When I said hi to the young person next to me on the flight, I noticed they avoided eye contact, kept their headset on, and constantly fidgeted with a small gadget…I guessed they might be autistic.
When we struck turbulence and they crouched down as low as they could go, I remember thinking ‘they look terrified’.
I wanted to help, to ask if they were okay – even hold their hand – but I felt paralyzed by all the ‘what ifs’.
What if they are autistic? Don’t autistic people hate to be touched? If I say something, will I make the situation worse?
I could feel the familiar feeling of butterflies in my chest, but I pushed through my fear of doing the wrong thing and asked, “are you okay?”
“I hate flying” they replied, “but I have to because of my work.”
Relieved that at least we were communicating, I asked if they wanted to hold my hand. Without hesitation, they grabbed my hand and held it tightly.
In situations like this, telling someone they can manage stress by reframing it is completely unhelpful. Distraction is usually best, so I asked what they did for a living that involved so much travel.
They talked about their work and about being autistic. Soon they were smiling and looking more relaxed. About then we landed.
So, ‘note to self’. Trust your gut.
Neurodiversity is vast, and you never know unless you ask. My offer to hold hands with a stranger felt like the right thing to do at the time. It could have been rejected and I might have felt a bit of a klutz.
But if I hadn’t offered, I would have regretted not acting, because kindness is a primary guiding value of mine.
People often tell me that their fear of doing the wrong thing overwhelms them, so instead, they end up doing nothing.
But I’ve found that what stops us is rarely about the other person’s response.
We fear feeling that familiar discomfort within ourselves (referred to as distress intolerance) and we’ll do anything to avoid it.
If you’re holding back from doing or saying something, are you sure it’s because you don’t want to make things worse, or could it be that you don’t want to experience the discomfort of getting it wrong?
Usually what’s stopping us is not about the other person, it’s our own distress intolerance.
When you learn how to stop running from that inner tension you can respond far more powerfully.
This heightened self-awareness helps you self-regulate under pressure.
In my work with leaders, I get them to notice how their personal resistance shows up and to grow their inner resilience to push through under pressure.
It’s called vertical growth and it’s truly transformational.
We’re all a work in progress. For me, pushing through anxiety is difficult, but living with the ‘what ifs’ is worse!