Autism as an ally against OCD


One of the quirks of Autism is that it’s often a package deal, arriving pre-bundled with another condition, such as ADHD or Oppositional Defiance Disorder. Buy one, get one free!

For me, this accompanying condition was Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Hell of a double whammy, right? Well, sometimes yes, but the way they interact isn’t as straightforward as you might think.

See, the primary focus of my OCD is a fear of disease and contamination. Back when it was at its worst, in my late teens and early twenties, if someone coughed or sneezed anywhere near me, or if I accidentally stepped on a discarded tissue, I’d go to pieces like a china plate Frisbee’d into a jet engine.

Now, perhaps as a result of my autism, I’m a very analytical, scientific person, so I tried to combat this irrational terror with cold hard facts, I did a lot of research about diseases. It epidemiology actually became one of my autistic special interests for several years.

And during the course of this research, I kept crossing paths with the concept of immunology; the idea that our immune systems grow stronger over time through exposure to pathogens. That’s how many vaccines work for example, they train your immune cells to recognize a virus so that when the real thing shows up they know how to fight and beat it before it can hurt you.

I was fascinated with this concept, and it gave me an idea; that maybe, I could build up an immunity to my fears, and my triggers, through gradual controlled exposure. My autistic affinity for structure came to fore, and I drew up my battle plan with meticulous exactitude. Every day, I’d try to confront one of my fears, just a little bit. Not by jumping head first into it with anything super terrifying, but just taking a small step. I’d set myself goals, and timelines to reach those goals.

Over time, bit by bit, the fear response became less powerful, and I was able to get to the point I’m at today where I can use a public bathroom, something that was unthinkable to me ten years ago. So as it turns out, my autistic traits, like my systematic thinking and my focus on my special interests, turned out to be a potent weapon I could utilize against my anxiety.

Of course, we’re never going to completely eliminate anxiety, and nor should we. It’s a fact of life. And in fact it exists within us for a reason; without it we would’ve died out millions of years ago, because we wouldn’t have run away when the saber-toothed tigers jumped out at us.

But excessive, chronic anxiety, is something that we can train our brains to resist. And for those of us on the spectrum, who are particularly prone to this type of anxiety, leveraging our own neurology can give us an edge.

In the case of both myself and many children I’ve worked with, it has helped a lot to turn this strategy of confronting our fears into a highly structured plan, a game almost, that reflects our literal and logical thinking. Structure is a comforting thing, and since unpredictability is itself often a source of anxiety, just making a plan like “I will use a bin once a day” or “I will interact with a cashier by myself once a week” is therapeutic in itself. It puts our challenges into a format that’s tailored to the way our brains work.

Now isn’t a process that’s going to happen overnight; it’s not even going to happen over weeks, it’s going to take months, it’s going to take years. But I know from personal experience that by utilizing our autistic strengths, it’s possible.

When I was 18, my anxiety was so extreme I could not leave the house. If you’d told me then we’re I’d be today, I wouldn’t have believed it. I spent far too long fighting fear on its terms; the turning point came when I decided to fight it on mine, with autism as my ally.