Good Vibrations, Bad Vibrations, Overwhelm, and Meltdown

I spent the evening with Polyphonic’s video essays on Fairytale of New York, Walk on the Wild Side, Wish You Were Here, Tangled Up in Blue, The Thin White Duke, The Chain, Deals with the Devil, Freddie Mercury’s Voice, Flea’s Bass, and John Bonham’s drums. Polyphonic offers captivating and well-produced looks at legendary songs and musicians.

The episode on Good Vibrations, Brian Wilson’s pocket symphony, had me bringing out the headphones to disappear into the version of the song from Smile.

Headphones and curated good vibrations are how I cope with sensory overwhelm, especially when I’m out in the world, outside my Cavendish bubble, where I’m unable to control my context. Smile and Pet Sounds are great albums in which to go for a sensory swim and let the world dissolve.

The Brian Wilson biopic, “Love and Mercy”, has a very relatable scene where Wilson is overwhelmed by the noise of utensils and conversation at the dinner table.

Overload, meltdown, outburst, and retreat. That escalation is a feature of my life, at times a daily one. As meltdown approaches, everything feels like shouting, everything is too much. Sounds and social interaction become painful, and adrenaline and anxiety surge, humming through my body and senses, overloading wires insufficient to the immensity of tidal flow. The dinner table scene is a good representation of how I experience overwhelm. A noisy, crowded dinner table is a personal hellscape.

I came across this piece on Autistic Traits and Experiences in “Love and Mercy” that explains further.

This scene is quite similar to how I experience an autism sensory overload. When sounds, lights, clothing or social interaction can become painful to me. When it goes on long enough it can create what is called a meltdown or activation of the “fight-flight-freeze-tend-befriend” (formerly known as “fight or flight”) response and activation of the HPA axis; a “there is a threat in the environment” adrenaline-cortisol surge.

This makes seemingly benign noises a threat to my well-being and quite possibly real physical danger to my physiology. Benign noises become painful, and if left unchecked, enough to trigger a system reaction reserved for severe dangers. This is what days can become like on a regular basis for myself and many on the spectrum.

“Let me stick a hot poker in your hand, ok? Now I want you to remain calm.”

That is the real rub of the experience of sensory meltdowns. The misunderstanding that someone with Autism is just behaving badly, spoiled or crazy. When the sensory overwhelm is an actual and very real painful experience. It seems absurd to most people that the noise of going to a grocery store could possibly be “painful” to anyone. So most people assume the adults or children just want attention, or they can’t control their behavior. In work situations I get accused of all kinds of things. And when I leave a noisy situation like a party to step out to take a break, people will notice that I’m “upset”. They will assume or worry that I must be upset at something or someone. And that’s just if I do take a break. If I can’t take a break or get my life out of proper oscillations and can’t avoid noise or sensory/emotional overload, then I can get snappy, defensive, irritated and under very unfortunate circumstances even hostile.

What the stress of noise means, in the autism’s world of an over-sensitive physiology and ramped up stress experiences, is that that pain is warning of us of real damage being created in our bodies. So this anxiety and reactivity isn’t necessarily just perceived but is actually happening. We are not being overly dramatic or a brat (what those with Autism are often accused of). Damage to our physiology is what noise can actually do.

Source: Autistic Traits and Experiences in “Love and Mercy” The Brian Wilson Story – The Peripheral Minds of Autism

As I write this, I’m coming down from a long day punctuated by meltdown. I feel scoured and hollowed by adrenal exhaustion. Time for a swim in the good vibrations of someone who understands.

Anxiety, Ambiguity, and Autistic Perception

This piece on interviewing autistics had me nodding along in self-recognition. It me.

I relate deeply to every point in the article, but this one acknowledges a fundamental aspect of my being that contributes to all other points:

While the autistic individual is interviewing, they will often be acutely self-aware and preoccupied by their own nervousness and internal coaching, and be simultaneously experiencing two conversations at once—one that is shared aloud between the interviewer and interviewee, and one that is an ongoing internal dialogue. Often the internal voice will overshadow the external conversation and, as a result, gaps of time in the interview will be lost. What might appear as being not being present or distracted, is typically the individual attempting to balance the internal voice with the external conversation.

Source: 533: Interviewing Autistic Individuals – Everyday Asperger’s

That ever-present internal voice is of an ever-present witness, a not-so-fair “fair witness” that audits every moment and thought, flipping through lenses and spinning self-critical narratives in real time.

Candidates on the spectrum will sometimes panic with open-ended questions, as most are very quick thinkers, able to connect information at rapid speed and reach multiple conclusions in a matter of seconds. While deliberating over a question, the candidate is also contemplating about what the interviewer expects, wants, and is hinting at. The more specific and direct a question, the better.

Source: 533: Interviewing Autistic Individuals – Everyday Asperger’s

The “reach multiple conclusions” part is significant. My mind is an ambiguity finder. I sometimes wish I could turn down or turn off my ambiguity sensitivity. When you see many interpretations and conclusions, social interactions are harder. Interviews are harder. Standardized tests—loaded with bias and assumption and often purposefully bereft of context—are harder. What others comfortably and even thoughtlessly assume, I analyze obsessively, dowsing intention and expectation.

Autistic perception is the direct perception of the forming of experience. This has effects: activities which require parsing (crossing the street, finding the path in the forest) can be much more difficult. But there is no question that autistic perception experiences richness in a way the more neurotypically inclined perception rarely does.

Source: Histories of Violence: Neurodiversity and the Policing of the Norm – Los Angeles Review of Books

“The direct perception of the forming of experience.” There’s that internal voice, that witness. I am heavily instrumented code with breakpoints on every instruction. I’m plugged into my own JTAG witnessing myself experience experience. I’m prone to recursions and loops unwound only by passing out from adrenal exhaustion.

Such an operating system finds ambiguity everywhere. We humans communicate in assumptions, tropes, and defaults, in bundles of scripts, habits, and expectations. What usually goes unacknowledged is that these “literacies are plural and context-dependent.” I suspect many autistic people intuit this on some level because we navigate a world not set up for us, one that assumes sociality and sensory processing not our own.

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois says that blacks have a sort of doubleness in them not found among whites. Blacks cannot just “be themselves,” but must always think about how they are being perceived by whites. This creates a sense that you are always of two minds: that you are not only thinking and doing, but that you are thinking about how others perceive you, and adjust accordingly. Whites never have to deal with this. Being the majority and having the majority power, they can just be themselves without worry about how anybody is thinking about them.

Du Bois would probably not be surprised if he learned that other minorities were put in similar situations in the U.S., but it probably didn’t occur to him that there were people out there with different kinds of minds, and that they too would develop such a doubleness.

I know all about this double-mindedness, because I experience it constantly. I not only have to think about what I’m going to say or do, but I have to think about how others might take it. I can either just say or do whatever I want as I want and hope that I don’t do something that will set people off, or I can always consciously think about everything I say or do before I say or do it, testing against what I expect the expectations are (and hoping I’m getting those right). If it takes me a moment to respond to something, it’s because I’m going through all this nonsense to make sure I don’t say or do something wrong.

Source: On the Double-Mindedness Developed Among the Different – An Intense World

The profusion of expectations and ambiguities that others sail over on a buoy of assumption overwhelms me. Whereas they accept them unconsciously, I do something akin to a real-time, zero-based audit of the assumptions coming at me: interrogating them against context and the people present, sussing intention and expectation, looking for the landmines and sinkholes, the ethnocentricities and neurotypicalisms. What look like detached “gaps of time” (as in the interview example) are very busy and very connected with moment and context.

We’re surrounded by ambiguity in everyday life. Words not only have multiple meanings, but the context in which we use words can greatly change their meaning. Even words that both sound the same and are spelled the same way can be understood very differently depending upon context.” Ambiguity is a generative, creative, and productive continuum ranging from the quiet assumptions of the quotidian to Poe’s law. The continuum is rife with dead metaphors rapidly accumulating with the exponential growth of networks. What are the assumptions of the person talking to me? What are their “normal” and their “common sense”? What memes flash through their minds when consulting their personal heuristics? What is their lived experience, and what are their triggers? What, for example, is the worldview of this white, male, abled, neurotypical, cisgender, heterosexual interviewer who knows little of marginalized experience and accepts the defaults of a life lived at the lowest difficulty setting? The ambiguities and assumptions sluicing off his words weight the moment with an anxious, gravid humidity.

The hardest part to navigate is not so much the teeming ambiguity; it’s the assumption. It’s the self-centering, automatic and unaware, that reduces ambiguity to an ethnocentric “right answer” or “right behavior” and leaves little room for autistic sociality. Instead of “foregrounding complexity as the baseline”, we bury it with myths of normality that create structural barriers and exclude people. We pathologize and marginalize the minds and bodies that sense ambiguity and assumption the most deeply and feel their results the most acutely. So much is lost in the reduction. Acknowledging ambiguity, multiple literacies, and multiple socialities renders the terrain more passable rather than less. “Ambiguity is actually something to be embraced rather than to be avoided”. It is “an inevitable feature of human discourse”. Compassionately accepting our ambiguities and differing literacies means less masking and passing and burning out—and better communication.

Overcoming mutual incomprehension and better understanding each other requires unpacking a lot of ambiguity and assumption. Bridging the double empathy gap takes work, starting with recognition that ”empathy is not an autistic problem, it’s a human problem, it’s a deficit in imagination.” Reflecting on my own experiences and those of others in the #ActuallyAutistic community—particularly with regard to empathy—I posit that the autistic tendency for rabbitholing and getting expository while in conversation is, in part, an urge to unpack ambiguity, acknowledge assumption, cross the empathy gap, and be understood.

Often times, the autistic job candidate will want to be seen, heard and understood; as is such, it is commonplace for an jobseeker to provide information that the interviewer many not deem appropriate, necessary, or beneficial. Most autistics will in fact share thoughts and insights to their own detriment, unable to stop the need to be transparent and forthcoming.

Source: 533: Interviewing Autistic Individuals – Everyday Asperger’s

Interviewing Autistic Individuals describes me. I identify with every point. I’ll conclude this with a few more to which I particularly relate. Anxiety and ambiguity, these go to 11.

Partaking in an interview can cause extreme stress for days before the interview. The interview process will more likely than not be over-thought and imagined repeatedly, with multiple outcomes and scenarios. The candidate on the spectrum will typically relive the actual interview itself, repeatedly after the event.

What might appear as a simple ‘not a fit’ or ‘no thank you,’ to the hiring agent, can be devastatingly crushing to a person with autism. It’s common to obsess over the reasons for failure and to catastrophize the outcome, incorporating all-or-nothing thinking, and self-torture, in the form of repetitive, obsessive thoughts regarding the ‘whys’ and ‘what ifs.’

Before an interview, some candidates on the spectrum will create scenarios in their mind of failure and miscommunication, and have fear of not being able to express their true intentions and true self. They often have a fear of not appearing genuine and honest enough.

Some autistics will have little to no trouble expressing self in various communication venues. But the large majority will have specific triggers to communication that can bring on various outcomes, including panic attacks, insomnia, inconsolable anxiety, and nonstop, rapid thinking.

In most cases, people on the spectrum communicate better in written form with time to process, rethink, and edit thoughts and ideas, than spoken form. When possible, some type of written assessment ought to be utilized during recruitment screening, such as an essay or instant messaging service.

Picking Floods, Picking Senses

From a good piece on autism myths and autistic culture:

Autistic people may not give eye contact.  They can either hear, or look, but not both. It is not a sign of guilt or unwillingness to engage.

Source: Ann’s Autism Blog: Safeguarding and Church – An Informal Guide

I touch on picking between senses in these pieces:

I sometimes close my eyes to better parse the speech coming at me. I swim in sensory overwhelm. I must pick a firehose. Eyes front preserves the illusion of compliance, so I’ll stop listening.

Source: CHAMPS and the Compliance Classroom – Ryan Boren

In conversation, I listen better when not managing the sensory flood that comes with eye contact. I often close my eyes to shut out the social and sensory distractions–the relentless barrage of cues and stimulus–and focus on the words being spoken.

Source: Eye Contact and Neurodiversity – Ryan Boren

Avoiding eye contact is not a sign of guilt or deception.

The global view about liars is that they look away from you (avert their gaze) when they are lying. This is a false belief, which can be backed up with 40 years of research. What you will often find is that liar’s will often consciously engage in greater eye contact, because it is commonly (but mistakenly) believed that direct eye contact is a sign of truthfulness.

For these reasons, no relationship exists between eye gaze and deception.

Source: Guide To Detecting Deceit and Evaluating Honesty

People who do look away or avert their gaze when answering a question or when asked a question are just…thinking.

Source: Ask an Autistic #21 – What About Eye Contact? – YouTube