My Autism Theory


I’m currently reading The Panic Virus, a book that explores the history and development of the false link between autism and vaccines. It’s fascinating to see how people can develop theories about just about anything based not on data, but on their own personal perception of reality.

Then I realized I’m capable of the same exact thing.

I have tons of theories. I have a theory about how our universe is just a microscopic part of a much larger plane of existence, and that we are a much larger plane of existence for another smaller microscopic universe (and so forth). I have a theory that centers around how early human evolution still continues to shape many of our decisions inour modern day world. I have a theory on why my car’s “check engine” light is on.


I’m pretty sure it’s the fuel injectors.

The important thing for me to mention is that they are just theories. I’m no expert on particle physics or automotive mechanincs. I have no hard evidence to base these theories on, just some observations coupled with feelings that I have. I’m not going to argue that I’m “right” in any of these cases. They are just ideas that I put forth as interesting things to think of. With that said, I have a theory on what autism is and what actually causes it.


You’ve been warned.

My theory started growing in my mind when I started looking at my own stimming behavior – biting the skin on my fingers. There were times where I could go for quite a long time without biting, but then I’d get stressed out and tear the shit out of my fingertips. I started thinking that maybe my stimming was a hyper-intense stress reaction. Could this apply to other autistic stimming behaviors?

Another little factoid that contributed to my theory was the difference between my two children. My daughter (the aspie) was conceived using fertility treatments and hormone therapy, while my son (the NT) was conceived naturally. My daughter suffered from severe GERD as a baby, my son did not. I also noticed that a fair portion of the women my wife was in contact with from various support groups (both IVF and GERD online support groups) had children that were on the spectrum in some capacity. Where, if anywhere, does this factor in?

My mind also wandered around the fact that there seems to be a genetic component to autism spectrum disorders. The gene has not been pinpointed, but it has been shown that autism seems to run in families. Genetics are pretty straightforward – simply put, either you have a gene for a specific trait or you don’t. So why does it seems to get wishy washy when it comes to autism?


Ok, so my theory is basically this – autism spectrum disorders are, at the core, anxiety disorders that manifest themselves into social and physical symptoms of varying severity.

Why does this make sense? Because it brings together all of the aforementioned details, quite nicely I might add.

According to my theory, autism starts at the genetic level as an inherited predisposition for abnormally heightened anxiety. Perhaps the genes that regulate stress hormones produce abnormal amounts, or perhaps the receptors for these hormones are tuned to be overly sensitive. Whatever the mechanism, these are the children who are at higher risk to develop autism.

The next step occurs during pregnancy – during early development, the child is subjected to some sort of “triggering stress.” This could come from a number of different sources – exposure to elevated maternal stress hormones in utero (possibly in reaction to fertility treatments), metabolic stress due to medications (an explanation to the perceived link between autism and vaccines), or physical stress to the child itself (chronic pain, GERD, etc.).  The triggering stress conditions the child to adjust his or her baseline level of stress higher than a neurotypical child’s baseline would be.

The symptoms of autism (most notably stimming and tantrums) are physiological responses to perceived stress. The fact that the levels of stress are extremely subjective leads to the wide range of severity of symptoms; a child with Aspergers may only be moderately affected by stress, while a child with severe autism may find the slightest stimulus to be crippling. The social aspects of autism spectrum disorders (parrotting, echolalia, isolating, flat affect) correlate with social anxiety.


Skeptical reader is skeptical.

Autism as an axiety disorder makes some sense. It explains why treatment with anti-anxiety meds helps improve behavior. It also explains why children on the spectrum tend to function better when set routines are in place, reducing the anxiety of the unknown. I’m not sure how one would go about proving this theory to be true, nor am I sure what good proving the theory true would accomplish. Perhaps better treatment strategies could arise, approaching autism from the “stress reduction” angle that one would use when treating other anxiety disorders.

I’m curious to hear opinions on my theory, as well as any other theories that you readers may have. Fire away in the comments section!!!

Posted on July 27, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. An interesting theory. It could lead to a question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. Does anxiety cause autism or does autism cause anxiety. Also, this kind of thinking can lead to a lot of blaming on the part of parents and professionals. Do refrigerator mothers cause autism? How about distant fathers? Or maybe it’s helicopter parents? Parents have a hard enough time raising their autistic children without this energy draining potential for blame.

    I have raised two autistic children to adulthood. My theory is your theory doesn’t hold water. Our form of autism is likely a genetic predisposition, and maybe antibiotics before birth (for my son), along with very high fevers in early childhood may have triggered it. I don’t know. I have a theory about pollution in rust belt states.

    We dealt with speech impairment, low muscle tone, poor balance, proprioceptive and vestibular deficits, learning disabilities, and social impairment. There was a very physical component to our children’s autism. It was not just anxiety.

  2. I don’t think so. There is also much more to autism than stimming and tantrums. I find it much more likely that anxiety (and social anxiety) is caused by the accumulated effect of many of the other symptoms of autism. For example difficulty processing and making sense of sensory inputs, tendency to overreact (emotional dysregulation), strong social vulnerability due to standing out + difficulty interpreting and predicting social behaviour, sleep disturbances… the list goes on. It would be very strange if the symptoms of autism did not cause intense, pervasive anxiety. They do give incredible many good reasons to be anxious (basically, puts one in danger in many situations) combined with less ability to regulate those feelings!

  3. I think this is brilliant. Worst case it’s one useful way of thinking about Asperger’s. I’m a NT-wife-of-an-Aspie, and this makes so much sense for us. Thanks for writing your theory up and for your blog in general. Keep it coming.

  4. Hello fellow Aspie. I am also fond of theoretizing on just about everything and doing pattern recognition within those. I have been considering how my brain works. I’ve spent a lot of time considering the mind through my intensive meditation for many years and through study of the Yoga and Vedanta theories.

    I will corroborate your family theory, in that my entire family are undiagnosed (and most are in denial, frankly, given that I’ve brought it up and makes all kinds of sense) Aspies. My connection started coming to me through a documentary I watched about savants, and I was amazed at how kindred I felt with them, and then I connected it to the way my dad uses similar rote methods of social interaction in the same way Kim Peek does (check out Youtube documentaries on savants). His is more nuanced, as he’s on a different part of the spectrum, but it was similar enough for a correlation. My grandfather is outright autistic in the old more classical sense. Grandmother OCD, the list goes on.

    Having “come out” as an Aspie now in all arenas of my life (including work), I have started to talk with my aunt about this and how she keeps dating her Dad (fairly typical). Her current boyfriend is clearly Aspie.

    My current theory is that Aspie minds have to learn to deal with the assault of the senses before they are capable of asking for help or knowing what is happening and that it is atypical. No way as an infant can you know. As you develop, no one validates your internal experience, only external experiences, which are seen by the Aspie mind (mine at least) as lacking in the “validity” of our own internal life.

    Stimming, seen in that context is a way of calming one’s self and putting you into your right brain again, which is largely focused on the experience of the moment’s input, without evaluation, which is the job of the left brain. Watch Youtube video on left/right brain stuff with Jill Bolte-Taylor’s Stroke of Insight for my reference here.

    One other implication of the Aspie mind during infancy and youth is that in my theory we develop these habits almost as first principles that will later bite us in the butt socially- filtering everything, not engaging with people socially, obsessing over not only the sensory input but the implications of the implications of the implications of so much

    My theory says that the Aspie mind is automatically LESS FILTERED than neuro-typical people, and this is why we also often appear smarter than others. We have more information to form our opinions, as the world is simply appearing to give us more information. With maturity, we can often leverage this into working for us and this works especially well if we’re “the boss”. That is easier in the knowledge-based world we live in today. In many ways, the current world was MADE for Aspies, as we can hide behind a computer screen for hours! haha

    So, less filtering means more information and more difficulty in parsing the information, because information is never simply data. In my Aspie world, information carries additional things with it- emotions, realizations, implications, etc, etc, etc. and so it’s not JUST the sensory data, but also my thoughts and assumptions about it. This accounts for my delay in responding in social situations, why I miss cues others catch because I am playing catch-up. It’s NOT that I didn’t see it. I didn’t KNOWI saw it because my attention was diverted by considering this massive amount of information, ALL of which is unknown to most people I have ever known in my life. I have spent a lot of time considering how to keep myself from “going there”, which I think of as “the detail pit”. I fall into the detail pit and sometimes need help getting out! haha

  5. I will further say that your comment regarding stress can also be explained by my theory of filtering. I call it ‘overwhelm’. As an Aspie, I have, again, before I was able to know I was doing this- formed a group of habits that I have come to think of as the “stress police”.

    Mostly using the strategy of avoidance- I am like 100x Ph.D. Quadruple Grand Master of Avoidance (social and otherwise)- I have learned to manage stress. Still, these qualities are all consistent with neuro-typical people- they all bite their fingernails and other stimming and stress responses. I have a Book of Things That Stress Me in my mind, built up with time, and I will explain it to anyone who bothers to hear me. I’ll tell you directly.

    Meanwhile, while the neuro-typically trained person I’m speaking to thinks I’m simply expressing a weak preference, which is of course how “being social” works. One can never mandate Thou Shalt Never Server Me Slimy Food or Brussels Sprouts without seeming either like a tyrant or a weirdo.

    The difference seems to lay in my own capacity to proactively manage my own stress. This is why ‘leaving me alone’ is a show of respect rather than isolation. Allowing me to engage when I need something rather than chasing me around trying to meet my needs is a show of respect. This is opposite social and neuro-typical relationships and since they are in the majority, their perspective is automatically assumed more valid. Objectively, it’s not.

    The point of all this is that if autism is defined as an anxiety disorder, then one must ask the question- according to whom? The social, neuro-typical person would define anything they can’t know, understand or experience as a disorder.

    My reference here is: The Entire History of Medicine and Psychology.

    Instead, I propose an alternate theory in which my experience as valid is actually understood and validating socially. My theory is that there are three selves (this theory is also validated by All Religion, but especially the Eastern ones):
    1) The Social Self- this is the source of most social ills, corporations, and largely validates ego (left-brained thinking) and separation/ownership/transactional thinking as the basic law of the world.
    2) The Mature Social Self- recognizes the nature of family, community and mentoring of children and others. It is this self that recognizes the final layer, which is largely not understood, and typically never spoken about.
    3) The Asocial Self. This is the self I was born with (we all actually are), but I feel to a greater degree due to the Aspie nature of my mind. I experience a larger totality of the world but didn’t recognize this until I studied serious spiritual life, being a monk at an ashram, etc. That life is highly ordered (CERTAINLY my preference!) and speaks to not only the recognition of the “rules” I am so fond of observing, but also the principles that underlay the nature of the world and all that I observe.

    It is this asocial self that doesn’t get any validation from the larger Western society and often not even in our own family. I have decided that to be of service to Aspies or to myself, I must validate that. Oddly, I discovered that even neuro-typical people suffer from many of the same maladies of overwhelm, nervous tics (shaky leg, anyone?), and distraction I am highly prone to given the intrusion of technology into our lives.

    I use the term asocial rather than anti-social. Asocial implies, purposefully, that there is an aspect of ourselves that is wholly divorced from all social concerns or restrictions. It is our spiritual self. It is the Self of the Golden Rule. It is the part of you that recognizes our infinite, timeless, unchanging nature as being shared across consciousness itself, rather than limited to an embodied, individual self. Without going too far into the spiritual side of things, I think we all have ways in which we define our virtue with respect to these sorts of principles, and also in a deeper sense what those principles imply.

    I have come to understand this from the examples of Indian society. They have people in India who are called avadhuts. These people are the Diogenes of the East. It is their job to point out the fallacies of social constructs and assumptions that are holding back society and poke at them.

    There are like 1 million wandering sadhus in India who have a valid social role as not being a part of society. What a BEAUTIFUL thing that is.

    Similarly, if we Aspies get out of the box made for us by the social world, we’ll be more courageous in validating our own perspectives and finding the deep, deep roots that we have more access to than a ‘normal’ neuro-typical person might.

    I am concerned that your post proposed we take the perspective of neuro-typicals and social selves over our own. Certainly, I can understand why that is. But, I have to say, it’s sure NICE to be out of that box. Easier to breathe here. I’m not for a moment suggesting I am wholly free of stress or overwhelm or the social blind spots. But, one can improve and ask for understanding in a clearer way. Having words to translate my experience helps me also make clearer requests for the understanding and validation I crave from a lifetime of trying to decrypt the nature of social life. I have considerable motivation and smarts to put to that task and still it remains somehow always just out of reach. This is my current theory, and I’m sticking to it.

  6. The Myth of Autism by Dr. Michael Goldberg expresses a theory quite similar to your own. He has treated patients based upon these observances with much success. He notes a measured correlation between children with Autism and a prenatal stress trigger of the mother suffering some illness or the infant suffering illness in early infancy. I read his book sort of after the fact when it came to my son. Reading it was rather affirming – as I had stumbled this way and that looking for the best way to help my son it turned out I had done what Dr Goldberg does except with natural methods. Ie Dr Goldberg treats for possible yeast in guy imbalance with pharmaceuticals, my sons guy was repaired with probiotics and diet.
    It’s an interesting read.
    I want to add that your post is the first I’ve read of a common denominator in GERD. I have believed having GERD was a factor in pushing my son toward Autism … Like his tiny self was overwhelmed by the stimulus around and within him and this affected early neurological connections. But I hadn’t read GERD as a common denominator before now.
    Thanks for writing this blog ! My son is 10. I often wonder what he will be able to explain to me when he is older.

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