Our society is obsessed with labels. We categorized and classify people into little boxes , calling them some latest psychological description, not really knowing what that means.
In today’s blog, I am going to use the latest fad term, “autism”. Most autistic people, especially those classified as “high functioning”, are extremely linear thinkers. The tend to analyze the world around them using a series of linear progressions. It can be in visual or analytical form, but there is always a reason for everything they witness. If something comes along in their path that doesn’t fit what has already been encountered, they can become distraught. Telling them to “just become more flexible” is outside their lexicon. They cannot “think outside the box” the way most people do.
This blog is a study of that process. And what happens when that orderly analysis becomes interrupted.
Perhaps it will open up a conversation in our society on how to look for and embrace those who are not the same as everyone else. And maybe even give them a bit of compassion to help navigate the non-linear world around them, instead of decrying their struggle to constantly “conform”.
The monster within…
Autism is an undisciplined monster that lives within. It lurks beneath the surface of existence and rears its ugly head unawares to its host. One moment everything is crystal clear; the next is a flurry of emotions that cannot be controlled.
Jordan Peterson has touched on this in his 12 Rules for Life. Heroes, he said, must be controlled monsters. Not one of us is virtuous by nature. To become someone truly a virtuous hero, one must be able to control their emotions. They must choose to do good when the opportunity presents itself, instead of allowing their unwillingness to be uncomfortable to overtake their decision.
Instinctively, we want to surround ourselves with those who are patient, kind, gentle, forgiving, and loving. They are like a magnet that can come into a room and draw each person, not to themselves, but toward something greater.
For someone who sees the world differently, this can feel like a pipe dream. Just when the scales seem to tip in favor of this disciplined act, life happens and destroys it all. Illness can cause a lack of appetite, lack of water, lack or excess of sleep. Once the interruption is over, each day drags on trying to regain that symbiotic balance within again. Unlike someone who can flex when the forces of life hit them, that process can take a very long time. Days turn into weeks, turning into months trying to regain traction.
And every day becomes a cycle of falls and failures that lead to the inner voice reminding them of who they are.
Treating yourself with respect…
Going through these cycles of life are impactful to anyone. But it becomes a confirmation to the liner thinker that they are never going to achieve the flexibility necessary to attain their ultimate desire of peace.
It’s becomes very difficult for them to treat themselves like they matter. All they see is an undisciplined monster. And those around them get angry and point out their failings.
And it isn’t okay.
The reality of life…
Because life is a series of uncontrolled circumstances, that makes it difficult to comprehend to the autistic mind. When that series is encountered back-to-back, that can spell trouble.
To a normal person, their brain is hardwired to endure much. Unpleasant events can be rerouted to foresee future possibilities. Much like Viktor Frankl did during his time in the Nazi concentration camp. To him, it was a simple as a choice of the will – mind over matter.
And for most people, that is true. The concepts work.
The straight line to hell…
But what about those who do not have that control over their inability to respond to increasing stimuli? What kind of support do they rely on when that train to hell once more departs the station of their emotional regulation?
They are told to “Suck it up!”; “Stop reacting!”; “You don’t need to be reacting to all the little things that don’t matter!”
For outsiders, it is easy to see the resulting outbursts, meltdowns, emotional overwhelm occurring when the linear thinker tries to keep track of every event that has come at them. It looks like tantrums. And in an adult, it is embarrassing to the one who is reacting.
Tears, yelling, inability to handle what would be judged “normal stresses” are easy to judge by observers as “unacceptable”. The person so reacting should (to the outsider) should be able to hear the others tell them to just stop before it got that far!
What you see isn’t what is reality…
What those outsiders don’t see are the struggles that are happening within.
When the world is seen through the lens of a “normal” person, everything can be compartmentalized, broken down into bite-sized pieces, to be analyzed and dealt with at a later time. Immediate circumstances can be addressed because they can focus on the current situation(s) at hand.
But to someone who sees the world differently, they must navigate this world alone. The trails already blazed were not made for these people. And every one of them reacts to life in a distinct way, so every trail blazed for them must be blazed alone.
Breaking down the small challenges to everyday living cannot be broken down and neatly stored away to be dealt with later. Every tiny problem must be analyzed to be compartmentalized. And sometimes that analysis takes a long time to process.
If another tiny problem is encountered, it must, too, be analyzed before it can be dealt with.
Linearly, this process works well. Very well.
But if the first problem hasn’t had a chance to be fully dealt with, whatever remains becomes tacked on to the next one that comes along. And the next, and the next, etc. It is like a train filled with a mishmash of boxcars, each trying to get the attention of the engine.
The natural relief valve…
Severely linear thinkers cannot handle surprises. It will destroy them. So nature has kindly built in a kind of “relief valve” in these people.
When the signs of impending overwhelm are no longer able to be heard above the clatter of compounding problems, it unfolds at first as impatience. If the person cannot then hear that inner voice of warning, or escape to process what is already on their plate, then the emotional disregulation escalates. And the external reactions to even the littlest thing they see as disorder blows into panic and fighting.
But understand one important thing:
They are not fighting against the people around them – not even the one who is disrupting their need for order. They are fighting against the chaos that has now become their life.
This is their external SOS signal. The last thing they need is to be told to just “suck it up, Buttercup!”
They can’t. At that point, they don’t know how. And life has become overwhelming.
And they can’t hear you try to warn them as those external signs begin to show up.
What they need is a place to escape. Tools, quiet places to escape, breathing techniques, perhaps, that will allow them the ability to quiet their limbic system and regain emotional balance.
Give them space. Give them time. And give them compassion to recover.
Especially if they have just experienced an illness that caused them stress to their physical being.
Dealing with the demands of the body to nourish and hydrate it regularly is another one of life’s challenges. For a neurotypical person, that is fairly easily handled through menu planning, water bottles with visible water lines on them, using clocks to determine when the body’s needs must be met.
To an autistic person, this isn’t so easy under normal circumstances. Food and water are easily ignored or forgotten when hyperfocus kicks in. Menu planning is difficult because their tastes and needs change day-to-day. And water? What water? You mean I forgot to drink…again??
This is especially true if coming off an illness that prevented them from having any sort of appetite. Regaining ground on the physiological level is immensely important.
In this one area alone, having someone around them to help prepare regular meals really comes into play. It takes that extra burden off the linear thinker, giving them the space to focus on re-regulating their emotional state.
This isn’t coddling anyone…
That seems to be the normal perception of assisting autistic people.
But this isn’t just letting them sit around eating bonbons all day while someone else does the work. And it isn’t validating them in their current mental state.
It is giving them the space so that they can work out what just happened. And then adjust themselves accordingly.
If you live with someone who is a severely liner thinker, aka autistic, observe them. Understand what triggers them and then help them navigate around or through them.
Don’t wait until you see them burst out in frustration over every little thing that is out of order to them, then tell them to stop getting mad at those little things. That is a BIG sign that they are already overwhelmed.
Instead, learn the signs. If you can’t see what that is (like a previous illness or a difficult emotional trauma), then talk to them. If you can get them to open up, and you really, patiently try to put the pieces of their story together, you can begin to better understand what it is that has occurred.
And perhaps volunteer to help them put their exterior life back together.
We are all interconnected. When one of us is out of balance, all of us are out of balance. In the words of Jordan Peterson, each one of us touches the lives of a thousand others. We touch one, they touch others. So how we treat each other affects us all.