From Overload to Anger

Sometimes overload — whether sensory overload, social overload, or general emotional overload — feels like exhaustion. It feels like muddy thoughts, dull senses, and an overwhelming desire to escape. That’s often what it feels like, at least for me. But sometimes what overload feels like…is anger.

Let me back up. For most of my life, I didn’t know I was autistic, so I didn’t realize that I was extra sensitive to many sensory inputs. Sure, I could tell when sensory issues were bothering me, but in general I assumed that if they were bothering me, they would be bothering anyone. The situation alone was the cause, not the situation plus my (autistic) sensitivities.

What this means is that I assumed that other people would know they were creating an offensive sensory environment, and they just didn’t care. I assumed my assessment was an objective truth: it simply was too loud. Too bright. Too smelly. Too chaotic. Too upsetting. All the other people involved? They should have known this was too much.

And I would get so angry that they didn’t. Angry that I had to say something, to call attention to myself and the difficulty I was having. Angry that they didn’t just know. Because it should have been obvious…right?

But my assessment is always my assessment: the combination of me and the specific situation. Yes, some things would be too loud/bright/scratchy/crowded for almost anyone, and yes, sometimes people are inconsiderate. But often I would end up getting angry about something no one else even realized was a problem. It might be the annoying, distracting buzzing sound that no one was fixing because no one else heard it. Or the loud background music that kept me from understanding what someone was saying…because of my own auditory processing issues, not the music’s volume.

So I try to catch myself now when I start feeling this way, and ask myself whether the problem really is as self-evident as it feels to me, or if it’s partly my own idiosyncratic (and autistic) response to things. Of course, if it is the latter, I can still ask for the situation to be changed — and now I can ask in a way that acknowledges that other people may not have realized the problem, rather than angrily assuming they didn’t care.

And none of this is to imply any self-blame on my part; there’s nothing wrong with having sensory sensitivities and needing to take steps to be more comfortable. But being aware of those sensitivities, and how they contribute to my perception of a situation, can help me not only head off feelings of overload, but also recognize and own that perception before overload flashes into anger.

Delayed Perception

As I’ve been learning more and more about autism since my diagnosis, I’ve come to recognize how different autistic traits manifest for me. (For a recent example, see my last post about black-and-white thinking.) It’s been an interesting process of translating descriptions of autistic traits and/or diagnostic criteria (which can be fairly abstract) into real-life examples — and it’s a process that would not be possible without the many first-person accounts by other autistic people in books, blogs, articles, and tweets. You’ve all helped me understand what a particular trait might “look like” in different autistic people, and so what it might look like in me.

What I’ve been noticing, though, is that while I can read about autistic tendencies and think, “Yes, I experience that,” it’s often hard to notice in the moment that I am experiencing them. Now, I think I’m a pretty observant, self-aware person — but things like sensory overload, or brain fog after stress, can still be affecting me without my conscious awareness. In a way, it’s just part of the nature of the beast — exhaustion after social activities makes any kind of thought more difficult, for example. Sensory overload from external sources makes it hard to notice my internal state. Eventually I notice that I’m feeling fried, but only after it reaches a tipping point. Up until then, I don’t feel myself getting fried.

And then there’s delayed processing. Delayed processing can give me an emotional reaction to something that happened long enough ago that it’s not part of my conscious memory anymore. That makes it hard to realize just why I’m getting emotional. Add to that a degree of alexithymia, so that I don’t necessarily even know what I’m feeling, and things can get very confusing, indeed. So I end up with delayed processing, and also delayed recognition that I am even still processing something.

No wonder meltdowns and shutdowns can seem to come out of nowhere!

So I try to pay attention to my internal state, and also build up greater recognition of the types of situations that are likely to trigger these difficulties. But I’m also trying to learn how some of those intermediate stages feel, like the point where I’m getting socially fried but am not quite there yet. I’m hoping that will help me head off those kinds of problems earlier, and just generally pace myself better when I’m out in the world.

Black and White Thinking

When I first read that autistic people tend toward rigid, black-and-white thinking, I thought a lot of it didn’t apply to me. When it comes to ideas and concepts, I feel I am very open-minded and flexible. Sometimes I think I see multiple sides too easily, and have a hard time staying firm in my convictions. I even find it easy to hold beliefs that others may find conflicting, such as the value I place on reason and scientific knowledge and the value I also place on emotion and spiritual or even mystical experience.

But what I am coming to realize is that my either-or, all-or-nothing thinking often comes into play around people. I am usually very easy-going when I meet people, looking primarily at the things we have in common — and usually there is something, since I typically meet people who are friends of friends, or who are at an event with me that indicates a shared interest between us. I assume that if we have some things in common, we likely have many others. But then if I find one of those people expressing views that I strongly disagree with, even in an unrelated area, it throws into question all of the value I have gotten from their other statements.

Similarly, there have been people in my life with whom I was once close, but whose behavior led to a break in our relationship. I find it very difficult to value the memories of those friendships, and in cases where the person was also in a teaching or mentorship role, I find it extremely difficult to value the things I learned from them. It can take me a long time to circle back around to an appreciation of the ideas or skills they brought into my life, and to not associate those things only with the difficulties that came later.

I don’t particularly want to be this way. I’ve spent most of my life feeling like I am that person who expresses the “wrong” belief and suddenly everyone turns on me; I don’t want to do that to others. At the same time, though, because I can be so open-minded about ideas, I try to be careful about the people I allow to influence me. And the fact is, I have never in my life agreed with anyone 100%. At this point I know that’s not going to happen, so I go in with the (at least theoretical) mindset of “take what works for you, and leave the rest.” So I think I do tolerate a great deal of disagreement with other people — it just has a limit. It’s kind of like my ability to tolerate uncomfortable situations: I can do it for a certain amount of time, but then I’m going to speak up and/or make some changes. So there is a threshold beyond which I will be tempted to disengage entirely with everything about a person, and often that’s not really fair.

Mind you, sometimes it is fair; I’m all for dropping any engagement with someone or someone’s work after discovering that they espouse some horrific ideology. I’m talking more about reaching a point where I disagree — strongly but not necessarily vehemently — with someone’s perspective on one thing, and so lose respect for things they’ve said or done in other areas. It becomes all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking that erases all the nuanced opinions that I usually carry through life.

(I also struggle to find middle ground between doing something “perfectly” and feeling like an utter failure — but that is a topic for another post!)