When Phobias aren’t Phobias

It’s been awhile since I did an autism focussed post and recent conversations have made me think pretty hard about something. About my childhood phobias that weren’t and aren’t phobias at all.

As a child, I was afraid of animals. And insects. And people. And the vacuum cleaner.
As an adult, I am afraid of… most animals, most insects, new people. And, yes, the vacuum cleaner.
These aren’t phobias. Phobias are irrational fears of things which cannot hurt you. I have a phobia of heights but my fear of, say, chickens isn’t a phobia because it’s a rational aversion to something that can and has hurt me.
What’s this got to do with autism? The reason my fear and avoidance is rational but looks irrational is based in my neurology. What I am afraid that animals and insects and people will do to me is touch me. Some textures hurt – especially when I’m unprepared for them. What else I am afraid the vacuum cleaner, insects, animals and people will do? I’m afraid that they’ll make noises at me. Some noises hurt me. Noises and textures that don’t bother my neurotypical peers are EXTREMELY distressing and/or painful for me. 

Add to this that I took many, many years longer than my typically developing peers to get a basic grasp of human body language and have only very, very recently come up with working models for cat and dog body language. I essentially spent my childhood surrounded by things whose behaviour seemed inherently unpredictable which were prone to nonconsensuallly touching me, suddenly making noises at me and moving in and out of my limited range of vision at what genuinely appeared to me to be random. Avoiding any and all people and animals I did not know looks like a perfectly understandable reaction in hindsight.

I now have the vocabulary and knowledge to articulate to myself and others that I’m not scared of spiders so much as I’m afraid that they’ll walk on me, I’m not afraid of flies but will have a meltdown if a buzzing one is in the same room as me etc. I couldn’t articulate this as a child because I’ve had these sensory sensitivities since long before I could speak. They hadn’t yet developed into fears and aversions but what happened when I cried in pain from a noise or texture that wouldn’t hurt neurotypical people? The neurotypical adults around me understandably misinterpreted my cries as fear and reacted by trying to reassure me that “Flies / puppies / vacuum cleaners can’t hurt you. It’s okay. Don’t be scared”. So when I later was able to speak, how did I describe what was happening? I used their words back at them and said “I’m scared of flies”.

Flies can hurt me. They do. They have done my whole life. It hurts when they walk on my arms and when they buzz. It’s perfectly rational for me to be afraid of things that hurt me.

Through learning how to predict the behaviour of dogs, cats and other pets, I’m no longer scared of them. People, I can sort-of understand and at least they usually back off if I yell loudly at them for touching me. Insects I can live with if they’re quiet.

And vacuum cleaners? I still can’t be in the same room as one in use. And that’s okay.

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