Before we left for the clinic, I asked my partner over breakfast, “how busy is your schedule today?”
He said, “I’ve got several people, although they’re scattered.”
In med school we were coached on how to schedule more efficiently. I wondered out loud if this was a situation in which our assistant might need a refresher.
He said, “no, there’s no problem there. Then again, I’m more ‘whenever the person wants to get in, get them scheduled’. I’m not as picky about how it’s done.”
I bristled inside. Was this a veiled criticism? If it was, it was completely unjust: I would be the recipient of criticism for a trait that not only could I not change, but I had a long, futile, frustrating, and failure-rich history of trying to change.
I tried to keep the internal bristling in check, but I’m not sure how successful I was. After all, one of the most chronic thorns in my side, so longstanding that it simply lives there, etched a few proverbial millimeters under my proverbial skin.
I wanted to say, “you listen here, mister”, but I bit my tongue.
I don’t know if he had meant it this way or not, but it almost seemed as if he were implying that I was being unreasonably picky. The little devil on my shoulder hinted that he might be implying that it was voluntary.
Calmly but quite deliberately, I reminded him: “Understand, though, that the way I have to resort to doing things is by necessity. I may look like anyone else. All my life, people have said, but you’re so bright, why can’t you do this or that? Because I might look so capable, people think that my quirks are by choice. They’re absolutely not. I wish I had the luxury of being able to take the approach and the attitude you can take. But I can’t.”
I didn’t understand this phenomenon, either. Why do I operate this way? It might have been frustrating for him, but it was volumes more frustrating for me.
Then there was the time when a friend suggested we run some errands, which involved making a few stops around town.
My brain instantly loaded its own virtual “Maps app”, which overlays a traditional map format with known landmarks, a high-speed street view, virtual locator pins dropped at our desired destinations, and the most efficient route of the trip, making as many right turns (as opposed to the more time-consuming left turns) as possible.
I also started to gather all my needed belongings. My brain was on a mission. The “Let’s go” function had already been executed; it was already in full swing.
Then the person threw a curveball at me: it was something innocuous like “let’s get the spaghetti noodles cooking before we go.”
No no no no, my brain hollered inside. Because, again, it had already launched into this other mission, which did not include this unrelated task.
I felt my train of thought start to derail.
I knew what would happen if it derailed: much like a train conductor, I would lose control, and there would be messy piles of thought-debris scattered all over my mental landscape.
And I knew what that would look like on the outside. Suddenly, I would appear unreasonable, irrational, unreasonably irrational. And other embarrassing attributes. These were not rooted in logic; they were rooted in my limbic system, a system I tried to keep on a tight leash, with little wiggle room. A system that I knew not to taunt, tempt, or tangle with, because if I did, it would have the last laugh. And it wouldn’t be pretty.
Gripping the proverbial cerebral lever, I tried to stay on track by keeping the momentum going toward our original plan.
Logically, it seems so trivial. Why not make mental room for the insertion of one activity? Because my brain did the quick mental calculation, and the answer that it came up with was that this person moves more slowly than I do, and what sounded like a quick and easy list item would in fact take more time than it seemed like on the surface, and by the time we finished, my brain might be less amenable to the idea of venturing out. My brain did have the mental resilience for going out now. I couldn’t guarantee that it would still be agreeable to going out in another 20-30 minutes. It wasn’t my choice, mind you; it’s just how it is.
So, despite the impending derailment and internal war mounting within myself, and the panic that had begun to rise, I remained as calm as I could and simply said, “my brain really wants to get this out of the way first. It has already launched into that mode.”
Since I couldn’t elaborate further without sounding like I was ranting or being unreasonable, or without giving away my irrationality, I let my desperate plea hang in the air.
She bought it, but it came at a cost: her demeanor changed slightly. Someone not as attuned to her might not have noticed, but it screamed at me.
All I could do was respond sheepishly, following up with something nonsensical and apologetic about my “quirks and brain-modes” and let come what may.
She recovered eventually, but it might have taken a while, because she’s as stubborn as I am, and we both need to be right, although for different reasons. Hers is a self-esteem issue (she interprets an alternate suggestion as a criticism of her suggestion); mine is a matter of cognitive survival.
So when Asperger’s/autistic people appear obstinate, what’s really going on?
We might be trying to avoid the embarrassing effects of a cognitive, emotional, or psychological derailment (my term for a loss of control).
We might be attempting to manage anxiety with a solution or method that is palatable to our brain’s flexibility.
We might be in the middle of a task already, and not have the cognitive resilience to switch tasks quickly.
We might be trying to avoid a meltdown or shutdown.
We might be low on sleep, blood sugar, or energy.
We might be pushed to the brink or stretched to our limits already.
We might be in pain or under stress that we might not be able to verbalize, or may not even know exists.
If you’re neurodivergent and this fits you, I need you to know that there’s no shame in this phenomenon. It’s how we’re wired, and we can’t change our wiring (at least, not very much yet). Take these internal warning reactions (often described as knee-jerks, reflexes, or recoils) seriously. Please, don’t minimize them; they’re your nervous system sending you messages, warning signals that something is amiss, that there could be a high risk of meltdown in the near future. Do what you have to do; a slight streak of perceived stubbornness is a lot easier to apologize for, shrug off, and move on from than a full-blown meltdown.
If you’re neurotypical and your brain doesn’t work this way, congratulations. Your way of doing things is the favored ideal in this world, and thus you won’t ever have to deal with this phenomenon on a first hand basis. Please be gentle with those of us who do. If you’re not under the accusation of being obstinate, then that means that you probably have the mental flexibility to be kind to those of us who are. 🙂