Asperger’s / autism and the significance of self-talk [Mental Health Monday]

When no one is watching, what do we say to ourselves?  Whose old tapes play in our brains?  What are they saying?

I know, I know–“old tapes” probably sounds like a bunch of outdated pop-psych speak.  But even if you’re scoffing (I wouldn’t blame you; I did, too), stay with me; there might be something to this.

What are “old tapes”, anyway?

For those of you who have never heard the term, “old tapes” refers to the repeated recollection of ingrained terms or phrases our parents, teachers, classmates, or other caregivers used–what they said to us as we were growing up.  Due to the snapshot-prone nature of the stress-induced Sympathetic Nervous System, we’re statistically more likely to remember a remark that had a negative, hurtful impact.  This provides the basis for the “old tapes”.

“Old tapes” wouldn’t be as powerful as they are if they would stay where they belonged: shut away in our past.  Long forgotten, stacked on a shelf where they would never be revisited.  But they become active again (or remain activated) as we go about our daily lives.  I’ll explain…

Every time we do something wrong, whether significant or not, we judge ourselves, sometimes harshly.  This is true for most people, whether they’re on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum or not.  But I imagine that the negative side of several of our Asperger’s/autistic traits could converge, shining an intense, unwanted light on this phenomenon, making it a center-stage issue in our lives.

For example, we might drop a cooking pan; we might run into a wall; we might trip over the laptop power cord.

It’s a natural, benign response to say, “dammit” or “ugh!” or something similar.  That’s not an old tape playing; that’s a simple immediate, neutral reaction.

When we call ourselves “clumsy”, a “clod” or a “klutz” because that’s what our bover-critical father (or whoever) said to you when you dropped things or ran into things as a child, that is an old tape.  That’s not your voice saying the words “clumsy”, “clod”, or “klutz”; it’s your father’s.  Had it not been for their criticism in your younger years, you might not have come up with these words on your own to describe yourself.

They did that, not you.

In the case of old tapes, someone installed themselves in your head.  Much like a computer virus, someone hijacked that part of your mind and “taped over” your self-development (including your own assessment of yourself and the words you use to describe it) and inserted their own, unwelcome and unasked for.

Old tapes can be positive, too, such as a particular memory of praise, compliment, or encouragement, but for the sake of this post, I’ll focus on the negative aspect of old tapes, because those are the ones who need the most attention.  They’re the ones who negatively impact us as children, teenagers, and adults, even in our older adult years, even long after the parental source of those words and phrases is no longer alive or around to say them.

I haven’t done any hard investigation, but I can imagine that people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum might be even more prone to playing old tapes than the rest of the population in general.  This is because a phenomenon known as echolalia is so commonly experienced in the Asperger’s/autistic community.

Echolalia is defined as “the unsolicited repetition of vocalizations made by another person”.  Two distinct forms have been described: immediate echolalia and delayed echolalia.  What this actually looks like in real life can vary pretty widely, from immediately repeating of the last word someone spoke in a sentence, to constructing entire working conversations by stringing together different quotes from several different movies, like my partner and I often do (and laugh about).

This may be a slight inaccuracy on my part (I’m not sure), but I wonder if echolalia must always be spoken out loud, or can it remain internal–spoken only to ourselves?  I wonder if the basis of our echolalic tendency has its roots in the way our brains repeat words, replay conversations, and review events internally first.  Although our movie references are voluntary and deliberate, I’ve also noticed that I’ll accidentally blurt out one word without realizing it while I’m thinking back intensely on a previous conversation.

Maybe echolalia is simply the outward manifestation of a repetitive cognitive process?  And maybe not all echolalia is necessarily verbalized; maybe some (much?) of it remains inside, in our heads, spoken to ourselves.

Since this doesn’t happen nearly as often in the neurotypical population, I’m starting to wonder if the concept of “old tapes”, the hijacking of our thoughts by others and the imprint their statements leave on us is a more significant issue than any of us might consciously realize.  I also, then, wonder if it constitutes a major cause of depression in Asperger’s/autistic people.

I know that I’m biased 😉 , but I’m thinking I might be right.

Why this is important…

These old tapes often rear their ugly heads and continue to exert their power on us, even when we’re alone, with no one else around (that’s redundant, I know; I wrote it that way on purpose for emphasis). 🙂  Old tapes beget negative self-talk; we’re not just hearing our parents’ (or whoever’s) voices in our heads anymore; we’re now the originators of the harsh criticism.

They come back to kick us at inopportune times, when we’re already down.  And during these times, we usually are already down; after all, we’ve dropped the frying pan or tripped over the cord, and we’re not exactly feeling good about ourselves at that moment, especially if it’s the seventh time this week we’ve tripped over that cord, or the 23rd uncoordinated move we’ve made that day.  So when our brains (involuntarily, automatically) press Play on that old tape that our parents (or whoever) injected into our psyche, that ends up packing a one-two punch, a double-whammy.

Not fun.  Not pleasant.  Not healthy.  Not happy.

In fact, it sucks.

How it affects us and shapes who we are and influences our lives…

It probably goes without saying that these old tapes and negative self-talk significantly damage our self-esteem.  They raise self-doubt and destroy self-confidence.  They’re like a machine gun on a shooting rampage, tearing holes in who we are, who we’re supposed to be, and who we might have become.  In their wake lies a fatigued and timid person, apprehensive about taking another bold and positive step.  Someone who has to work that much harder to experience joy and contentment in their lives.  Someone who has to work even harder (at whatever endeavor) in order to be satisfied.

This can cause escapist behaviors, such as substance abuse or bridge-burning.  It can cause emotional disturbances like depression or anxiety.  It can kick off self-defeatist thoughts, such as “why bother?  I can’t do anything right” into full-blown action.  This can cost you in success–passed-by opportunities, declined invitations, missed deadlines.  And the truly ugly part is that with each (perceived) “failure”, the negative outcomes can reinforce the old tapes and negative self-talk.  These can become horn-locked into tight, spinning, self-perpetuating, vicious circles.

The psychological and emotional imprint(s) those old tapes mark us with tend to be semi-permanent, at least when left in place without conscious action taken to eradicate them.

So…is there anything we can do?

That doesn’t mean there’s no hope of ever erasing them (yes, there is hope); I just think (know?) that if we’re going to erase them successfully, it’s going to take some (maybe a lot?) of work.  This work can either be on our own, or with the help of a psychological professional.

The emotional scars might still remain, even after taking that conscious action to erase the old tapes that caused them.  But you know how it is with scar tissue; if it doesn’t heal right (such as the right nutrients, hydration, self-care, physical therapy, etc, or it’s overworked before it can heal properly), then it’s weaker than the original tissue, but if it does heal well (good nutrition, drinking enough water, appropriate movement, proper rest, etc), then the scar tissue can actually be stronger.  Either way, it’s never the same.  But the self-care taken after the injury will make or break you and fortunately, we do have a certain amount of influence over that process.

The same goes for bandaging our psychological and emotional wounds.

Much like dubbing over the existing material on an archaic cassette tape (remember those?), we can “tape over” the old tapes in our heads.  We can replace that which was said to us with new, more positive, more currently applicable material.  This is indeed possible.

This is where one of two avenues must enter the picture: either we can do it ourselves (if we can), or we can seek the guidance/direction of a good professional.  I encourage all of us to be honest with ourselves when deciding which route to take; alternatively, we can indeed take both routes–the professional guidance and the DIY (do-it-yourself).  And in fact, no matter which route(s) you take, there’s going to be a DIY element in there somewhere; even the most talented professional can’t do all the work and solve all the issues for us while we sit passively and wait for it to happen.  I wish it worked like that, but it doesn’t.

If you decide to include a therapist on your recovery path (there’s no shame in that), I’ve written a post about how to find a good therapist, as experienced through an adult Asperger’s/autism spectrum lens, in case that helps.

For the DIY element of your recovery, if you’re working with a therapist, do raise this topic with them: “What’s my ‘homework’ in between sessions?” or a similar question.  And then I recommend using their advice, first and foremost, as your primary guide-map for what kind of active role you should play in your healing.

If you’re going it alone (there’s no shame in that, either), then if you’re like me, you’ll probably be doing a lot of gut-instinct listening.  What feels right?  Which strategies/websites/etc, through trial and error, have proven to help you?

On the DIY road (I’m not a specialist in this area, so this isn’t intended as medical or professional advice), I’ve found that the goal is to tape over those old tapes and rewrite those critical put-downs in favor of something more positive.  For me, this can take baby steps.  I’ll spell out a couple…

If I can’t quite wrap my head around too much “positivity” at that time, then I at least find something more logical or constructive.  (After all, many of the old tapes we play in our heads from other people are indeed irrational, inaccurate, and downright incorrect.)

So my first step is often to let my logical sensibilities win the argument.  I might sometimes start by inserting my own words into those old tapes.  For example, an intermediate (in-between) early step might include my doctoring of the “you’re so clumsy” statement to, perhaps, “you’re sometimes clumsy”.  Or, “you’re uncoordinated“.  Or, put them together: “you’re sometimes uncoordinated“.

Then, I might rewrite the “you’re” part into something less personally inflammatory–something that takes the target off my back.  My new sentence might read: “your nervous system is sometimes uncoordinated”.  See?  It’s not my fault, per se; it’s my nervous system.  I didn’t do anything wrong; I couldn’t have controlled that.

And finally, I might use “I” statements, or perhaps neutral/passive statements.  “Your nervous system is sometimes uncoordinated” might become “my nervous system is sometimes uncoordinated”–or better yet, “the/this nervous system is sometimes uncoordinated”.  In the end, the important part is that you’ve erased the inflammatory put-down words, you’ve absolved yourself of any responsibility over factors you can’t control, and you’ve spoken the truth about the frequency (the “sometimes” part of the sentence).

Those steps described above can be applied to practically any situation, with varying creativity required (which usually isn’t much of a stretch).

An important note: take your time on this one.

Another important note: be consistent.  Monitor yourself for put-downs (we’re often good at monitoring ourselves; usually it’s for comparing notes and, too often, realizing that we don’t “measure up”.  Now, the name of the game is protecting ourselves, from (part of) ourselves).  Every time you catch yourself criticizing yourself, stop, take a deep breath (or several), and take the time and (minimal) effort to correct yourself.  Take that moment to reword those sentences.  Don’t let any of the old crap slide without getting dealt with.  Seize your power back.  It was yours all along anyway.

For me, an additional step (and this is more optional; think of it as extra-credit) has been to find motivational quotes, positive statements, or affirmations has helped me.  For me, the key here is that they can’t be too cheesy or forced.  If I’m not up to “loving myself” today because it’s too big of a hurdle to jump over when I’m too far down on myself, then maybe I can at least “like myself” or “care about myself”.  And for those times when I can’t even do that just yet, maybe the first step is simply to “accept myself”.

Whatever level you’re at, be sure that taking the next step (“accept” – “care for” – “like” – “love”) is a realistic hurdle.  It’s better to clear a smaller hurdle than it is to be unable to jump because the hurdle in front of you is too high.  You don’t want to experience the “why bother?” feeling.

This is very likely going to take a concerted, consistent effort.  And by “consistent”, I mean “daily”.  Don’t skip even a single day.  I can tell you that it’s not an overnight thing.  Yes, there may be an “a-ha!  I get it!  I really and truly feel it!” type of Revelation Moment, one that leaves you elated and ready to conquer the world.  And yes, for that moment, you are.  It’s real.  But it can dissipate; old tapes are stubborn that way.  You have to keep reminding yourself.  Turn that trait of “repetitive thoughts and patterns of speech” into your advantage, your gift, your power, your recovery.  I don’t care which of those word(s) you use (advantage, gift, etc).  Just make that “repetitive” trait work for you.

Whatever you do, be kind to yourself.  Have patience with yourself.  Keep in mind that you’re “only” human.  Treat yourself like you would a friend; after all, we spend a lot of time with ourselves, and we confide in ourselves.  We know all of our deepest, darkest secrets and most personal thoughts and feelings.  We’re our best confidante; we also need to be our best advocate.  No one else will advocate for us more often or more strongly than we’ll advocate for ourselves (depressing at times, but true).

Our self-talk can be our deepest downfall or our greatest asset.

Put yourself and your self-talk revolution at the top of your to-do list.  Know that you’re more amazing than you probably realize.  Rest assured that the world would not be the same without you, and I promise, we’re probably not as “clumsy” as we might think.  😉


Further Reading & Resources:

Why Saying Is Believing: The Science of Self-Talk” – from NPR.org

Replacing the Old Tapes In Your Head With New Ones” – from Psych Central

Rewriting An Old Tape” – from Psychology Today

Overcoming the Negative Voices In Your Head: How I Did It” – from Matt McWilliams

Challenging Negative Self-Talk” – from Psych Central

Make Your Self-Talk Work For You” – from Psychology Today

5 Tips To Improve Your Self-Talk” – from Psych Central

How To Improve Your Life By Better Managing Your Self-Talk” – from Psychology Matters.Asia

10 Steps For Creating a More Conscious Life” – from Psychology Today

Positive Self-Talk vs Acceptance Self-Talk” – from Believe Perform

How To Choose a Good Therapist as an Asperger’s/autistic Adult” – from The Silent Wave

Echolalia – a decent Wikipedia entry

Echolalia – from HealthLine.com

What You Need To Know About Echolalia” – from Friendship Circle

The Psychology of Your Future Self” – TED Talk (Video, 6 minutes, 49 seconds)

15 Best Psychology TED Talks on Happiness, Motivation, and More” – Learn Out Loud (list of videos)

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11 Comments

  1. when im stressed, i used to vent a lot. (a lot! a lot…) i used to complain just as much as i talk now, except it was all negative. brrr… and of course it got really bad in my teens, when i was learning how to reinforce all of it with additional logic and life examples and references to similar points of view. of course this isnt an attack on negativity– its slightly underrated in our “be happy… or else!” culture, and that only made me more determined 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    however, (for the most part) im trying not to let it do me in. i would like to be happy, and if i hadnt focused veyr hard on trying to be happy (when possible) last year, 2016 might have done me in. so ive talked about suriviving that in loneliness.

    it helps (me) immensely if you at all times have one or two people you can sincerely tell “i love you.” people you believe in, people you trust, people you care for. without that, what really is the point? (imo. ymmv. etc.)

    there are several people in the world that i love. and there are two people in the world i love more than anyone else. and when im lonely or unhappy, instead of negative affirmations, i just say “i love you,” generally followed by the name of the person im thinking of.

    yes, yes, if you want to say that to yourself, thats wonderful. sometimes its the only kind of love that gets validated these days (darn you, meghan trainor…) well im a little more old fashioned than that. its not a loving self/others dichotomy, its just the love i feel for others that really keeps me going and gives me strength.

    its extremely rare to not have a (real) name for my two favorite people in the world. my favorite person in the world, i know her first, last and middle name. my second favorite person in the world, i know none of these. but they still mean so much to me. i have words, and they are largely the basis for what this person means to me. words have great power– they are really what this post im replying to is about.

    i think of those words, and of the person who writes them, and i say “i love you.” and thats my affirmation. i dont ever want these people to think they are the sole reason i go on– someday my favorite person in the world will surely go back to travelling, and i may not meet her for years, if ever again. of course i will love her forever. she may be my favorite person for years to come, or i may meet another similarly amazing person who im so close to.

    family is proof that its good to love more than one person. if not your biological family, then surely your extended one. my third favorite person recently told a group of people (i was in the room) that she had recently been reminded how important extended/adopted family is. she was referring to me, and a conversation we had on the way there.

    assuming this particular life does not go on indefinitely, one day you will find that so little in life mattered more than friends. if you think of yourself as a friendless person (as i did for years, though falsely– my childhood was very isolated, and we were barely allowed to have friends of our own outside of school, which i hated anyway) then you must count the friendly interactions youve had– each one a small act of love. (they add up.)

    and few acts of love (or friendship) are ever greater than the encouragement and reassurance to someone you care about, that they should be who they really are– sure, the best most ideal version of that, if possible– everyone can strive for their own greatness– but more in the immediate moment: the opportunity to be loved for exactly who you are right now.

    no affirmation is greater in my opinion. so when you say “i love you,” and it also means “thank you so much, for making me feel i can really be me, and you can appreciate that exactly” you are not just reminding yourself that you live (really *live*) in a small way, for that person. you are also reminding yourself that you can be you. so again– what greater affirmation is there? ❤ ❤ of course, there is always room for more of them…

    always you hear about gratitude, and im sure its healing or it wouldnt be so popular (probably.) well gratitude isnt always a piece of cake. love is a very strong form of gratitude, and for whatever reason, sometimes love is simply easier to do.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Awesome, Fig!! I love reading your thoughts; they’re always interesting and quirky, and I love quirky 😉 They’re also heartfelt and genuine, which I love even more ❤️

      I can definitely relate, and I agree with Phlomis – great comment 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The old tapes…yes, many of those. I seem to go through phases where I can tune them out and others where they are at full blast. Depends on what’s going on. I never thought about the echolalia angle. A very interesting thought-and one that makes sense to me, as I can replicate words spoken to me down to the tone-in my head and out loud both.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ive never linked impressions/recitation with echolalia, but ive always impressed (or entertained) people with my ability to replicate certain things. sometimes its the voice, sometimes the words, sometimes both. a decade since the last time i watched it, i still know 10-20% of rabbit seasoning:

      im sure that part of my sense of humor is built on not only looney tunes, but every other goofy line ive ever heard– including from my closest family member who was the true comedian/enne in our family. (long since passed.)

      ive got lots and lots of horrible old tapes too– ive spent enough time playing those, and luckily daffy duck gets more mileage. obviously bugs is the hero of that episode, but the part that gets the most laughs when i recreate it is when bugs has daffy stick his head out “see if hes still dere!” and when daffy gets shot again, he comes back down and bugs says “is he still dere?” (really, bugs?) “STILL LURKING ABOUT!…” “i know, you go up there and act as a decoy, and then luuuure him away!” “NO MORE FOR ME THANKS! I’M DRIVIN’!” well its better than some of the other sh** i heard as a kid. now lets change the topic before i have to break out the gilbert and sullivan…

      Liked by 2 people

    2. That’s a great point, luv! Yep, the intensity varies for me as well. Depends on a lot of factors – the current event, the tape that plays, how often I heard that phrase from another person, how central a role that person played in my life, the mood I’m currently in, what else has happened that day, and so on. Some old tapes seem like they’re hooked up to subwoofers, while others are almost on mute. Lots of variables 😊 We’ll get past this ❤️❤️

      Liked by 1 person

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