For most of my life, my experiences were confusing and inexplicable. I could not explain, even to myself, most of what happened to me, others’ reactions, or my own reactions to what was happening.
In a post earlier this year I wrote:
In the past I’ve run away from these events. I’d never return to a place or never talk to a person again if they caused those confused and upsetting feelings. Burned bridges galore are littered throughout my past. Charred and hulking.
Some were necessary, of course, but the hastiest ones still haunt me.
Since then I’ve come to the realization that many of my burned bridges were burned due to a lack of understanding.
Earlier today I was thinking about my gym and the fans that are necessary for everyone else to work out and be comfortable. When I started working out there in the middle of summer the fans were mainly just annoying, uncomfortable, and distracting. As the weather became cooler, the fan sensation combined with the cold sensation to create a horrifying sensory cocktail that I often experience as painful.
With less understanding of my own sensory response to the fans, I could easily see myself just not going back after the first time I went when it wasn’t boiling hot outside. When I went and unexpectedly found it unbearable to be even remotely in the peripheral line of the fans it was a very stressful and distressing experience, which could’ve easily led to confusion and a strong desire to avoid the experience in the future.
Not going back is exactly how I reacted to painful situations before I learned about autism.
Whether the pain was physical or emotional, I couldn’t explain it. Nobody else seemed bothered by those things. Everyone else was coping fine, yet that place or time or person was clearly not safe for me. Nobody believed me, I was told that my responses were overreacting, and nobody helped me figure out what legitimate experience I might’ve had to provoke such a reaction.
So, my solution in the past under those circumstances was to never go back there. Ever. Avoid the place, the time, or the person and not just for a little while, but forever. Negative feedback is very motivating. Avoiding whatever has caused past pain is a vital self protective function. One that’s often exploited in autism “therapies” to force us to behave less autistically.
With the knowledge I have of being autistic, starting years before I got my formal diagnosis, I’ve been able to handle going back into difficult situations sometimes. I’ve managed to reflect upon my experiences and decipher where interactions went wrong or why I struggled so much in certain situations. I’ve managed to burn fewer bridges in the present. I’ve even cautiously let some folks back into my life after years of not being in contact.
That is a skill I would love to see taught to Autistic children if they’re sent to therapy. How to figure out what happened during an encounter that feels unsafe so that the danger of a situation or person can be accurately assessed. After an accurate assessment, it should become clear whether a burned bridge would be the best course of action. If not, then it’s necessary to figure out how to support oneself in similar future situations and/or ask for supports from others so that the situation becomes safe and accessible.
I’d also like for parents, teachers, and other professionals to be taught that we aren’t overreacting in those situations. Rather, we are reacting perfectly logically to a threat (of some sort) that we’re experiencing. I wasn’t being rude or petty – certainly wasn’t intending to – rather I was legitimately distressed, confused, hurt, and often afraid.
Not understanding why I was being hurt by experiences that others seemed to manage reasonably well was distressing in itself. Having those feelings and experiences invalidated by others throughout my life created a good deal of trauma and internalized hatred for my perceived inadequacies.
Running away, burning bridges, is not the best overarching coping method; but for some of us, that’s all we had for a while. For some it’s all they still have.
Even those of us who have additional methods now don’t always have the ability or energy to manage the work necessary in order to decipher painful situations. We also may not have the energy to go back into those situations, even once we’ve worked out what happened, because the entire process can be very complicated and tiring.
Also, sometimes it’s best to just move on. With more understanding of ourselves and more understanding from others, it becomes easier to recognize when a burned bridge is a necessity rather than a hasty self-protective reaction to a situation that maybe wasn’t as dangerous as we perceived it to be.