Autism is not something that is generally associated with paranoia, but as you will see from previous writing on the topic, it is an issue that needs to be given consideration. Research as far back as 2011 (King & Lord, 2011) has indicated that there is a growing belief that autism and schizophrenia may be part of a single spectrum. As an Autistic and Schizophrenic person, I am inclined to believe they might be, the relationship between the two feels complex and nuanced, so it should come as no surprise that paranoia is a topic that needs attention.
Is there a difference between Autistic paranoia and Schizophrenia paranoia?
Research has indicated that paranoia in Autistic people occurs at a similar rate to Schizophrenic people, but Autistic people experience it more on the basis of social cynicism (Pinkham et al, 2012). Social cynicism is a broad category, but to my mind it has to do with our pattern recognition skills. Autistic people grow up in a world that is inherently traumatic, and learn to predict outcomes in order to defend the small amount of wellbeing afforded to them.
This elevated sensitivity in pattern spotting can at times get out of hand. When we are in meerkat mode or atypical burnout, we may start seeing data points that would usually be considered anomalous background noise as something meaningful and connected to real world occurrences. This associative thinking can create feelings of paranoia and persecution, which in turn adds to our dysregulation, making it more likely that we will form these abstract connections. When we combine this with a cynical attitude towards our society, it is easy to see where the problem begins.
How does this differ to people who are Autistic and Schizophrenic?
In my own experience, my paranoia is considerably more bizarre than the average burnt out Autistic person. I experience delusions that are often abjectly impossible as opposed to many Autistic people who experience paranoia that has a more tangible and realistic pattern to it. Mazza et al (2022) found that Schizophrenic people struggled to understand social scenarios, as opposed to Autistic people who were more likely to misunderstand people’s intentions in social situations. We can consider that the additive effect of this is an increased susceptibility to gaslighting, which as a traumatic occurrence in itself may well feed into our paranoia. When you are Autistic and Schizophrenic, the people around you have a great deal of influence on your wellbeing. Paranoia can be intimately connected to the views of the people in your life.
Autism, paranoia, and co-regulation
Autistic people experiencing paranoia often (anecdotally) report decreased interoceptive sensitivity and struggle to regulate their own emotions. This is where co-regulation with a safe person is absolutely vital to recovery. When we are unable to create feelings of safety on our own, it becomes necessary for another person to share their calm and rationality with us. This can be particularly problematic for households where dysregulation is the norm, heightened emotions of those around us can elevate feelings of paranoia and create self-fulfilling prophecies.
Social factors in Autistic paranoia
Minority stress plays a significant role in the psychological wellbeing of Autistic people (Botha & Frost, 2020). When considering minority stress, we have to consider the cumulative stressors that come together to create minority stress. Howlin (2013) discusses how Autistic people have less positive educational outcomes, as well as being poorly served by health and social care settings. We also have to consider the class divide, intersection with race, gender, and sexuality, and social isolation. We are a population who face very negative socioeconomic outcomes. This can create strong feelings of distrust in the system and a sense of persecution by a society that dictates our assimilation regardless of whether it is the right thing for us.
This is just a brief look into the world of autism and paranoia, but I believe it highlights some key issues that deserve further research and support. In the meantime, the best thing we can do for our Autistic loved ones is to create a safe and accepting space, free from the demands and alarming patterns of our abusive society. For the issue to be solved, society needs to be changed at it’s foundations.