by Anne Corwin
Pro tip: it’s fine to want to understand your autistic friends’ sensory issues, etc., but please don’t frame it as a “Gotcha.”
A “gotcha,” at least as I define it, is when someone tells you they can’t do a thing (or can only do a thing with difficulty), and upon seeing them:
(a) do the thing in a very specific context, or
(b) do a thing that looks similar/related to the difficult thing, you ‘call them out,’ e.g.:
“I find it interesting that you say you’re sensitive to sounds, but you seemed fine going to that concert.”
“Wow, you did [difficult thing]! Maybe it’s just your anxiety holding you back and you just need to get out of your comfort zone more?”
“See? [Thing] isn’t a big deal, you just need to believe in yourself!”
Even if you don’t intend to be patronizing or disrespectful, be prepared for us to get a little defensive even if you’re just asking in complete earnest for us to explain why we can’t manage a noisy restaurant one night but can deal with a concert the next. Or if you genuinely believe you’re being encouraging and supportive.
Sometimes, we have to “save up” sensory tolerance reserves in order to do a thing we WANT badly to do, but typically can’t (and certainly can’t do repeatedly).
Other times, there are differences in situations we can and can’t deal with that aren’t immediately obvious to others who don’t share our neurology.
I can listen to loud music of my own choosing through headphones just fine, but that doesn’t mean I can think, talk, or function at a meaningful level in an environment where there are multiple people talking AND music is playing in the background. Or one where I can hear/feel neighbors' music from inside my own house.
I’m not “inconsistent” or a hypocrite just because others can’t immediately grasp what’s different about these situations.
Noise I don’t have any control over is a lot different from noise I can turn off, down, up, etc., as needed. Plus, thumping through the wall often blends badly with (for instance) the audio from a tv show I am trying to watch at a normal, low volume indoors. There’s both an “I’m at the mercy of this” effect and an aggregate effect of compounded inputs.
A lot of us who experience sensory/perceptual/cognitive processing issues are used to both being unable to explain what’s going on (I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain my own experiences in this regard until adulthood) and having our experiences invalidated (eg, we are assumed to be just trying to get out of an obligation, or making things up for attention, etc.).
This is why we might hesitate or get flustered if you ask us, no matter how innocently, why we can do X but not Y, or why we can’t do X today even if they saw us do it in a particular circumstance last week.
So while you are welcome to ask, please ask from a mindset of respect and give us the benefit of the doubt that we know our brain and sensory system better than you do. After, all, we are the ones living with these things.
We are working harder than you will probably ever know to get by every day, and the fact that you can’t perceive this doesn’t mean we need to be “pushed a little to reach our potential.” To assume such a thing is patronizing. We will let you know if we want a push. Please trust us to know this about ourselves better than you do.