent, more controlling, more dominant or passive, more jumpy or aloof, naturally. In most cases where Exposure Anxiety goes hand in hand with the metabolic, digestive and immune system disorders that co-occur in the largest percentage of people on the autistic spectrum. The chronic stress of Exposure Anxiety exacerbates physiological problems which then affect information processing as well as throw neurotransmitter balance into a state of chaos, forming a self-perpetuating loop. The person with Exposure Anxiety who lives and works with those who do not understand the condition are bound to find the self-in-relation-to-other, directly-confrontational approach of the environment seems to make Exposure Anxiety worse.
Exposure Anxiety has two faces and is the heaven and the hell, the lure of sanctuary and the suffocation of the prison.
Exposure Anxiety is a mechanism that craves the extreme and retaliates against any sense of impending invasion. It is like taking a feeling of severe shyness and multiplying it by fifty, yet its presentation is extremely confusing to onlookers. People with severe Exposure Anxiety can be frozen, or they can be manic and high. They can be prone to despair and depression, driven and creative, or unable to connect. They can be obsessive or fiercely indifferent, compulsively helpful or aloof. They can be passive or controlling; bombastic or phobic; deeply empathic or compulsively violent; open and honest or secretive and intensely private. Exposure Anxiety is likely one of a range of conditions relating to what has been coined ‘Reward Deficiency Syndrome’, essentially relating to reward feedback and impulse control mechanisms in the brain.
Exposure Anxiety makes it difficult to dare ‘expressive volume’ in a directly-confrontational (self-in-relation-to-other) world
Exposure Anxiety is about feeling your own existence too close up, too in your own face.
If I could draw you a picture of acute chronic Exposure Anxiety, I’d draw you a rainbow unseen within heavy stone walls. There’d be places in the stone where the cement had crumbled, been chipped away and some of the colour had come streaming out like a ray of light into the world. I’d draw you a picture of someone inside a prison, an invisible prison with replica selves on the outside, each a contortion, a distortion of the one you can’t see who can’t get out. I’d draw you a picture of someone avoidant with a social person waiting inside for the keys and a way out. I’d show you the compulsive, with a face manic in the midst of a diversion to distract you, to control you, from getting in. I’d draw you a face with a plastic smile, perfect movements, a learned handshake and a gut full of despair and loneliness in a world that applauds the ‘appear’ at the expense of ‘self’; suicide without a corpse.
By her own admission being autistic does not limit you, it just requires ‘the right circumstances’ – but it can be hard to find those environments if you don’t have a diagnosis and know about your condition. In my own experience, diagnosis has not limited me, it freed me. Ableism, in its many forms, is what limits me.
It turns out that allistic observers are at least as bad at reading autistic expressions as vice versa. Milton labels this the ‘double empathy problem’: any failure of autistic people to empathise effectively with the rest of the population is magnified by the routine failure of allistic people to understand what autistic people are actually feeling.
But when I look at Greta’s unsmiling, outraged face, I feel a sense of autistic intimacy.
Our non-compliance is not intended to be rebellious. We simply do not comply with things that harm us. But since a great number of things that harm us are not harmful to most neurotypicals, we are viewed as untamed and in need of straightening up.
Autism is simply an internal human ‘normality’ with the volume turned up. We all have experienced moments when we aren’t quite aware or when we are too aware to handle the world. Or moments when we aren’t quite aware of the company we are in or so overly aware of it that it gets hard to function. We all have had times when we’ve had hardly any awareness of our bodies, even been out of them, or felt so in, weighed down by them, that we become hypercritical, eager to escape, tune out, disappear. We have all had times when we’ve lost the plot, the why, the what or been distracted by the meta-reality inside our heads to the extent that we are suddenly jolted out of a daydream. So too, have we all had moments when we have been so aware that we have taken things in in almost overwhelming, extreme detail. For me, the experience of ‘autism’ is not of any of these things in themselves, but rather the frequency and extremity with which they are experienced and the degree to which these experiences affect how one expresses oneself and relates to one’s inner world and the outer world. It’s a matter of whether you visit these states or whether you’ve lived there.
I updated “Neurodiversity in the Classroom” with a selection on sensory overwhelm in school environments from “Inclusive Education for Autistic Children: Helping Children and Young People to Learn and Flourish in the Classroom”.
One of the more encouraging developments in the autism field over the last decade or so has been a growing awareness of the significance of sensory issues. Sensory sensitivities are included in the DSM-5 as part part of the diagnostic criteria for autism, and in teacher training materials, such as those provided by the AET. They are also highlighted in campaigns by the National Autistic Society (NAS), for example. But despite these signs of increased understanding, I’m not convinced that in our schools there is a sufficiently nuanced appreciation of this multi-faceted phenomenon, which potentially influences a whole range of physical and perceptual processes (Bogdashina 2016). Indeed, the school environment can present autistic children with a multi-sensory onslaught in terms of sounds, smells, textures and visual impacts that constitutes both a distraction and a source of discomfort (Ashburner, Ziviani and Rodger 2008; Caldwell 2008). There was also clear evidence from my own study that sensory issues, and noise in particular, can be highly exclusionary factors for autistic children in schools.
I updated “Neurodiversity in the Classroom” with a selection from “Inclusive Education for Autistic Children: Helping Children and Young People to Learn and Flourish in the Classroom”.
understanding the perspectives and experiences of autistic children and adults in particular was essential. Time and again I found that issues aired say, by teachers, would be completely reframed when the autistic adults discussed the same points.
I also added headings to break up the length and removed some dead links and embeds.
Time and again I found that issues aired say, by teachers, would be completely reframed when the autistic adults discussed the same points.
But despite these signs of increased understanding, I’m not convinced that in our schools there is a sufficiently nuanced appreciation of this multi-faceted phenomenon, which potentially influences a whole range of physical and perceptual processes (Bogdashina 2016). Indeed, the school environment can present autistic children with a multi-sensory onslaught in terms of sounds, smells, textures and visual impacts that constitutes both a distraction and a source of discomfort (Ashburner, Ziviani and Rodger 2008; Caldwell 2008). There was also clear evidence from my own study that sensory issues, and noise in particular, can be highly exclusionary factors for autistic children in schools.