Being upset when someone sits in “our” chair or takes “our” spot is an Autistic reaction that has moved from stereotype to joke. It’s a bad joke because it’s making fun of something that’s often involuntary and extremely distressing to many of us.
I realize that it can appear that we’re overreacting to those who only see our outward behavior, so I’d like to describe a bit of what it’s like on the inside for me to experience someone “taking my spot.”
First of all, it’s a very upsetting feeling to sit somewhere I wasn’t expecting to sit. That feeling overwhelms nearly everything else, even when I manage not to show any outward sign of being distressed because I’m in public and an adult now.
Everything feels wrong. I’m out of place. I try to reason through it in a logical manner. I tell myself something like: “I’m in a fine spot, it’s okay. I can do what I need to do right here. It’s all right.” But my attention is still divided, staying on the spot where I should be and being overwhelmed by discomfort and that out of place feeling.
This is hard enough when I’m left alone to mentally talk myself through it. I try to visualize me being in my current spot through the class or my time at the coffee shop or at a friend’s home and visualizing it being okay to remain here.
Sometimes this helps, but usually only after it’s been a good half hour or so. Often, even after I’m mostly settled in, I will still keep a close watch on my formerly expected spot, ready at any time to snatch it as soon as the other person vacates the seat or premises.
It’s even worse when someone else wants to talk to me because the only images and words in my mind are relating to this very strong sensation of being out of place due to that other person being in my expected spot. So, those being the only words in my mind means that those are the only words that can come out of my mouth. I can almost never manage to speak about anything else during this situation. Even a simple yes/no question may release a flood of angst.
In that situation I’m not complaining aloud to be a jerk – that’s literally all that will come out. I may mutter under my breath during my self-talk too, because otherwise I find it nearly impossible to logic through a situation with words.
And then I’m viewed as spoiled, entitled, controlling, overreacting, or the punchline to a bad joke.
The real joke is on me though because I don’t actually want to care about this. I wish I could sit anywhere and not care and not ever have to feel that overwhelmingly horrible sensation. I wish that I could work through it silently without the words bursting forth against my will the next time someone asks me a simple, usually unrelated, question.
Rather, I care about it because I can’t ignore it. The discomfort and distress are very real and very painful.
In fact, if I walk into a coffee shop and my expected seat is taken, I will frequently just walk back out because changing my entire plan last-minute is usually easier for me to handle than the torment I described in this post.
Someone sitting in “our” spot is not a small issue for most Autistics. Our reactions are not funny. It may seem like a very small thing to others, but it’s usually not a small thing at all.