November 1st is Autistics Speaking Day. I have been trying to write something, but unfortunately my words have been giving me trouble for a few days, a result of a relatively-minor-but-traumatic incident earlier this week that I can’t talk about owing to privacy reasons (I will reassure you that I’m physically unharmed and not in danger) that for now seems to be the only thing I can write about with ease. Autistics Speaking Day is important, though, so I am writing something even if I won’t be happy with it. Since I need to be done this, I’ll tie it into earlier this week tangentially because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve seemed to have this emotional delayed reaction to big things – good and bad – that happen in my life. My routine being disturbed might not result in a meltdown right now, but in a few hours or tomorrow or three days from now? Oh gosh yes.
This has resulted in people alternatively calling me an emotionless robot or telling me I hold grudges and need to learn to let things go. Often the same people at different times. How I can be both emotionless and prone to holding grudges and being unforgiving, I’m not sure, but that’s what they called me.
The fact is, I do have emotions. Often very powerful ones. Sometimes ones that overpower me. But I have a few issues: The first is low emotional self-awareness. The second is an apparent time-delay in my emotional reactions to things, and the third is of course my autistic difficulty with finding my words in the heat of strong emotion. Add in autistic shutdowns, and it’s kind of a recipe for mis-communication and being baffling to neurotypicals.
Low emotional self awareness means that i can be – often have – building up to full meltdown without even knowing it. On a really low self-awareness day, I can be crying or raging over something and not even know that I’m crying or raging, let alone why. Tears will be streaming out of my eyes, and I’ll insist I’m fine, it’s just my allergies. Not because I’m lying, but because my conscious brain is genuinely unaware of how upset I am.
The time-delay of reaction is I think associated with processing time. I need time to absorb and think about what just happened before I can/do respond to it. Don’t assume that just because I haven’t reacted badly to something yet, I won’t. A few years ago, when a friend of my family died, I did not react for a month, and then I had a 3-day meltdown. In a less-extreme example, I did not react emotionally for the better part of a day after the incident earlier this week. I was brainfrozen, talking when prompted an reacting to things, but not really processing much of what was happening. In both cases, people who’d been congratulating me on my strength or deriding my apparent lack of feeling were both completely taken aback. I don’t get emotional – I’m an emotionless robot, remember? I’m supposed to not react emotionally to anything ever, and when I do it doesn’t fit with their thinking of me as an emotionless robot and so they tell me there’s something wrong with me that I don’t feel in the first place, but then say it’s my fault when I do react in my own time, I’m “being manipulative,” or “need to let go,” or “putting on a performance.” I wonder how many of these things people would believe of me if I was a man and not a woman, but that’s not the way my gender developed.
And, of course, like many autistic people, I lose my words when I’m emotional or upset. In fact, for me, increased difficulty with talking and writing is one of the most reliable signs that something’s off with me emotionally. I notice I, um, I. I-I, uh.I’m talking, uh. Talking like- talking like this. I notice that stringing words and sentences together is like trying to herd cats while wading through a chest high vat of molasses. I notice that words I know and I know I know seem to have gone missing, and I have to talk around them. I notice all these things and more, and it tells me something’s off and that I need to go somewhere away from others so I can process and figure out what it is.
Unfortunately, when I’m having trouble with words is the worst time to try to talk over stuff with others, but it’s also when others want to talk it over. Good communicators will accommodate me accordingly, while bad communicators assume that not being able to string the right sentence together and say it is the same as having nothing to say.
All of this brings me to my point: I am certain I’m not the only autistic person to react non-neurotypically to big stressors in my life. We need to discuss and raise awareness of autistic ways of reacting to things, so that people know that not seeming to feel is not the same as not feeling, that not reacting immediately is not the same as not reacting at all, and that not being able to express oneself is not the same as having nothing to express. We need people to know about autistic ways of reacting, and to support us in our own stressful times.