BY JOHN COUNSEL
Here are a few things I’ve learned about myself (and a lot of other Aspies, too — I’ve lived with four generations of us) that really puzzled and bothered me all my life, decades before diagnosis. See if you recognise them in your own relationships…
IMPORTANT: Some of the behaviour discussed here is now recognised as indicative of PDA — Pathological Demand Avoidance syndrome. Learn more about this condition here.
1. Aspies often resent anyone trying to control our thoughts, choices and actions. We’re hard-wired to resist… and we feel betrayed and outraged when it happens to us… or if anyone even tries!
This can even be as simple as having to sleep or eat — I had to be sedated as a young child, just to get me to sleep at all, and one of my worst experiences as a grandfather was having to take Loughlin, as a 2 yo, to “sleep school” when I empathised so strongly with his resentment and rebelliousness. The distress — and massive meltdowns — he displayed was heartbreaking and caused me to shutdown (blackout) because of neural overload at the time.
2. Even eating can be stressful for us if it interrupts something we feel impelled to pursue, rationally or not.
Before my diagnosis, Lynne would call me for dinner with the family and it seemed to always conflict with deadlines or other compelling reasons to continue working, uninterrupted. As her voice became more strident (her “schoolmarm” voice I called it) it became more stressful for me and I’d typically reach threshold and have a meltdown.
I’d be furious, frustrated and often verbally cutting in my barely-controllable fury.
Afterward, I’d realise I was out of line, but the damage was done and I’d be inconsolable that I’d hurt the feelings of the woman I loved and set a bad example for my kids — and made her life even harder.
But then the cycle would begin again as self-contempt over my inability to control my own reactions kicked in — and her mere presence gradually became a silent reproach for me… and the upward spiral would begin all over again.
What’s actually happening here, and why?
One of the common traits of Asperger’s Syndrome is an irrational, irresistible sense of urgency and importance about what we’re currently focussed on.
Any kind of interruption to our concentration/focus — especially repeated interruptions — raises our stress and anxiety (cause-and-effect) toward meltdown threshold, often exponentially: the more insistently we’re interrupted or disrupted, the faster the rate and scale of the rise.
Of course, this leads to increasing frustration and anger in our “tormentor” — and an inevitable rise in the frequency and intensity of their “demands”.
Because we’re being continually interrupted (nagged!), we tend to lash out blindly at the perceived source of the stress. We may not even be consciously aware of that source — who or what it is or their importance to us. We just react emotionally to the unbearable level of stress and its perceived source.
It’s irrational, but it’s real for us.
What we’re experiencing is a combination of our ingrained resistance to, and intolerance of, not being in control over our own lives and choices, and our often irrational perception of the urgency and importance of whatever is our current focus.
(With Aspie kids it can often be games on devices or involvement on computers.)
It’s really hard for Aspies to articulate the overwhelming sense of outrage this causes us — and the lack of control over our own reactions once we hit the stress threshold.
We’ll even go so far as to destroy a relationship that causes us constant, unbearable stress and anxiety, just to reduce our overwhelming level of neural overload.
This chart illustrates how closely we operate to threshold compared to NT people — all day, every day — due to neural overload (caused by the excess numbers of synapses carrying sensory signals to our brains for processing).
Here’s why this happens…
So what does Neural Overload FEEL like to Aspies?
This video flyover of a monster, 50-lane, 100 km long traffic jam in China is a really useful, practical illustration of the kind of chaos that happens inside your Aspie’s head during an episode of neural overload…
How can this dilemma be resolved — or at least reduced in frequency and intensity?
Take a minute or two to read this chart. It offers a useful snapshot of what everyone involved in this kind of situation is up against.
It’s important to understand what’s causing the dilemma you both face, and how to create coping strategies for you both that can reduce the immediate stress and anxiety for BOTH of you — and develop useful, calming routines for the Aspie to adopt.
(Routines and rituals are comforting for most Aspies — they’re familiar, predictable and non-threatening. And they require minimal sensory input and information processing… they actually reduce neural overload.)
In the case of Aspie avoidance of, or resistance to, cleaning, tidying or re-organising their habitat, it’s important to realise that, for Aspies, change equates to unfamiliarity — and therefore to increased neural overload, stress and anxiety.
On top of that, these activities usually take too long for us to endure the amount of neural overload it creates for us!
As the mess we create around us progressively mounts up and makes life intolerable for our partners and non-Aspie family members, bear in mind these critical factors…
#1. The mess is ours — and we’ve become familiar with it: it doesn’t threaten us. We’ll even pick our way through our familiar mess to get to where we want to be (eg: bed, toilet). And we’ll do it repeatedly — because it becomes a new routine for us!
#2. The prospect of change IS threatening to us — intensely. By harping on and on about it, YOU become the perceived source of stress and anxiety for us. It can only get worse, faster, if you persist. (And remember… your own stress levels will rise as your frustration increases! It becomes a never-ending, vicious circle — a closed loop that’s actually a spiral.)
#3. If you want to change our behaviour, then you need to help us change our perspective.
Don’t be too quick to take offence!
In our Facebook Groups we often use reminder tiles to redirect conversations that are getting off-topic, especially amongst newer, less-informed members. Some people take offence at these — but they’re nothing more than a quick, easy, effective way to get people’s attention and get them back on topic.
Here are some examples…
Remember… our Groups are primarily run for and by Aspies. Taking offence too easily is mostly pointless — and indicates emotional immaturity and instability in those who are so easily offended. You may find that Aspies are relatively immune to such fragility.
The Quest for Control Over Our Own Lives
This concept applies to all normal human beings — but especially to Aspies. We tend to have an intense aversion to not having control over our own choices and thoughts.
This document is a work in progress… stay tuned for more!
Coming soon… includes video tutorials, workbooks, online workshops and more.
©1989-2018 John Counsel. All rights reserved.