Over the past few months, I’ve noticed an “uptick” in the online autistic community drama levels. Of course, it could just be me… I haven’t been active in the autistic “scene” for years, until last spring. I gave it a whirl, back in the late 1990s, and again about 10 years ago, but the drama drove me away. I have a busy life with a lot of responsibilities that most folks don’t bother with and have no idea about, and I just haven’t got time for the drama.
Now, again, it starts. I see other people tweeting about it, blogging about it, emailing me about it. Ugh. It’s just so … awkward and painful and illogical, which for me is the equivalent of being flayed alive. Why can’t we all just get along?
Well, I’m pretty tired of feeling ill, every time I log on, so I’ve called up my own faculties of reason and logic to try to understand where all this aggression is coming from, why people act the way they do, what sets them off, and what might possibly explain all the drama, and why we can’t seem to get past it. And in truth, I actually do understand why autistic folks “go after” each other, why they tear each other down, why they can be so ruthless and merciless and devoid of compassion.
It makes perfect sense to me. And while that doesn’t make it any less painful to witness (or personally experience), at least I understand the nature of it. And I’ve reached the conclusion that — until the world changes (unlikely), or we learn to constructively and proactively deal with our issues — aggressive, hostile, combative behavior in the autistic community isn’t going to go away.
‘Cause, quite frankly, that’s how we’re wired.
One of my all-consuming interests is neurology. In particular, the autonomic nervous system, which regulates our bodies’ unconscious, automatic actions. Fight-flight. Rest-digest. How those two complementary (and opposing) systems work together to create equilibrium in our lives… and how they work independently, sometimes to our detriment.
It’s complicated, but there are fundamental truths that can serve us to better understand how we work – and why.
Basically, we’ve got the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is about flight-flight-freeze-fun-f*cking. It’s the side of us that gets all worked up over stuff like an exciting event, a desirable mate, someone who’s attacking us, or someone we want to attack. Its purpose is to keep us alive — and that’s pretty much it. It’s specially designed to set priorities in our overall system’s functions, to use our energy and resources for keeping alive and breathing.
The SNS shuts down certain “unnecessary” functions in our body that don’t have anything to do with just escaping an immediate threat. Adrenaline, ephinephrine, norepinephrine, and other stress hormones flood our system, essentially hijacking our energy to serve a single purpose: to survive. All available energy goes to the parts of our system that keep us alive – shutting down “unnecessary” things like hunger, saliva production, urination… and complex thought. When you’re responding to a growling dog (or cat) lunging at you in a dark alley at 2 a.m., you don’t need to engage higher reasoning and find deep meaning in the experience. You need to get the heck out of there. Run from the dog (or cat). Or fight it. That’s what the SNS is expert at — just dealing with what’s in front of us, not reasoning it all out.
This is all tied in with trauma (which I won’t get into right now). Every Aspie / Autist has had more than their fare share of traumatic experiences. It seems to come with the territory. And trauma responses can be neurologically and biochemically compounding — the more we have, the more “cranked up” we get — and the more easily and quickly we get “cranked up” at the slightest provocation.
And then we have the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is all about taking the edge off and restoring balance to our systems. Our PNS controls our system, when we’re at rest. It restores our body to a state of calm, gets our digestion going, relaxes our muscles and slows down our heart. We start to salivate again. We realize we need to pee. And it helps clear out the adrenaline and other stress hormones that have taken over our system, making us feel either superhuman or vulnerable and shaky – or a combination of the two.
The PNS helps facilitate complex thought, allowing us the space to really consider what’s going on around and inside us, and draw new conclusions. It enables a rest-digest process, which we need to do on a regular basis, or our systems get pretty wired. And we can’t digest, both physically and mentally. And for autistic folks, mental digestion is every bit as important as physical digestion.
We autistic folks need to make sense of things. We need to understand. We need to find patterns, to better understand our world. We need to find logic — some logic, any logic — to be right with the world. And this is no small task, for the mainstream, neurotypically dominant world is usually anything but logical. But given time and opportunity, we can often do it. It may seem to take forever (a lot of stuff didn’t make any sense to me at all till I was in my late 40s). But we can do it.
The problem is — and I think this is where we get tripped up — if we’re perpetually under attack, we can develop a “sympathetic bias”, which slants our reactions to just about anything to the fight-flight side of the arena. As I mentioned above, repeat trauma has a cumulative effect, making us more sensitive and likely to respond with fight-flight. Our autonomic nervous systems become conditioned to fight-fight-fight! And our minds don’t know any better. Our conscious minds have nothing to do with it, to begin with, because the ANS’s sole purpose is to run the show independently of conscious thought. If it waits for us to think things through, we can get ourselves badly injured in dangerous situations, even killed. So, our ANS is just doing its job — to the extremes.
We autistic folks have a particular gift for extremes, and the tuning and tweaking of our nervous systems is no exception.
When we are perpetually assaulted (whether we genuine are, or we feel like we are), we get in the habit of expecting that — both in mind and body. We get used to reacting with defensive thoughts, and we become neurologically inclined to interpret every new or unexpected or uncomfortable thing as a dire threat which we must either battle or flee.
And those reactions can carry over to conversations we have with others. Or perceived slights. Or perceived threats. Or interactions which have similar patterns to prior abuse. The interactions don’t even need to BE abusive — they can just seem that way, in order for our systems to get all riled up. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not gaslighting anybody, telling them that their feelings aren’t valid. I’m just saying that our biology does a great job of getting used to interpreting stuff without any conscious thought involved — and then responding to what’s going on around us in predictable ways. If our autonomic nervous systems have gotten used to being attacked and marginalized, then our systems’ interpretationsn can be dire, indeed. And we can lash out at people who honestly meant no harm — our systems just thought they did.
This whole subject is a tricky one, especially because of the whole gaslighting thing going on, these days — telling people they aren’t really feeling what they’re feeling. I’ve been gaslighted so many times, I’ve lost count, and it’s often been by genuinely good-hearted people who were just trying to help. So, no, I’m not telling anyone their feelings are invalid.
The thing is, our autonomic nervous system is so expert at interpreting what’s happening to us and then reacting without checking with us first. It tells us things that it believes are true. It may be right, or it may be mistaken. No judgment. Just observation.
This post has gone on long enough. I need to step away, rest and digest, myself, before I come back around with a possible solution. I’ve found something that works wonders for me. It doesn’t cost any money. It can be done at any time. It’s always available. It’s taken the extreme edge off many of my most pronounced autistic difficulties, making me far less impacted than I was, only five years ago. It’s literally changed my life for the better over the past years. I’d be lost without it. And with it, I’m found.
I’ll share that in a bit… but for now, I’ll let this stand. Our outrage makes perfect sense. It’s understandable, it’s predictable, and it can be explained with even the most rudimentary understanding of the part of our nervous system that runs our everyday lives in ways we seldom notice in the moment. But it doesn’t need to ruin our lives — or our community.
More to come. Watch this space.