Behind the risk-taking attitude of people with autism

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People with autism spectrum disorder are often described as blunt, brave, confrontational and risk takers. In reality, there are several factors that may impact their ability to carefully analyse situations and take actions with least involved risks, however by providing proper scaffolding, structure and cues, people with autism can learn to identify and refrain away from risky situations.

Difficulties understanding consequences:

In autism, literal and concrete thinking is more common than the abstract thinking. The latter is needed to think thoroughly about consequences of different actions and decisions. Lack of abstract thinking also results in insight and foresight difficulties. What people with autism see is “here and now”, and as consequences occur mostly in the future, they struggle in choosing appropriate actions. This may explain why a consequence-based approach is often not successful in autism.

Socio-communication difficulties:

The social and communication difficulties in people with autism prevent them from filtering out what is meant to be a joke, or an actual statement requiring an action. For example, if a dare statement such as “zigzag driving makes you look cool” is given to an individual with autism, they are more likely to follow it. Chances are that not only they have interpreted it literally, they also have an increased need for social recognition. As a result, they are more likely to fall trap to situations manipulated to positive social outcomes such as the dare in the above example. Furthermore, people with autism can be very trusting of others, which again increases their vulnerability to engage in activities and situations involving high risk.

Maturity of brain systems:

According to a study published on Science daily, the typically developing brain of teenagers can be thought to consist of two control systems; socio-emotional and cognitive-control network. These two systems mature at different times with age. During puberty years the socio-emotional system dominates over cognitive-control system, with the result that teenagers are more likely to engage in risk taking behaviours. Over a period of time, the cognitive-control system matures and is able to inhibit it’s counterpart as needed. In autism however, the pattern of brain development differs than typical population which may mean that the cognitive-control system may not mature, and the risk taking tendencies may continue for long.

Limited understanding of risks:

People with autism can miscalculate the magnitude of the situation. A problem that may appear to be minor to someone else, may be a large-scale problem to people with autism that needs immediate resolution. If people with autism are looking at a situation using a magnifying glass, their responses to those otherwise minor problems might be out of proportion as well. This may make them take actions or behave in ways which might come across as bit extreme, unusual and confrontational. The reason behind such behaviour might be because they have not taken into account all the possibilities associated with a situation, decision or an action. Similarly, impulsive and spontaneous behaviours that are common in people with autism can also raise the chances of engaging in risk taking behaviours.

Emotional regulation, stress & knee jerk reactions:

Emotional regulation difficulties are common in people with autism. As discussed earlier that sometimes a small trigger can lead to an out of proportion response. The lack of self-coping strategies in event of an upsetting situation, may also make person with autism more anxious, upset and stressed for longer duration of time.

People with autism experience increased levels of stress. Both acute and chronic levels of stress have been found to increase risk taking behaviours in general population. Stress can also impact logical thinking and reasoning skills which are needed to carefully analyse different situations. When faced with stressful situation, it may happen that person with autism executes the very first thought that comes to their mind. Chances of it can also increase if they know only one way of dealing with a particular situation. If that’s the case, we need to further evaluate if that particular strategy is most efficient, relevant, appropriate and safe. If not, then the person with autism will continue to experience emotional distress which will further increase levels of stress.

Written by Muhammad Wasif Haq (2019)
Perth, Australia
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