Prompt Critical Excursions in Autistics

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.

I Am Not

(This is another oldie from my old site, slightly modified)

I am not…An Autistic’s Response to Prejudice

I am not an object. Don’t talk about me when you are around me unless you are willing to talk to me.

I am not a child. Don’t make decisions for me – let me have influence over my own life.

I am not an extension of your ego. Don’t make me feel guilty for not acting in a way which reflects best upon you.

I am not a project. Don’t think of me as something you are building, God already built me. He doesn’t need your help.

I am not a decoration. Don’t pretend to be my friend, give me a token board membership seat, or take me to your autism event so you have someone to show off to your friends.

I am not a robot. Don’t assume I don’t have feelings.

I am not (insert famous autistic). I don’t think like him/her anymore than you think like John Wayne.

I am not worthless. Don’t throw me away when you grow tired of me, but value me, my insights, and my feelings. My life is as important as yours.

I am not a criminal. Don’t lock me up when I haven’t done anything wrong, but allow me to walk outside of whatever walls you may think I belong behind.

I am not a monster. Don’t stay away from me simply because I do something you don’t do; you do things I don’t, too.

I am not an experiment. Don’t test your theory on me.

I am not defective. You don’t need to repair or fix me.  Allow me to be the person I am.

I am not a puzzle. I don’t need you to “put me together”. You are as puzzling to me as I am to you, yet no one calls you a puzzle.

I am a person.

On Oldie: A Story about Inappropriate Behavior

This is from my old website (well, with slight edits for grammar), a fictional (well, only slightly fictional) story about “inappropriate” behavior.  Too often, people dismiss behavior as “inappropriate” without truly understanding the reasons behind the behavior.

A Kitchen Tantrum

She’s in the kitchen, screaming at the top of her lungs.

You would think that a murder has occurred. It’s disturbing the entire family, interrupting everyone else. It’s demanding immediate attention from everyone in the house – everyone’s expected to just drop what they are doing, and come deal with this new crisis. There is no consideration for the other family members.

Once everyone rushes into the kitchen, you see the scene. She’s on top of a chair, holding a 8 inch long kitchen knife. She’s hysterical, and can’t be talked down from the chair. Yet, this has happened before, and people, after a little snicker, realize that this isn’t a major crisis after all. This is something we, as a family, can handle. Soon, we’ll be back to our own individual routines, but right now we have to handle the crisis.

A small mouse on a blue backgroundOf course mom is still screaming, “Get it out! Get it out!” Dad runs behind the chair, and tries to corner the small, and otherwise cute, fuzzy critter against the cabinet. Of course this critter is smarter than that, but with the help of one of the kids, we are able to scoop him up into a small cardboard box, take him outside, and release him – away from the sight of Mom.

While Mom is still out of breath, and obviously worked up, now that the problem has been dealt with, she’ll be back to slicing up vegetables for the evening dinner within 10 minutes. The crisis is over.

An Analysis

First, everyone (except maybe Mom) knows that Mom and the family were never in any real danger. The small mouse, weighing only a couple of ounces, never posed a threat. This is simply one of Mom’s phobias, one of the things we’ve grown use to living with her. She is terrified of mice, rats, large bugs, and a bunch of other things that scurry or crawl. We know that, and we’re willing to come to the rescue and help her out occasionally – heck, it gives us a chance to prove our masculinity by rescuing her from the horrible spider or mouse! We get to be the hero of the day when we remove such a creature from her presence.

Now picture the same story, but this time without a mouse. You might not know why the lady is standing on the chair with the knife. Obviously this is scary, but probably even more so for the lady, who is unable to tell you (at that point in time especially) what exactly is bothering her. She’s not rational, she’s waving a knife around, she’s screaming and hollering. Most people would be terrified – not of what she is scared of (since no one knows what it is), but rather of her. Is she going to jump down off that chair and stab the entire family? Is she going to hurt herself? Should we call the police? The ambulance? Is she off her medication?

Of course no one asked this about Mom. We saw the mouse, we understood what was frightening her, even if she wasn’t really ever in any danger.

A Real Danger

Too often, however, in such a situation, when it involves an autistic person, people assume that the autistic doesn’t have a reason for their actions – that they are simply irrationally violent and about to hurt someone. Often, rather than waiting for the person to naturally calm down (assuming they have a reliable communication system while calm), or examining the situation for possible stress, people assume irrationality in people who are different than them.

Yes, maybe the autistic person is terrified about something that truly isn’t dangerous – like our mouse. We do sometimes have fears that don’t make sense to everyone else. But so does Mom.

But, maybe, the reason we started screaming when we were told about how there would be no staff person to come by tomorrow, or that we would have to prove we still qualify for staff, is because we’re terrified of not having food to eat – of starving. I ask you: Which is more scary – a cute mouse or the prospect of starvation? Yet, Mom’s behavior is, well, expected, while the autistic who screams during a plan review session is acting inappropriately, even “violently”.

Sometimes I have a hard time understanding neurotypical behavior.

You Want to Take Away my Window

This is an old essay I put on my former website.  Ancient by some people’s standards – 2001!    A few words first:

Don’t be offended!

This is written “to” an imaginary person who represents those people who can’t accept me for who I am. I’m not targeting it at anyone in particular, nor non-autistics in general.

A window in a bedroom looking out to a grassy path

You Want to Take Away My Window

I am autistic. I’ve always been autistic, and I always will be autistic. Autism is part of who I am, just as my sense of humor and my emotions are part of me. I like who I am, even my autistic part.

You see, autism isn’t an awful condition. I’m not condemned to an “un-natural life.” Yet, I have lived a life with pain, fear, and confusion. Pain because of your cold heart. Fear because of my past, and because of my future in a your world, which can’t tolerate uniqueness. Confusion because of my ways of interpreting your world and because of the deceit, lies, and apathy in it.

But, I don’t just feel pain. I know great joy and peace. I wish I had words for what it is like inside these walls, where the noise of the outside world can’t destroy my peace. You can’t understand the joy I have in my quiet place, alone and far from the voices that would destroy, nor can I understand your world of noise and crowds. You probably can’t understand that I enjoy watching, not participating, in your world, nor can you understand why I laugh in response to an inner joy. But, that’s all-right with me.

I’m an observer, trying to understand your world. You may not know this, since you don’t even think I see you most of the time. But, I do see you. I might not be “looking” at you, but I’m watching you through the window of my house – through the corner of these eyes. I don’t want you to know, though. So, I peer through the blinds as you walk by.

As I watch you, I get confused. I’ve seen you say you hate someone. But, later, when that person approaches you, you tell him that you love him. Did I see something wrong? Did you change your mind? People tell me that I’m defective and broken for not doing the things you do, but I don’t understand how you can say things that you don’t believe deep inside. Have you forgotten where you store your thoughts? What drives you, since you don’t follow your inner beliefs? What gives you your purpose?

As I watch you, I wonder what life must be like for you. How can you tolerate a world without right or wrong, but only shades of gray? How do you know when your actions are wrong, if all actions are at least a little bit wrong and a little bit right? Is it painful for you to live in a world full of subtlety and without boundaries? My walls give me peace and comfort, as I know where my world ends and yours begins. But, you don’t have any walls around you. What keeps you grounded? I’ve been told that my thinking, because of my clear boundaries and rules, is both limited and deficient. Yet, these boundaries and rules are my walls. They hold my soul together. What keeps your soul in one piece?

I don’t see your skin color, beauty, or age. I always thought that everyone deserved to be treated kindly, justly, and lovingly. Yet, when I gaze outside my walls, through my window, I see your world which condemns some to a life of pain because of their race, appearance, or age. You told me as a child that I shouldn’t get near to anyone who was different than me – that I should stay with my people, and they should stay with theirs. Didn’t you realize that I am different from you, too? Can’t you see the inner beauty in someone that’s different on the outside?

Your world tells me that I’m wrong to enjoy my times alone, inside this house, with only my thoughts to speak to me. You tell me that I should surround myself with strange voices, to spare me of the “pain” that comes with thinking and quiet contemplation – that I should listen to some sort of noise to block out these pesky thoughts – perhaps the radio, TV, or maybe other voices – that I should tear down the walls of my house and let these thoughts and my thoughts mix. But, I ask, wouldn’t it destroy my value if I became one with these other voices?

When I gaze out my window, I wonder why you want to take away my joy. You claim that you want me to come out and play with you, to leave the “confines” of my house and enjoy your world. But, you want to destroy my house when I’m not looking. You want to take away my window. You see my quietness as a disease that needs to be cured; my joyful activities a pain to be eliminated; my innocent eyes a blindness to be treated.

Of course, you can’t know why my house is important. But don’t you know that I’d show you what my house is like, if only you would knock on the door?