Standing at the intersection of Asperger’s / autism and PTSD

[Potential Trigger Warning: vehicular accidents; various other forms of trauma briefly mentioned]

I clutched the steering wheel, attempting to palpate the road conditions with vague sensory information rising up through my truck, through said steering wheel.  Besides vision (which can trick you), it’s the only other way that I can semi-accurately determine what moves to make.

The roads were wet and slick, after a full night of rain, which was still occurring in spots.  The sweeping, rolling hills in our region had given birth to pools of standing water of indeterminate depth (often until it’s too late) in their valleys.

Many of the other drivers on the road were ignorant and clueless, having been transplanted at some point from regions in which this weather doesn’t happen.  My state alone loses an average of 10 people per day to traffic accidents alone, and yet despite the staggering statistics, nobody else seemed to be aware that a wrong move here and a split second there could cause them to be reduced to the sea of lost souls.  They go on about their hurried way, ignoring the rules of the road, the laws of nature, the variables of physics, and the fickle finger of God(dess), somehow elevating themselves above all that, assuming it will never happen to them, forgetting about the “colorful” traffic reports they listened to this morning, and oblivious to the carnage that dotted the traffic map of the city.

I never forget.  The threats are very real to me.  And they always will be.

The evidence lined the shoulders and medians of the freeways, various cars and SUVs having hit a pool of standing water and hydroplaned, careening into cement walls supporting the overpasses ahead, or, having looked up from their mobile phone a moment too late, smashing into the rear end of the car in front of them.  This, of course, always brings the surrounding traffic to a screeching halt, causing backups for miles that slow the whole stretch of road to a crawl.

I always try to remember to say a prayer for the innocent.  I’m sorry to say that I haven’t yet reached the point where I can say a prayer for the guilty–the ones who were at fault–the ones who drive too fast for conditions, follow the vehicle in front of them too closely, subscribe to the delusion that they can send a text or check their Facebook while driving, or apply their makeup in the rearview mirror, all the while believing that sure, it might be dangerous, but  they’re somehow “better” than all the other drivers out there, and what happens to “those people” will never happen to them.  Those delusions and their subscribers kill other people, and when they wreck out, I can’t bring myself to say anything but, “serves them right” at this time.  It’s cold and possibly cruel, but that’s where I am.

Because people like them damn near killed my parents.

For a solid hour and 45 minutes, I did what I had to do.  I maintained the speed I felt safe maintaining, even if it was 10 miles per hour under the speed limit.  I kept a good distance between myself and the person in front of me.  I followed my father’s driving tutorial, being sure to “drive about a quarter-mile ahead, so that you can anticipate what you have to do, ahead of time.”  I changed lanes carefully, gradually, and vigilantly.  I kept in mind the forces of nature, and respected them.  Because when it comes to forces of nature (such as slippery roads and the resultant loss of friction, etc), and you try to go against that, nature will win, and you will lose.

I even made excellent time, getting my legally-blind partner to his class with five minutes to spare.

And then the unexpected happened….

I collapsed.

First I felt compelled to confide in the librarian, with whom I’ve had a pleasant acquaintanceship over the past year.  Grateful to have a captive audience, my most personal information spilled out onto the library’s linoleum floor.

And then my eyes got misty.  I felt the urge to cry.  I wasn’t sure where it was coming from.  I knew that I had seen about four or five traffic accidents on that 70-mile stretch this morning, most of them gruesome, but none requiring the jaws of life as far as I knew.  I also knew that I had seen plenty of accidents when trekking that 70-mile stretch (each way) once or twice a week for the past year, and hardly any of them had affected me after the fact.  Of course, I’m horrified at the damage scattered all over the road and the injuries that must almost assuredly be involved, and heartbroken for the (innocent) people and their families.  But I’m usually able to say a prayer, take a deep breath, and refocus.

So what happened today?

Maybe it’s the dreary weather, combined with having seen so many wrecks in a relatively short time period, combined with the stress of avoiding getting into a wreck myself.

All of these are assaults on my nervous system, a firmware that is already frayed and frequently stretched beyond its limits.  An Asperger’s/autistic Operating System that can’t filter/shut out any incoming sensory information.  A neurodivergent operating system that has a powerful processor but precious little RAM (active memory), and thus may take a long time to fully process information.  An operating system that might not be able to identify or recognize what its user is feeling (or even sometimes thinking) until (minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, even years) later.

I’ve been Aspergian/autistic my entire life, which, so far, is pushing 40 years.  I’ve had PTSD for seven of those years.

I don’t know what it’s like to have PTSD as a neurotypical person, because I’ve only been neurodivergent.  I do know that PTSD is not a picnic no matter what neurotype you are.  And I’m pretty sure that when Asperger’s/autism collides with PTSD, things can get pretty ugly.

When you’re Aspergian/autistic, your nervous system takes in everything anyway; it’s really tough to simply “tune something out”.  We don’t often filter out the nonessential stimuli from our environment.  Our nervous systems think everything is important, even if it might not be.  That means that everything gets through, and our nervous systems give all stimuli equal significance, putting extra pressure on certain regions of the brain (I imagine the prefrontal cortex, which inhibits our fight-or-flight instincts and governs higher reasoning and critical thinking and all that) to decipher the 24/7 onslaught of information.  So it’s not that we’re jumpy or cranky; it’s that we’re overstimulated and overwhelmed.

Now, factor in PTSD.  PTSD doesn’t come from out of nowhere.  It’s usually due to one (or several) traumatic events, or perhaps severe stress that is repeated or ongoing.  It was first recognized in military veterans, and it’s usually used in the context of returning from combat, but the soldiers don’t have the monopoly on PTSD.  (That’s not meant to be disrespectful in any way.)

Increasingly, scientific researchers and healthcare providers are learning that PTSD can occur as a result of just about any significant trauma.  This can range from all types of abuse, to accidents, to bullying, to assault, to robbery, to betrayal, to a severe falling out with someone dear, to abandonment, to a loss of a job, to having to fulfill a caretaker role, to a threat to survival, to pretty much anything else that induces a severe emotional/psychological stress response.  There are two types: one is more of the conventionally-known sudden-onset type, and another is a chronic and cumulative type (C-PTSD).

PTSD, by its nature, is a normal function of the nervous system.  You’ve faced/endured/been up against something incredibly severe, and your nervous system kicks in.  It’s a survival, self-defense mechanism.  Your nervous system launches into battle, and it takes a snapshot of the entire traumatic situation.  This includes the physical surroundings – the lighting, the layout of the environment (the room, a road intersection, a desert terrain, etc), and also the other senses – the smells, the sounds, the tactile sensations (motion, jolting/jarring, clothing material worn/felt, etc), and more.  It will also record the immediate atmosphere before and after the event(s) itself/themselves.

Your nervous system does this so that it can vigilantly alert you to potential danger should your surroundings start to resemble those involved in the traumatic event(s).  The nervous system’s entire goal here is prevention (to keep you out of a similar situation in the future) to ensure your survival.  If your environment begins to drift toward too close a resemblance to that of the traumatic event(s), your nervous system will freak out, causing you to do the same.

Those situational and environmental particulars, the ones in the nervous system’s snapshot, are likely to become triggers.  Triggers are very powerful, and not all elements of the event’s environment need to be present; it simply has to reach a certain threshold, sufficient enough to kick your nervous system into gear again.  Sometimes, all it takes is a certain scent, or a phrase, or someone to say something in a certain way or touch you in a certain way, etc.  The specific elements that become triggers vary widely, because they’re tied to the unique situation you experienced.  There are some common triggers, but hardly any are universal; what triggers one person may not be a trigger for another.

So when your nervous system isn’t so great at filtering out stimuli, and any stimulus could set off a PTSD flashback, it would be logical to say that this puts you at greater risk for flashbacks, and may also increase your baseline levels of anxiety as an Aspie/autie.

I also think that our Asperger’s/autism’s reliance upon routine might also amplify the flashback propensity in spectrum people with PTSD.

I think that our Intense World Theory, which essentially describes our world as overwhelming and our perception as particularly keen, I believe that this may have the ripple-effect; it may be the source of the hyper-empathy that so many of us describe.  Thus, when we’re involved in–or we witness–a tragedy or trauma, it can hit us exceptionally hard…

…except that the tricky part is, because so many of us also experience alexithymia (difficulty identifying and describing emotions), we may not even be aware that we’re even experiencing them!  I know that sometimes, I feel a delay; something might not fully “sink in” until after the fact, when my brain is on “reverb” mode and I’m replaying or re-experiencing something that took place before.  When this happens, we may find ourselves juxtaposed between the polar opposites of ultra-sensitivity and emotional numbness or lack of awareness (or, in my case, I frequently feel a desire to stubbornly cling to logic and “keep it cerebral”, refusing to let emotions take over; however, this is a bit less common for me than a simple unawareness of lurking emotions).

And then…we (those of us who experience this phenomenon) may feel confused when powerful emotions suddenly crack the surface.  Unaware of these emotions up until that point, those emotions sneak in, get too close, and before I/we know it, they’re in the captain’s chair, seizing the controls and taking the rest of me helplessly along for the ride.  The way I experience this, it feel like being rear-ended (emotionally) and then being hijacked (psychologically).

Because of my Asperger’s/autistic operating system’s delayed emotional processing, that can happen at any time; if we now add PTSD to the mix, this only amplifies the situation, potentially destabilizing and intensifying it quite quickly.

Alas, I don’t have any answers or tidbits of “wisdom” this time (in quotes because it’s up for debate Lol).  I can describe my version of firsthand experience and explain what I think might be going on in basic neurological terms, but I certainly don’t have the key that unlocks the mystery solves the issue.  I sure wish I did.  I (really) like being an “Aspie”.  I don’t like having PTSD.

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4 Comments

  1. PTSD is dreadful, and I suffered from it for a number of years. Coupled with what you have written there were other things as well such as the nightmares and I’d wake up screaming. The neighbours weren’t to thrilled with that one when it happens at 2am, lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dreadful is a really good word for it 💐 Wow, nightmares suck! 😣 I can only recall having one, but that was horrible. The rest of the time (and this happened for about 5 years, hasn’t happened in a while (fingers crossed!)) I would wake up in the middle of the night – wide awake, panicked, and so freaked out that I couldn’t even move! Have you ever had that happen to you, too? 💙💜

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, and it’s similar to a flashback, and your hearts racing and your muttering “no no no”.. And when you have one of those, and there are people around, you look up and they’re all staring at you.

    Liked by 1 person

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