They thought I was being ‘obstinate’…when I was just #ActuallyAutistic 

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. 🙂

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39 Comments

  1. so you know, you might have picked up on a subtle thought your partner was thinking about you. but before youre sure you did– context is everything.

    youre focusing (perhaps accurately, perhaps not– this is a person you know far better than i, but im focusing on what i know) on the contents of the letter, but check the address. your partner was talking about himself. was the picky comparison to you, or just a turn of phrase.

    i know 9 times out of 10, when i use the phrase “im not picky,” its not a jab at other people, even people who are picky. i think in the context offered in this post, its VERY possible he wasnt criticizing anyone, even subtly.

    its also possible he didnt mean to imply anything but kind of put his foot in his mouth. well, ive done that, despite before very sensitive to the plight of “us” which ive learned more about this year than any other, thanks to you and anna and a handful of others especially.

    bottom line, im not here to tell you what to think. but before you decide, ive thrown in a few more possibilities that i consider at least, very plausible. hope your day is good to you, always ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You raise really good points 👏🏼😊. Your thoughts are well-taken (as always) 😁💝. It’s hard to know exactly what he meant–maybe there was an implication, or maybe there wasn’t. Even after 18 years together (!) (god I feel old lol), I can’t always tell 😊. The “picky” term was my assumption (presumptuous, I know 😉) of what I perceived he might be thinking. But he didn’t actually say that himself 😊💓

      Liked by 1 person

  2. another point: “picky” isnt always terrible. he may not be picky, and “picky” may not be the best word to describe it, but its not like he said “im not a nazi. you are, im not judging…” (thank jack nicholson for this one. “im not a… pr**k. you are, im not judging…”)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Truth! 👏🏼👏🏼. Picky can be good 😊. I’m picky about the quality of my work. I’m picky about who I spend time with offline. I’m picky about my friends and partners (the latter of which is singular now of course lol) 😊💞. I have to be picky about not ingesting gluten. So yep, picky saves lives 😉. Picky Lives Matter 😂💖

      Liked by 1 person

          1. OMG, you guys just made me laugh so much 😂 It’s been a long time since anyone mentioned the Great Cornholio, although I do get frequent doses of Monty Python at the office. Thanks for the giggle 😄

            Liked by 2 people

  3. apart from throwing off your organization, putting noodles on before you go sounds like a really terrible idea on her part. maybe she knew something i dont, but it sounds like it would result in one of the following: 1. safety hazard 2. (at best) noodles that are slightly cold 3. (somewhere in the middle) noodles that are overcooked. unless shes a time lord, the noodles can wait…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, bless her heart, she’s an elderly lady whose cognitive abilities are slowly diminishing. She doesn’t always think straight anymore. Not as a slight to her, just more of a sad-but-true observation 💜

      I totally agree with you! 💙

      Like

  4. Oh, wow! This is SO me. The part about the mental “virtual maps app” was like reading about myself. I never realized that every body else didn’t think that way. After all, it’s just LOGICAL!
    After a lifetime (I’m 66 and was just diagnosed 2 years ago) of feeling mystified and frustrated, and having those in my life get upset with me- now I understand. I also spent almost 20 years as a city bus driver so I am completely entrenched in “mental route planning!” Thank you for this!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. OMG awesome!! It would be too cool to sit down together and have you tell me those city bus stories! I’m so happy we made that “map connection” 🙂 It’s so neat to share stuff in common with people when otherwise, it felt so odd and lonely before. Logic rules! 🙂 Cheers!! 😀 ❤

      Like

  5. “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,”
    yup I do this, and changes of plan throw me for a loop, i get tetchy as hell after my brain has planned it all out.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I likey, Wiser Sister! 👏🏼😘❤️. Hehe I was going for “stubborn” because I definitely was/am lol 😂. But I will also take “efficient”, because I’m stubborn about being efficient! 😉👍🏼💞💜💙

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I was thinking what I would have done in this situation, when someone derails previous plans by spontaneously (😖) suggesting doing something else first. The thing is, since my default setting is “doormat”, I would have gone along with the change without protest, but with increasing unease and grumpiness which would probably have shown on my face. Not the best way to go either!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hehe yep, I’ve been there, too ❤️. My term for it was “fuming with resentment” 😉; at least, that’s how I experienced it. Sometimes I didn’t realize just how grumpy I was after giving in, too! “Doormat” is a good word for this, too; it definitely fits what I’ve felt during those times 💖

      Like

  7. Coming from a genetic super race of methodic autie problem solvers and married into a clan of the most yappy hyper spontaneous attention deficit super race you ever saw, I can look at then and now and thank goodness for neurodiversity. Our only hope was my vision retrain my own brain, a feat beyond what most can tolerate but I’m that much of an obsessive problem solver, and 23 years later, although I’m still rigid enough to get called Sheldon Cooper, I can confidently say my husband is my best friend and the best fit for me. Our two very different brain types make great teamwork, but a lot of my adaptation depended on my aspie problem solving skills. They literally can’t change, even when they can see it. I could. I think auties have deeply underappreciated problem solving skill sets. It’s ok to be stubborn, but my curiosity around challenge often wins me over. A lot of my initial bristling anger has softened into laughing at irony. I’m good with and can roll with so much now. That has been very good for me. I’d have sat in a corner never growing otherwise. ☺

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing this! I love this strategy and I can relate, at least on a certain level 😉. Especially the irony and whatnot 😊. I smiled at the first part, too 😉❤️💜

      Like

  8. My phone balked at that long comment, so I’m wanting to add that the way you wrote this brought back a lot of memories. I think another challenge auties have is when we do grow and change to adapt and embrace (which is hard and takes tremendous effort) the family members we leave behind not understanding this because they remain rigid throws another curveball of sadness at us. Sometimes a person can feel very alone trying to ‘adapt or die’ and others can’t fathom what the problem is. Many feel pressured to perform or remain in place, so it takes a tough brain to affect change, especially in oneself. I strongly admire people who can do that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Janika 😊. I think you’re definitely on to something! I hadn’t quite thought of it that way before, but I think you’re totally right. Awesome perspective! 💚💙

      Like

  9. So I’m training my executive function and learning how to be calm. This Happened to me yesterday. Had everything planned out for days. Then I got new info yesterday that changed everything. I had to quickly change the order everything in my plan would be done. It was a very minor freak out compared to having a meltdown, and I survived!!!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Same. The threat of a meltdown is always there. I don’t think that will go away, and especially with so much sensory info in the world. But I’m taking it one step at a time. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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