In nuclear physics, a nuclear reaction is said to be “prompt critical” if the splitting of one atom causes the release of immediate neutrons that cause an additional atom to split. An excursion in a nuclear reactor or experiment occurs when the nuclear reaction rate exceeds the desired rate. Typically, this is a bad thing – Chernobyl, for instance, was a prompt critical excursion. Now, I’m not a nuclear scientist, and have only taken two freshman level physics courses (nuclear fission was not covered), so I’m probably using these terms wrong, so I beg forgiveness from any readers that actually understand nuclear fission!
Autistic people – and likely other people under extreme stress – are subject to a similar type of excursion. I’m not talking about a meltdown that is traumatic to the parent of an autistic, but something more innate and troubling to an autistic person – and something that can often be prevented.
I can explain it best with a story from my past. I’m mowing a lawn as a teenager to earn some money when I accidentally run over the hose. Now that’s not the end of the world, but it’s definitely not a desired outcome of lawn mowing! Maybe my attention was elsewhere, maybe I misjudged where the hose was, maybe I just didn’t realize it was there under the tall grass – but regardless I did something you most certainly don’t intend to do while mowing the lawn. But, I move the rest of the hose out of the way and keep going.
Of course the hose is still on my mind – how am I going to explain that I did that? What will happen when I tell the adult? How can I replace the hose? Suddenly, I realize that I’m plowing through the vegetable garden with the lawn mower, murdering scores of carrot plants. Shit! How could I be so distracted?
Now I have to explain how I ran over the hose and the vegetables! Nobody is going to believe that I ran over the carrots accidentally after I just ran over the hose! I should have been more careful, that’s what you’re supposed to do when you make a mistake. But I made things worse, as now the I have to explain the hose and the vegetables. And you can’t replace the carrots in the middle of the growing season – it’s not fixable. Fuck!
But while I’m thinking of this, I finally realize I’m hearing an awful sound from the mower! How long has it been doing that? I shut it off, hoping I didn’t destroy anything. The engine sure looks hot. I check the oil – only to find it doesn’t seem to have any. Shit! Now what? I go find the oil and add some to the mower, hoping that solves my problem – but I can’t even pull the cord now. Shit, the engine is seized! Fuck! I murdered a hose, carrots, and a lawn mower! Why didn’t I check the oil level?
Unfortunately it’s not my mower, carrots, or hose – I’m mowing my neighbor’s yard with her mower. So I walk up to her porch, so I can knock on the door and face what I have coming. As I ring the doorbell, I step to the side, to be clear of the door. What am I going to say? What are my parents going to say? As I do this, I feel something brush my leg, then, too late, I realize that I just knocked her garden gnome off the porch, five feet to its’ death. It’s smiling, decapitated head seems to be laughing at me. Nothing is going right – I even killed a garden gnome. I don’t know anyone who has killed a garden gnome. I don’t even know what the penalty for garden gnome murder is. Maybe I an claim gnomeslaughter, because I didn’t intend it. But of course the neighbor is going to think I wanted to destroy all her stuff. Shit!
This was a slightly modified story of real events – I did murder a mower, carrots, and hose, as well as a chunk of fence, but the mower was killed in a different way, and, thank God, there was no gnome on the step! But I imagine at this point, I was in tears, even as a late teen, and probably just couldn’t handle any of the world right then – everything I touched turned to shit.
I suspect most autistic people can relate to this – one thing goes wrong, and, like a prompt critical excursion, that causes the next thing to go wrong which causes the next thing to go wrong, until the cycle runs out of things to go wrong.
I will say one thing: The wrong thing to do in this circumstance, if you’re on the other side of the door while I’m standing on the porch, is to say, “Why weren’t you more careful after the first mistake!” The right thing to do is what you do to stop a nuclear reaction: you separate the atoms (or, in this case, the many possible things that could go wrong), preferably with something that absorbs the neutrons. Ideally, you recognize what happened as someone trying to do right, making an honest mistake (the innocent hose), and then that knowledge of a mistake screwing up the coordination and thinking ability of the person, so that, naturally, something else went wrong. Sure, someone else probably would have recovered enough after the hose, but not everyone reacts the same way to things.
I’ll guarantee the autistic is mortified, embarrassed, and very sorry. This wasn’t what they set out to do. And they know they fucked up without you scolding them. The self punishment is plenty to negatively reinforce.
But, to someone who hasn’t experienced this, it looks like someone throwing a tantrum, taking out aggression on everything nearby (or, in the case of a social criticality, everyone nearby). But this isn’t aggression, even when it triggers socially inappropriate responses to other people – its incredible stress as a world the person is trying to live in falls apart around them, with everything they try to do to respond (such as think of the script for telling someone they messed up, like a responsible person would) causes yet more problems.
So, if you see this, look at that first event – could it have been an accident? Was it perhaps not done intentionally? Could the following events possibly be explained by the stress on the autistic after doing the first one?
Even as an adult, I run into this cycle. When things go wrong, they really go wrong for me – and people just can’t understand that perhaps I wasn’t trying to be an asshole, but made an honest mistake that created more honest mistakes. Give me some space away from the problem, let me know you recognize that I’m having a bad day and didn’t mean for things to go to hell. Encourage me, but don’t pressure me to try again later (you don’t want more excursions!), showing confidence I can do it, giving me space and time to make sense of the world again. It’s not defiance, it’s an accident.