In several of my recent presentations there's been a theme in the questioning about fear. Fear, and anxiety, are both things those on the spectrum face and for those not on the spectrum it can be hard to understand what causes fear and what it feels like. I had an unique situation happen a couple days ago at breakfast that is a perfect illustration of just how fast a normal situation can become tense.
I was at a restaurant and I had just ordered so I went onto my phone to check e-mails and Facebook. Another reason I always do this when dining alone is to try and minimize my world. It doesn't work the way I'd like, but I do have to do something to tune out the world because I am hearing everything. While I was trying to minimize hearing everything I heard something from behind the counter in a very tense voice, "Dang it! This is dirty, Stephen!" and after that the sound of a slamming plate. What wasn't picked up by most people, or if it was it went unnoticed, sent my body into a severe state of defense.
It seems that a lot of us on the autism spectrum are barometers to our environment. It's odd because, often times, we don't pick up on social cues but if there is any hint of tension in the air we feel it and at this breakfast I was feeling it. What did it feel like? There were several layers to it and the first was just a sense of panic. From this panic breathing became difficult as I felt as if my body were trying to hide; to be smaller and smaller to avoid the ensuing chaos my body was sure that was going to happen. And that brings up a good point, from that tension my body was preparing for the worst. What's the worst? From that minor verbal spat my body was preparing for an all out brawl or firefight.
As with many things, my brain has no middle ground; it's either all is good or the end of the world and when there is a verbal altercation like the one I heard my body goes into red alert mode. Perhaps the reason why is to compensate for the fact that I have a hard time knowing the emotions of others so for protection my body has to overreact to the world around me to protect itself. I'm not sure but a few seconds after the clattering of the plates I finally looked up and it was a surreal feeling for me. Here I was, practically shaking, and the world around me was going on unchanged. I was dealing with an immense fear and ready for the worst and in front of me an elderly couple was enjoying their coffee, the family to my right was having a fun time trying to feed a baby, and a waitress was taking an order from a young couple. It was a normal scene, on a normal day, in a normal place but what I was feeling was anything but normal.
My food came out and I finished the food in record time as I wanted out of there. I became exhausted after the event as my body slowly, and I stress slowly, came back to a state or normality. Several hours later, and even now actually, as I think about it I'm amazed at that scene described at the end of that last paragraph. I wish it was something that those not on the spectrum could experience because it was a fear that was isolated. I don't know if anyone else even heard the person getting yelled at much less to have a reaction to it.
There are moments I love my hyper-sensitivity to my environment, but at the same time there are moments, like this, that it's a supreme challenge. Speaking of challenge, I want to challenge you this weekend. When you're out this weekend, if you go out to a park, or a place to eat, or anywhere for that matter, just listen to the world around you. Try and become sensitive to your surroundings and if you hear a conversation across the way getting tense, just imagine that a person on the spectrum, if they heard that, might just be going into a state I experienced at breakfast the other day.