The Power of Fear




Legend has it that an old dictator, when he knew that he would soon die, picked two men whom he felt he could trust as potential successors to his throne. As he lay on his deathbed, he summoned the two men and asked his servant to bring him two birds.


When the two men came to his deathbed, he said, “I have called you here to see which one of you is worthy to be the heir to my throne. In order to prove yourself, you must take one of these birds and make it remain in the palm of your hand for five minutes without killing it.”


One of the men took a bird from its cage, but he held it so tightly, he suffocated it. The other man, determined not to make the same mistake, took out the other bird and held it firmly but made no attempt to restrain it. Therefore, it quickly flew away through one of the room's windows.


“Fools! I will show you how to do it properly,” said the dictator. “Bring me a bird!” he ordered his servant.


When the servant came back, the dictator took the bird, plucked out all of its feathers, then held the bird in his hands. The bird was now shivering without its feathers to warm him, and although he was unmistakably terrified, he did not fly away.


"Do you see it? It is now helpless. It is terrified. It is freezing. It is vulnerable. I have stripped it of everything, and now it is thankful for the warmth I am giving it in the palms of my hands," the dictator said.


The legend ends here, but the assumption is that this is how the dictator controlled his people—by taking everything away from them, then making them feel thankful for his protection. He essentially got those people to “play frozen,” just as the bird was “playing frozen” in his hands.


And he was able to take advantage of an emotion that all animals and human beings have. This emotion is fear. It is particularly important for autistic children, because fear is their primary emotion. And when you strip them of everything they value in an attempt to change them according to your values, as in an intensive behavior program, you are unconsciously using the control technique of that old dictator and relying on the child’s fear and helplessness to bend him to your will.


An Analysis of Fear


So, let us ask, what is fear? Fear is what you feel when you face something that is unknown or a perceived threat to you. But fear goes beyond that. Fear is also related to the need to understand in that if you don’t understand why something is going on, it is instinctive to fear it. Virtually all human reflexes and instincts are connected to fear. Even eating is connected to fear—when a person goes on a diet, the body unconsciously fears it is starving and increases your craving of high-calorie foods.


Fear is sometimes justified. If something is legitimately dangerous, and you are terrified of it, that fear is in effect protecting you from that danger.


But often fear is often created by the mind.  A child is terrified that a monster will eat him in the dark, and thus is terrified. We adults know there’s no monster, so we scoff at this fear and think of it as crazy.


Probably the most famous autistic expert to talk about the power of fear is Dr. Temple Grandin. Dr. Grandin is an expert in livestock management. She realized that every time a steer attacked a rancher or refused to do anything, it was always because of fear. And because she knew what was likely to terrify cattle, she was able to redesign livestock facilities so that they would not terrify the animals, and thus reduce the attacks on the ranchers.


Dr. Grandin’s work with animals is important to autism because animal fears are similar to autistic fears. Animals do not have the same understanding that we do, and so they base their behavior on what they can understand. To an animal, a slight change in the environment can mean a predator is about to pounce, and hence animals are extremely sensitive to environmental differences. This is not so different from the autistic child who has a full-blown meltdown when you move a picture from one wall to another or put his juice in a blue glass rather than a white one. That blue glass is an environmental change, and it becomes a life-and-death issue to him because he lacks your understanding that the juice inside is the same and he reacts like the cattle that Dr. Grandin talks about.


Autistic Fears


As defined above, a fear is a response to something that is perceived to be dangerous. Thus, an autistic person’s fear is a response to something that an autistic person perceives to be dangerous. However, many of those things are not perceived as dangerous to normal people, as many normal people do them daily, and so the autistic person’s parents or family are told that they must insist that he do the terrifying thing so he “can get used to it.” Thus, the autistic person is forced to do terrifying things every day, and he either resists by shutting down, or he does the terrifying thing to avoid something that is even more terrifying—in some cases, being punished, screamed at, or having his favorite things taken from him.


To the autistic person, life is war. The world is a combat zone where everyone is warring against him. He has to defend himself, fight everyone—or else he will suffer miserably at the hands of people ready to hurt him in the name of help or therapy. And his motive for resistance, for refusal, is fear of what he does not understand.


To the normal parent or therapist,  his response seems illogical—why is he terrified when others are not? They do not understand because they lack of theory of mind toward him. To the autistic person, their response is cruel—why are they forcing me to suffer like this? they must be mean and evil. He does not understand that they perceive the dreaded thing as safe and no big deal. He lacks a theory of mind toward them.


However, if you look at the terrified thing in the way they perceive and experience it, then their fear is very logical. Consider—as an autistic person, I suffer from extreme sensitivity to loud noises, and therefore fear things that cause loud noises. Whenever I hear a sudden, unexpected loud noise, like a school bell or a fire drill bell, I am terribly shocked and I remain agitated for a very long time. In fact, when I once gave an autism presentation, the subject of school fire drills generated lots of emotional comments and stories from the autistic members of the audience.


What makes a loud noise or other terrifying thing worse is when it is unpredictable. If an autistic child who is terrified of a fire drill has no way of knowing when it will go off next, he will be terrified every second wondering, “Is this the moment when the buzzer is going to go off?” For all he knows, it is. Many people aware of their fears and who can talk about them have admitted that what is the most terrifying part of their fear is the lack of control regarding that fear.


This is only one example of an autistic fear, and it concerns a specific thing that lasts only a short time. There are other chronic fears that autistic people experience all the time. Consider the fear of doing the wrong thing socially, and the fear of breaking rules. The life of an autistic person is indeed a life of mistakes and faux pas. He constantly is breaking rules that he had no awareness or understanding of. And this develops into a fear that everything he does will automatically be wrong, because it seems that no matter how hard he tries and no matter what he decides to do, it is always wrong.


When you break a rule unknowingly and you're punished, screamed at, or humiliated, you're going to start being afraid of everything. You’re going to become cautious about everything you do, because you don’t know whether you’re going to get in trouble. Wouldn’t you react that way? Wouldn’t you become “once burned, twice shy”?


At the same time, we are told that autistic children are obsessed with rules, and that this is a weakness and a part of their disability. There is little awareness among parents and therapists that these are children are obsessed with learning and following the rules because they do not understand them.  No one sees this obsession as an attempt to make sense of a world where they are constantly doing the wrong thing. Rules help them reduce their fear, and hence they protest when you change the rules.


Fear as a Motivator or Paralyzer


Everyone has heard of the “fight-or-flight” reaction in the face of danger. An animal or a human being either fights a perceived threat or runs away. Therefore, fear is a great motivator. But what if the fear is too great for the animal or human to react to? According to some scientists, there is a third step: you “freeze.” In this way, too much fear becomes the great paralyzer.


Let us assume an autistic child is involved with a fight with the class bully. The bully is outside on the playground. The autistic child is all alone. He’s got no adults to help him—no adults supervising him. There’s no one there to help him except himself.


He feels hurt by the bully because he is called horrible names by him, and feels that the bully does not deserve to get away with it.


He doesn’t stand up to the bully at first or report it to the staff—even though his social worker already taught him by playing board game after board game about bullies that you should either “walk away, state your feelings, or get a grown-up”--because he knows none of these will work. He has tried to walk away but the bully followed him. He tried to state his feelings, but the bully laughed. He tried to get a grown-up but no grown-up would listen, or they told him it was his misperception, or what’s worse, told him that he was the cause.


The autistic child tries to remain silent until he can’t stand it anymore. By the time the recess aide notices what’s happening, all she sees is an autistic kid attacking a normal kid, and the autistic kid gets in trouble.


He goes home terrified, for at the end of the day, his mother shrieks, “WHY DIDN’T YOU GO TELL THE SOCIAL WORKER?”


What the mother fails to recognize that by yelling at the autistic child, she is only making the problem worse by creating more fear, which is the reason why he didn’t go talk to the social worker in the first place. She wants one thing but is doing the best she can to get the opposite.


That’s how fear works. If you yell at someone for being terrified, they might initially do what you want to get you to stop yelling, but you will cause them to be terrified even more. They’ve now developed a fear of your anger.


The next day when the bully strikes again, the autistic child now has four people to fear: the bully, the recess aide, the social worker, and his mother. This is too much for him, and he shuts down, or “plays frozen,” which is a common autistic response to extreme danger. It would be much more helpful for the adults in power to respect his fear, so that he can learn to trust them and rely on them for help.



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