Aspergers: Needing Control
Let's get the boring stuff out of the way, so I am no Psychologist or professional, I am simply someone on the spectrum (Aspergers), sharing a piece of my own experience. I hope this experience can help you gain clarity and if it does not you should discard it like a piece of paper being blown away in the wind... I say that because, while I share a similar space on the spectrum with others, it does not mean our experiences and difficulties are mirror images.
This little piece of information occupying a space in my mind came about recently, when I was asked for an opinion in regards to people on the spectrum having tantrums. I try not to get offended by much of what people say in regards to Autism, because it seems so broad a label that it is easy for people to get confused and labels that fall short of reality are justified to an extent, as it is human nature to sort, organise and put things in boxes, whether physically or in our mind, because to deal with everything as a unique item, situation, problem or set of symptoms etc will consume brain power very quickly, so we sort, organise and label these compartments of our mind.
These compartments unfortunately posses stereotypes, clichés, out of date information, media influenced ideas. However, this is all common behaviour that should not make us offended, the issue is when people can not see past this behaviour and hold those boxed up stereotypes, clichés and rules as reality.
So, back to it, while trying not to take offense to people's choice of words, labels and clichés etc, I found it hard to stomach the question, "tantrum". A funny little label that once again we stick on a box of ideas in our heads, and because our brain uses pattern recognition to identify and distinguish things, we stick anything in the box that fits a pattern, what many people don't realise is how indiscriminate our pattern recognition systems are (Apophenia).
So, while someone on the spectrum may appear to be having a tantrum, we really should try to be more discriminate, before branding them, mainly because it can be unpleasant for the individual suffering such an episode to be accused of some act that has a stigma attached, almost derogatory.
Now I will try to move away from my formal and wordy writing I have used so far, and share my personal experience in the hope of highlighting, possible causes for such behaviour, so that maybe others can get a sense of what might be going on.
Due to where I am on the spectrum (Location on spectrum really meaning my personal array of symptoms) I possess extreme need to be a control freak, not because I am stubborn and difficult but because it makes me feel safe... which psychology has shown to be true for us all just to different degrees.
To demonstrate, imagine how you would feel riding in a car with someone else who is driving recklessly? (not the fun kind of recklessly). Understandably you may feel panic or scared because you have no control over a dangerous and unpredictable situation, with a potentially high risk of harm. Well for many on the spectrum, including myself, social situations and life itself is sufficiently difficult and challenging to result in similar feelings despite what appears as normal environments.
I struggle with supermarkets for example, they are so busy, noisy, bright and possessing their own spectrum of colours, completely out of control, the pseudo random nature of it makes it appear almost lawless, people don't even follow the common knowledge norms drilled into us from school and driving, that if everyone sticks to the left, and stop at junctions, give way to others etc then traffic will flow freely; but instead of traffic flowing freely we get a free for all that resembles something aching to chaos.
So while Nuero Typical (Don't know what label to give people not on the spectrum ) people seem to be able to navigate instinctively the wild wild west of Tesco, I feel like I am in a car being driven dangerously and it is my lack of control over the steering of the car that panics me and causes me to act out, using what ever means possible to try and secure back that control, so that I can feel safe and calm again.
This is where these episodes vary and don't always fit nicely in our labelled boxes, that our minds just recognise the pattern as tantrum like. Me personally, I can become quite intimidating or aggressive, I don't hurt people its more gesturing, like a peacock demonstrating it's physical presence to intimidate others into submission, so they will give me back control, we all know the behaviour; men who have to puff out their chest, stand up erect, push their shoulders back, clench their fists and put on their best John Wayne steely eyed impression.
I feel like my life is often steered by other people and the lack of control scares me so I become a control freak, I have to control many many variables in my life, that can appear as me just being very stubborn and difficult to others, but others must appreciate how we are feeling. I think Sheldon Cooper highlights this control, having to regulate the room temperature all the time and his bathroom schedule just to name a few.
I get fight or flight all the time when not feeling in a safe environment, fight or flight itself is a horrible feeling that people often trivialise because it is irrational, they assume the fear must be mundane like that of seeing a spider (unless you genuinely have arachnophobia), because many people don't particularly like spiders but they are not significantly unsettled by them. Flight or fight though is more extreme than that mild dislike of spiders, it is where your mind and body, despite the irrationality of the situation, really feels like your life is on the line and you have an extreme need to fight back, to act in self preservation mode, or to run, maybe why I am so good at running .
This I think explains a lot of other behaviours too, I do find social interaction stressful and challenging, but I do also have the ability to hit it off well with the odd person and I really enjoy the experience, some of those are very meaningful and stay with me. However, I often lead a very isolated life because I find the more people I know, the more interactions I have, the more extra curricula activities I do, result in more people having an element of control over my life, so I start to feel unsafe, eventually I reach a limit, where my metaphorical stress cup gets full, my veins streaming with too much cortisol, and the instinct to fight or flight too strong to resist and I withdraw back into my shell until I am strong enough to do it all again and I continue to cycle through this process, oscillating endlessly as does many rhythms of life.
This is why I find employment difficult, education, having many friends and interacting with family difficult, because the more you do it, the more you give away control and the more uncomfortable you end up becoming.
So the next time you identify someone on the spectrum, being difficult in work, not attending family functions or having an episode/meltdown don't think tantrum, ask yourself the question... "are they outside of their comfort zone or feeling unsafe and insecure?" By asking yourself this, you set up a healthy pattern of behaviour that might enable the sufferer to identify you as safe person and non threatening, if you start making demands, demands really means exercising your own control over that person, and you further push them into chaos.
IT Officer at The Autism Directory
Help us help others...
Cover image is by Celine Nadeau (Control Freak): The image has been cropped to fit in cover space of website and is being used under the 'Creative Commons' license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/