Yesterday, a good friend linked me to this post. It’s written by Reddit user DA-9901081534. Tricky username, but I can very much relate to his intent in writing his post. DA-9901081534 (you know what, I’m just going to call him D) provides an insightful perspective of how someone with autism can feel in social scenarios, especially when circumstances change unexpectedly.
It’s pretty long – and sometimes a little confusingly worded – so I’ve taken a number of excerpts and added a little commentary, comparing D’s experiences to my own. Go ahead follow the link above if you want to read the rest of D’s post.
The disruption of the night’s itinerary causes almost physical pain
“I originally wrote this to try to explain to my friends why I seemed so unsociable”, he starts. “I then thought that R/Aspergers would like a read, both for those interested in the condition and those who feel the same way”.
That’s more or less the exact reason I ended up writing my Coping with Autism: My Perspective pieces last year. I wanted to help my friends and family understand more about me, and I decided to encourage people to share it. Reading heartfelt messages from people you’ve never met that were affected by your writing… it’s a good feeling.
The rest of D’s post is written in the first person:
“Imagine that your friends have invited you out.
“You look around at your purpose-built sanctuary; it’s every touch, smell and taste familiar and undaunting to you and your hypersensitive nature. The soft lighting, the meticulous choice of fabric, wood, plastic and metal for the sake of feeling and sound, and the smells of such a place are all calm and comforting to you.
“All this built specifically to house someone who’s sensorium often tends to overwhelm them.”
D is referring to a really interesting physical symptom of autism, and one that I wasn’t aware of until relatively recently. I don’t experience sensory overload in the same way he describes – for me, it manifests when something (or more often someone) catches me off-guard from behind.
The emotional and physical shock seems to be amplified – an unexpected back-slap can be much more painful. I sometimes flip out a bit when this happens, much to the surprise of my unintended aggressor. It’s always been like this, but I didn’t connect two and two until I attended a meeting where some of the physical symptoms of autism were discussed.
“You’ve spent far too long here, and have developed a sort of cabin fever. so you acquiesce to their request. You leave your temple to tranquility behind and head into town on a busy saturday night, where your friends have invited you to a cinema outing to see a new release.
“When you arrive, however, you are notified through text that the plans have changed; you are no longer going to the cinema; your friends bought tickets for the wrong bloody month. This disruption of the night’s itinerary causes you almost physical pain; it’s like being a physicist and watching the laws of gravity and thermodynamics get broken. A sucker punch to the soul, as it were.”
“Instead, they invite you to a nearby place; Hollywood Bowl. You’ve never been there before; already your gut starts to twist with anxiety, a common feeling when you start anything new.”
Personally, I experience this with a severity very much depending on two factors. One is the amount of notice I’m given. The other is whether the schedule has changed for the better. Of course, my perception of what is better is not the same as everyone else’s. The scenario which D is describing would certainly provoke the same kind of feeling, but to an extent where I could easily suppress it. It’s gotten easier with practice.
Your willingness to socialise dissipates the moment your plans change
“The hours of mental prep work that would’ve allowed you to sit, in comfort, quietly with many other people and watch a film is now useless to you, and try as you might it can’t be adapted to this environment”
Not much for me to say here: I do need time to put myself in the right place for a social event, but for me it’s a much more passive process. If it’s something I’ll most likely enjoy, like going to the movies, I need almost no preparation – although of course I prefer some space to think.
“Quickly, you scan faces, trying to find your friends and putting together a roughshod battleplan to help deal with the probable events you may find yourself in, such as not finding them, finding them in an argument or running into someone, etc etc. At last, you find them.
“Smack dab in the middle of a throng of people; sitting in a center booth.
They wave you over. One stands up like a beacon over the din of noise; no turning back now they’ve seen you. You saunter over, unable to hide your reluctance of getting into so close a proximity with so many people. Your willingness to socialise dissipated the moment your plans changed.”
This is pretty much exactly how I feel when I’m thrown off guard. My social willingness is the first thing to suffer.
“You make your excuses, and hope to slip away. The noise, as well as the senseless and unproductive conversations are giving you a headache. Your friends know your habits and aren’t nearly so willing to let you slip back into your Sanctuary, so they try to formulate other plans. They attempt to enrol you in conversation, but your headache is getting painful, and worse still, you identify the signs of heavy stress on your mind.”
This is me in a nightclub environment, or at least it has been the few times I’ve ended up in one. I can’t stand them. There’s also the fact that you have to practically scream to make yourself heard at a whisper’s level. That’s not great.
I’ve also noticed my susceptibility to stress headaches. Not just in loud and crowded situations, but in periods of more long-term pressure.
“One of them buys you a drink; it tastes like someone poured coffee, orange juice and chocolate into a heavily used rubbish bin then served the resulting brew.
Great. Now even your tongue is overtaxed. The drink itself was fine, but the amount of stimulus was causing the senses of your body to go into overdrive. Everything is just too intense.”
This is certainly not a feeling I’ve experienced. I’ve never drank alcohol, for one thing. It’s interesting to see just how acutely a person’s senses can be affected by autism, though.
“You wished you had just made your excuses the moment you learnt your plans had changed; but you know from experience that your friends don’t really understand the sickening anxiety you feel, or the emotional upheaval you find yourself in as you try to quantify and follow all stimulus, especially without any preparation.
“You feel the charade begin to unravel and the machinery of your mind starts to break down under the stress.
“You try and formulate something, anything to say; but your mouth slips over itself; your brain, pulling at strings of thought, can’t find a thread of conversation that won’t end in two minutes with an awkward silence. Your lack of preparation for this sort of social event is evidently causing you problems. Normally you would have had two dozen conversations already planned out and you’d be reading, free-form, from a mentally prepared and rehearsed script; enough to get you through two to three hours of socialising. But without the hours put into such prep work; you stutter, slur and fall over this horrible, ad-libbed mess that so often happens when you try to articulate raw thought.”
The window of conversational opportunity has already closed
“One of your friends turns to you and says “Heyyy! you should relax! Enjoy yourself! THIS” she said, pointing to the throng of flesh and blood, smelling badly of body odor, cheap deodorant and even cheaper booze, “is what life is all about! Revel in it!”
“You can’t see any attraction here. It’s noisy, smelly and there is too much stimulus. As a matter of fact, you find only stress and a growing sense of bewilderment at the shallow and uninteresting behavior of your fellow humans. Does your friend not realise that this is anything but relaxing?! Your focus is constantly grabbed away by anything you haven’t already seen; you are constantly analysing your environment for threats and potential interactions whilst simultaneously attempting to formulate plans to deal with both. On top of that, you are attempting to filter out noise from signal and plan your next conversational move.”
“Of course, by the time you manage to plan that move, the window of conversational opportunity has already closed and you must await the next one, by which time whatever you wanted to say is already a page or more behind the conversation.”
Amen to that last paragraph.
“The machinery of your mind; so oiled, slick and efficient when alone is instead about three seconds away from catching on fire. Were you a computer, you’d be getting SYSTEM FAILURE messages in big, red, hollywood-style lettering. Random thoughts and vague flashbacks come to you in haphazard formation, unrequested. Your mind is overclocked and your brain is burning.
“You’ve dealt with elements of physics, applied mathematics and complex architecture that were easier to process then this. You feel a shudder throughout your mind as the tools you’ve built to help you process collapse under the strain. You feel a growing sense that you need to get away. You need to escape.
“Eventually, beset by ticks, a headache and pure exhaustion from both trying to participate in conversation and deal with the environment, you are released from your torment and you head back to your Sanctuary.
“You find yourself wondering why people do this to themselves, but then you remember that most don’t suffer as you do. To others, this is ‘fun’. To you, this is a nightmare that you cannot avoid; so many expect you to attend such events and be glad of the opportunity and grow frustrated and impatient when you mention your reluctance.
“Upon arrival, you immediately close the door, draw the curtains and embroil yourself in two books and one video game, playing and (re, and re, and re-reading them) for the next few days until you feel somewhat whole again and your mind takes on that calm, cool, mechanical feel. During this time, your sleep is minimal and you find yourself sweating with anxiety.
“Congratulations. You’ve just survived a social encounter. Barely. Let’s try again next month.
D is certainly in a different place on the spectrum than myself. Some of his symptoms are quite different in nature to my own, even if they fall into similar categories. Others are more or less identical. Some are different only in extremity. I wouldn’t need a week to recover from a stressful social experience if that experience was only for an evening, but I’ve certainly needed quite some time to recuperate from longer ones.
D finishes with a short summary:
“Man goes to social occasion. Social occasion changes unexpectedly. Man is not prepared. Tools and techniques man uses to get through social events fail. Man suffers psychological exhaustion from attempting to ad-lib in new environment. Man spends the better part of a week recovering.”
There may be a spectrum in play, but to a small or large degree this is the kind of challenge that people with autism can struggle with. If you found it an informative read, please share it with your friends and family! Widening perspectives is worth the effort.
“Inside the Aspie Brain”:
Coping With Autism: My Perspective, Part 1:
Coping With Autism: My Perspective, Part 2