Change is scary. To embrace the unknown goes against every fiber of our animalistic instincts. As humans, we tend to fear change because we find comfort in our expectations and certainty of routine. For individuals on the spectrum, this fear is intensified. The well-being of those living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) depends on knowing what will come next and what they need to do to be prepared for it. The comfort zone of individuals on the spectrum is a sacred place. I have come to find, however, that nothing good ever comes from staying in this sanctum.
Humans are natural adapters. When we continually subject ourselves to new environments, circumstances, experiences, and stimuli, our brains literally form new synaptic connections. It’s safe to say that embracing change is a great workout for the brain. It becomes stronger, more efficient and is more adept at handling stressful situations.
It is a scientific fact that an individual’s chance of personal growth increases when they step outside of their comfort zone. Neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change and adapt at any age, shows this to be true.
Take Baby Steps
So, how do we go about taking that first step outside of that comfort zone? The answer is simple: baby steps. In my case, for example, baby steps have been both literally and figuratively, the theme of my life’s accomplishments.
It was easy for me, as it is for many of us, to set my sights too high and shoot for the stars. However, as Confucius once said, “It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.” In other words, taking baby steps forward will get you where you want to go. For example, I used to stare directly at the ground and never even acknowledge a person when they would speak to me. Yet by compassionately pushing myself outside of my comfort zone via baby steps, such as looking at the person’s shoes instead of the ground, and then eventually their knees, and so on and so forth, I now make direct eye contact with anyone who converses with me.
Focusing on accomplishing small tasks — the baby steps — decreases our chance of failure and increases our chances of success. Additionally, when we succeed with the small goals, we also build up our confidence and self-esteem, while learning to associate these achievements with taking risks (i.e. baby steps outside of our personal comfort zones).
I was amazed, and hope you will be too, when, after a while, I looked back over my shoulder and realized how far my baby steps had taken me.
Once we realize and acknowledge that the world around us is constantly evolving, constantly developing and growing, we as individuals can learn to embrace the fear of change. By doing so, we too can enjoy the benefits of constantly developing and growing into the best versions of ourselves. As the ancient philosopher Heraclitus once said, “The only constant is change.”
Fear is uncomfortable; it’s supposed to be. It’s an innate and instinctual reaction to protect us from possible danger. Yet we are lucky enough to know when the danger is real and when it is just simply perceived.
If we learn to embrace the fear of the unknown and face our fears rather than run away from them, we discover the opportunities hidden behind each fear. After all, fear is nothing more than opportunity disguised as risk.
I am fortunate enough to be able to travel to more than 25 cities every year, spreading my message of hope, inspiration, awareness, and acceptance, and I owe it all to taking baby steps. I still remember taking that first step out the door on my way to the airport for my first speaking engagement.
All in all, I want you to dream. Dream wildly and extravagantly. It is never too late to accomplish your heart’s desires, no matter who you are, how old you are, what you’ve been through, or what you are going through. Identify the small steps on the way to succeeding in your goals. After that? Take a step. And then another one. As the Chinese philosopher, Lao-Tzu, noted, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Russell Lehmann is a motivational speaker, poet, author, and advocate who happens to have autism. His words have been featured in USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, Yahoo! News, and Autism Speaks, among others. He is on the Autism Society of America Council and the Nevada Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. He is also on the board of the Autism Coalition of Nevada and chairs its statewide Youth Autism Committee. In addition, he is a committee member for the Nevada Commission on Autism Spectrum Disorders. For more information about Lehmann’s work, visit www.russell-lehmann.com.