Empathic attunement: autism and not letting the bastards get you down

I just learned read this article and learned this phrase.

With empathy, as with everything, too much is just as bad as not enough. Check out Robert Sapolsky talking about empathy over here.

Empathic attunement is…well, how do I put this. Autistic people* are famous for having no filter. We say what we mean without self-editing. Things just come out. We don’t have filters for what comes in either. We can get overwhelmed with the emotions of others and lose ourselves. This coupled with alexithymia (difficulties with perceiving, identifying, or understanding one’s own emotions) can lead to all sorts of no bueno situations of autistic burnout and meltdowns. Throw in the tightly strung sympathetic nervous systems we have that trigger our fight/flight/faun/freeze/flop responses and our less responsive parasympathetic nervous systems that fail to properly trigger rest and digest systems and you have the perfect storm for someone who gets overwhelmed by the emotions of others. Now add in the fact that we might not know how to extricate ourselves from social situations and the other fact that we assume other people have the social playbook and we’re just trying to keep up and you have someone who has a hard time knowing when or how to advocate for their own needs. Lastly, consider that we have been told our whole lives that the reality we perceive is not true simply because others are not capable of also perceiving it, and you have someone who can’t even begin to trust themselves at all.

Long term, negative reinforcement can cause an autistic person to shut down and stop exposing themselves to social situations. We call this complex PTSD and agoraphobia. I’m here to say that doesn’t have to be the case. It can get better.

Me at my worst was a reactive gremlin/agent of chaos/caged bear. People could and did take advantage of me so many times that I shut down and became mean and untrusting. I felt vulnerable to attack from any angle because life had taught me that anything was possible and anything bad was probable. At the age of 21, I’d had enough experiences that I started having panic attacks in public and became a self-medicated shut in. Lucky for me, my then boyfriend’s sister spotted my PTSD symptoms and I got help in the form of medication and Eye Movement and Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.

That wasn’t the end of my problems. It would take another decade for me to learn about autism and obtain a diagnosis and another ten before I really felt in the zone with myself and how I operate in this world. During that time I found a therapist who helped me understand what previously seemed cryptic about the outside and inside worlds, a life coach who helped me believe that I had something to offer the world, and medication that mitigated neurotransmitter malfunctions. I also got very curious about neurology, psychology and behavioral economics to make sense of a world that everyone else appeared to understand intuitively. I built a better me.

How would I describe what it feels like in real life to feel other people’s emotions acutely? Like you’re at the whim of tidal waves that sweep you into euphoric heights, smash you against perilous rocks, rock you gently, or even pull you under and hold you there.

With practice I’ve learned that if I can put a name to the thing I am sensing and adjust accordingly, I’m ahead of the game. Because now I have an opportunity to 1. protect my energy stores; 2. maneuver around energy vampirism; 3. decide what boundaries I’m going to put up; and 4. decide when to walk away. I can be intentional and less impulsively reactive. The healthier I am, the better I’m able to manage emotional energy. It’s all about preserving homeostasis.

As autistics, we are inclined to think that everyone thinks the way that we do or that they know things we don’t and we give people the benefit of the doubt. Let me be clear about this: not everyone has good intentions. Some people do not care how they affect others and maybe they even want to have negative effects on others. Some people are just not self-aware and they’re unhappy such that they don’t know or can’t control the misery they inflict upon anyone in listening distance. They think they’re sharing when they’re really just emotionally dumping. We’re all probably guilty of this at some point. Beware people who want to trauma bond. You need to know that you don’t have to subject yourself to behavior that is unkind or not compassionate either by choice or by negligence. It might take you a while to recognize this type of behavior. There is never a point in a relationship too early or too far gone to stand up for your needs and say, “I don’t want to talk about this.” Or decide that you’re better off just not being around someone altogether.

It still takes me a while to figure out what I’m feeling and if it’s coming from inside of me or from someone else. I’ll be confused or shocked at my behavior the night before until I retrace my steps and realize that I was mirroring somene’s energy that no one else was sensitive enough to perceive. I’m responsible for my behavior. But now I know something about the other person and whether and to what extent I want to be around them. And also how to give someone space for their sake and so that I don’t build up resentment about things I cannot change.

It still takes me time to course correct when I’m overwhelmed. I have learned to apologize for things I’ve done and then tried my very best not to do them again. I have also learned to put myself in time out if I don’t trust myself to be fully present and kind. The best way to not regret what I’ve done is to keep from doing it in the first place.

It still takes me time to figure out when I’m more vulnerable to other people’s emotions such that I need rest or a self-reminder that my perception of the world is not reliable at the moment. I work at grounding myself in my environment. Practicing detachment. Taking a breath. Slowing things down. Praying for guidance or forbearance or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

A mentor once gave me the following advice: shutting the world out doesn’t work. It only makes the problem worse. You have to learn to be selective. How to walk through the world like an apex predator. And you have to practice saying, “This is not my energy.”

I should have that last part tattooed on my forehead.

*No one speaks for the entire diaspora. Everyone is an individual. People are on different paths and at different points in their journey. This is the classic autistic disclaimer. Reductive generalities are sometimes necessary to understand commonalities before individual differences can be teased out.

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