Reverse-engineering our #autistic rage

person screaming
We all have very good reasons to be enraged.

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.

cat hissing at a frightened dog
The danger at hand is the only thing that matters

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.

cat lying on the ground relaxing
We need to take a break and get back to balance.

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.


21 thoughts on “Reverse-engineering our #autistic rage

  1. This field was intentionally left blank

    Reblogged this on the silent wave and commented:

    An incredible post by Aspie Under Your Radar (whom I highly recommend following!) about subject matter that tickles my “Special Interest” Bone (neurology). The post delves into the details of the Autonomic Nervous System (which governs our infamous “fight or flight” response) and how it’s connected to the creation of drama, particularly in the context of the Autism Spectrum Community. A brilliant post! Thank you, VV, for writing this! 😊😘

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Great post. I can relate to it myself.I think a lot of it also has to do with the nature of online interaction and internet forums in general. It causes a lot of neurotypical people to be rude, aggressive and defensive in a way they wouldn’t be in real life. I also think that all the drama and upheaval surrounding the 2016 election and Trump becoming president has people on edge.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. VisualVox

      Thanks – yes, I agree that the Trump effect is definitely a factor. Puts people into semi-permanent fight-flight mode, which is not good for the rest of our lives – or the people around us. It’s hard, too, dealing with online stuff, because you can’t always tell what others are thinking / saying. And fight-flight bias causes us to err on the side of aggression. It’s just so messy, sometimes.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I’m all too familiar with the fight/flight/freeze reaction and how heightened it is for me and how trauma has further sensitized and wired it for me. One of the things I’m working on finding better techniques to manage in therapy. (And I’m interested in your follow-up.)

    But even decades before diagnosis, I realized that the fight reaction almost always created more problems than anything else. I don’t face many actual threats to my well-being as an adult and losing control in rage, especially given my command of language, did nothing but hurt people I didn’t actually want to hurt. So I worked on diverting or just stopping myself from going on attack. And I was largely successful. Online, I set it aside and usually don’t respond at all. (I can flee.) Though honestly online communication rarely invokes that reaction. It’s direct personal presence and words/emotions coming faster than I can process that usually triggers it in me. In person, flight or leaving is not always a viable option, which means I tend to freeze. I will almost always go mute in those circumstances. Sometimes my brain locks down. Sometimes it starts racing in circles, but either way I cease being an active participant.

    Less than ideal, but better than fight.

    Curiously, even under severe stress (like a seriously ill family member in crisis), when I know the next step to take, the next goal to achieve, I keep functioning. I do that thing and then determine the next thing. And do it. I become focused on that to the exclusion of virtually everything else.

    But yes, the fight response is only helpful if you are actually being threatened with harm. And that’s usually not the case in a lot of situations where it kicks in for us.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. VisualVox

      I do the same thing, with just stopping myself from flipping out. When I “go off”, I really go off, and I’ve hurt a lot of people in the past. Sometimes just walking away is the only thing to do (after explaining that I’m not dismissing the person, I just need to cool down and collect my thoughts). It’s very common for folks like us to perform well in high stress situations, because that’s when we can get relief from all the flood of sensory input. We can think clearly. We can focus. It gives us a single point of attention, similar to stimming, just external. It blocks out the overwhelm, so we actually get to be at our best. Of course, it does take a toll. We have to get back to balance — get the parasympathetic nervous system kick-started. That’s what I’m writing up now. More to come…

      Thanks for writing! 😀

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Great post!

    I agree with your community observations and speculations about what causes the tendency to reactivity and conflicts.

    (Sorry, I must mention this: I don’t agree with the strategy for meeting a growling dog in a dark alleyway though; for that situation I’d recommend to switch OFF the flight/fight response instead of On… Stay calm… Dogs are driven by their nervous systems too, and doing anything flighty or violent in that situation is more likely to trigger attack, than not doing anything).

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I noticed my mom doing this years ago and labeled it ‘righteous indignation’. I even asked her if getting angry feels good, and she said yes. I told her I think it’s because she gets surges of adrenaline and other chemical and glucose dumps, and that shuts down pain receptors and all kinds of other stuff.

    I grew up abused. I was on the receiving end of that righteous indignation. My mom also took it upon herself to confront church leaders despite the women being silent thing, and despite trembling like a mouse before and after. She was brave in a very glitchy way. I loved her bravery, I was embarrassed at her lack of logic.

    This fight or flight high applies to everyone. I believe it helps explain abuse cycles. I think auties figuring it out will be a blessing on the world because this is a common phenomenon. Nurses eat their own. Teachers eat their own. Sayings like these abound.

    Awesome post. ❤

    Liked by 3 people

    1. VisualVox

      Thanks! Yes, I’ve had a number of people in my life who got / get a lot of relief from indignation and getting all worked up over things. Especially folks with sensory issues, as the flood of stress hormones really cuts down on the sensory overwhelm. For once, you can actually “think straight”, instead of constantly monitoring all the input from the world around.

      I wasn’t deliberately beaten by people, but the experiences of human contact – just a touch on the shoulder – felt like being hit. In terms of personal experience and impact, it was the equivalent of being beaten on a daily basis, since I grew up around hyposensitive, sensory-seeking people who had to constantly make physical contact. Hugs, pats on the shoulder, taking my arm, putting their arms around me. Good grief, it was painful. If I pulled away, though, they got hurt and angry with me, so I just put up with it. I have mixed feelings about that. It did teach me how to “take a punch” and keep going, and that’s come in handy over the years. But it might have been nice to not have to learn that. What’s done is done. Gotta focus on the positive.

      Thanks for writing – there’s so much to learn and use… Like one big playground, at times.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. eclecticautistic

    Great post, and I love everyone’s comments, too. I was going to say something about how everyone seems extra-amped up these days, partly because of the political climate and the trauma it is causing — a lot of us are hyper-sensitive to things like that, and we end up in a constant state of outrage looking for a target. But it also occurs to me that a state of constant outrage and/or fear has been deliberately provoked, at least in the US, for years. Our political culture is based on (sometimes valid, sometimes not) fear of what the other side will do; the advertising industry is based in fear of something you lack (which this product will fix); corporate news courts ratings by drumming up fear of what you don’t know (and therefore need to watch them to find out). Even living without network TV and its ads, and getting all my news in print, I’m affected by all of this fear-mongering. Add in our particular neurology, as you have, and it’s no wonder we either explode or shut down.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. VisualVox

      I absolutely agree. We are constantly being primed for fight-flight. It drives our economy, and it makes it possible for People In Charge to do what they will without opposition, because we’re so wound up that we literally can’t think properly. It’s everywhere. And those of us who eschew mainstream media and messages still have to deal with everyone else who’s cranked up on the high that comes from outrage and defending your imagined territory.


      Just… sigh.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Pingback: How I untrained my system from #autistic rage – Aspie Under Your Radar

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