Imagine having no choice but to zoom in on life. The trash dumpster whose rancid odors assault you from across the parking lot. The (false) car alarms in that same parking lot. The children screeching at random. The split ends in someone’s hair. The posters on the walls at school. The artificial scents at the mall. Dogs barking, at that perfect frequency that makes you cringe. Chairs being dragged across linoleum floors. The (confining, constraining, or scratchy) feeling of your clothes on your body. That phantom creepy-crawly itch on your hand that isn’t relieved by scratching, and only reappears a few minutes later. The draft of air around your neck (I have a really long neck).
The cruel joke–the ultimate punchline–is not being able to neurologically rank what you see, feel, hear, etc according to priority, like everybody else.
It’s like a sensory attack. No wait–it is a sensory attack. Instant overload, from which there is no escape.
Any human being, on or off the spectrum, has a neurological threshold, a big black-and-yellow striped Do Not Cross line. If the line is crossed, disaster ensues.
The good news is, the disaster doesn’t just happen out of nowhere. One can begin to feel the effects the closer one gets to that line. It’s a continuum. Those who pay attention will feel the tension start to build.
The bad news is, the rate of the tension-building may be unpredictable. It can happen quickly or slowly. Sometimes it’s impossible to tell for sure until it’s too late.
An organism that feels threatened will tend to attack back. Think of the stereotypical pit bull who has been raised to be aggressive; they growl at everyone. Everyone thinks it’s because s/he is mean, or they blame the breed. What they don’t realize is that the pit bull is simply being proactive in an environment in which everyone is a potential threat.
And then, it is they (the overloaded people or the “aggressive” pit bull, take your pick) who get blamed. It is they who get persecuted. It is they who are punished. It is they who get the shaft.
As human beings, we’re supposed to be “civilized” (although that assertion could be brought up for debate). We’re not supposed to act like pit bulls. We’re supposed to be “higher” creatures, who are “better” than that.
But we’re built on the same neurological firmware. All living creatures have a “fight or flight” response. It’s an ancient system (known as the limbic system), preserved across many species, because it works. It ensures our survival. Survival both as individuals and as a species.
But as “more evolved” creatures in a “civilized” society, the expectations are stricter. We can’t behave that way, of course. We’re supposed to express ourselves in more a “polite” manner. We’re supposed to suppress our old-brain tendencies.
But what is one supposed to do when that “fight or flight” old-brain is overactive, due to constant bombardment, and like the pit bull, it sees everything and everyone as a threat?
It takes a lot of effort and energy to constantly suppress that firm-wiring and “measure up” to society’s expectations.
It’s like we live in a perpetual defense mode every time we leave the boundaries of our sanctuary.
For many of us, our best bet is to remain within those safe boundaries. It’s a lot harder to get in trouble that way. It’s also a lot less stressful, less of an assault on our senses.
It’s a win-win.
Except that that’s not always possible. Technological advancement has not quite yet reached the point to where we can live our lives within our homes, at least for most of us. For the majority of people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, there are still errands to run, obligations to fulfill, expectations to meet. Telecommuting is becoming more widespread, but it’s not always available or feasible. A smorgasbord of products and services can be ordered and transactions completed online, but that’s not yet ubiquitous (covering all products and services), not is it yet universal (covering the entire population).
Thus, we can’t always avoid stressful situations, nor can we always escape them once we’re embedded in them. At times, we must break the barriers of our sanctuary and venture out into the unforgiving world. And thus, our Defense Mode remains a necessary fact of life. It’s not a character flaw; it’s part of our neurology.
Truth be told, the average neurotypical person is also in Defense Mode; the sensory onslaught has grown so intense and obnoxious that the entire population is getting a little squirrely(-yet-exhausted). The milieu of the world is overdriving even the “average” nervous system; their neurology isn’t equipped to handle it, either.
But the kink in the rope is, hardly any neurotypical person realizes that, so they’re running around in fight-or-flight mode, ready to make a scene at the drop of a hat, their odds of a “neurotypical meltdown and/or temper tantrum” stacking up with each accumulating sensory stimulus or trigger.
At some point, everybody begins to break. Even the neurotypical nervous system has its breaking point. So, they’re in a lesser-known defense mode, too. They just don’t consciously realize it. Since it’s a gradually-growing and relatively recent phenomenon, they remain largely unaware.
And their collective stimulus-driven irrationality presents an additional potential threat to our senses.
Since Aspergian/autistic people have experienced this all our lives, we’re more acutely aware of it, and we’re more experienced with it. This means that we’ve devised survival strategies, such as back road routes, off-peak shopping hours, go-to internet shopping sites, altered circadian rhythms, socially “acceptable” escape routes, personal boundaries, energy throttling/management, and other adaptations.
We’ve also learned how to remain cerebral, during most stressful situations, attempting to think through a situation, evaluate our options, and calm ourselves. These mechanisms aren’t always failsafe, but they offer at least a level of protection/action. We have, comparatively speaking, a lot more practice dealing with the stress caused by our own neurological stimulus-related overload than most neurotypical people.
And at least that’s a consolation prize 🙂