Voices: Why autistic people like Christine McGuinness don’t like change

Ahead of her upcoming documentary, Unmasking My Autism, openly autistic Christine McGuinness has spoken about how her autistic traits encouraged her to stay in her relationship with TV presenter Paddy McGuinness for 15 years. Among the many reasons Christine McGuinness gave for staying in her marriage for so long was that she “doesn’t like change”.

Disliking (or even, fearing) change is not a uniquely autistic experience, yet so many autistic people I know – myself included – fear change on a deeper level and in a wider array of circumstances than neurotypical people commonly do. Every autistic person is unique, but for many of us, a fear of change can inspire us to remain in marriages, jobs, friendships and living situations that are unhappy (or even abusive) – far longer than the average neurotypical person would.

There are many reasons why this is often the case:

Firstly, autistic people – especially women, BIPOC and LGBT+ autists – are much likelier to have experienced abuse than the average neurotypical person. Studies suggest that autistic children are three times more likely than neurotypical children to experience bulling at school, and every day I hear from autistic adults who have been in abusive relationships (something that McGuinness has said she personally experienced prior to her relationship with Paddy) or who have been subjected to hostile treatment in a workplace.

The reasons for this are complex, but in my view, as an autistic person, being accustomed to abhorrent treatment from others can desensitise us to our own pain. It can also make it harder for us to recognise that a situation is one which we should endeavour to escape. If you have been subject to continual poor treatment, you may not realise that an abusive situation you are in is unacceptable or worse than you should expect for yourself, as it is not an outlier among your catalogue of life experiences. If “change” means possibly jumping from the oven into the fire, it isn’t appealing. It’s terrifying.

Secondly, change itself – even positive change – can be anxiety-inducing for autistic people.

For example, when a neurotypical person starts a brilliant new job, they may feel nervous and have specific anxieties over things like the commute, new colleagues and different work responsibilities; but they are able to maintain a bird’s-eye view of this change. They can see the positives.

When an autistic person starts a new job, they don’t have the benefit of this aerial view. They’ll probably be in the trenches, fraught with worry over the incoming flood of differences they see before them. They will be processing the big move plus the minutiae of the change of workplace: environment, temperature, lighting, culture, social rules, expectations, hierarchies and more.

Part of experiencing the world as deeply as we do is feeling the impact of change to a greater extent. Navigating change can be overwhelming, and put an enormous strain on our nervous system and our bodies. There have been times when I have started a new job and had recurring panic attacks for 48 hours, night sweats for a week and chronic exhaustion for a month.

For many autistic people, familiarity is not simply a comfort but a safety net – albeit potentially a terribly tight one that strangles us, sometimes. We rely on this safety net because, typically, our needs are not systemically supported in the way neurotypical people’s needs often are. Starting anew is akin to throwing ourselves naked into the wilderness; into a world where we don’t know the rules, don’t feel physically comfortable and can’t rely on an expectation that things will be alright.

We might be scapegoated by our new employer because we can’t understand their unwritten rules and expectations, and they are not in any medium we can easily understand.

In relationships, we might be manipulated by a partner because we take what they say and do at face value, and we might not see the red flags until we suddenly feel trapped.

We might become debilitated by a house move, because there is too much newness to process, too little local support and a stream of sensory triggers.

Like all human beings, we deserve happiness and strive towards it, but sometimes change does not feel like the answer – even if deep down we know that it is. There can be too many risks, too many uncertainties and too many hurdles for us to feel able to trust it.

To help us navigate change, I would kindly ask all non-autistic people to be honest about your intentions, upfront about what a change might entail and answer any questions we may have. Don’t force us to make a change: but be patient with us during transitions and ask how you can support us while we make it. Follow through when we make reasonable requests.

Change may well be good – and important – but it can be debilitating for us. And it doesn’t need to be.