Why Living in a World Made for Neurotypicals Makes Autistic Individuals Feel Overwhelmed, Worthless, and Hopeless

by | Nov 21, 2022 | Autism, Equity, Neurodiversity

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The way we do everything in our society – how we socialize, how we work, how we learn, and how we are expected to react to our environment – is based on how the neurotypical (NT) brain functions.

We know that most NT people have no major problems with making eye contact, participating in small talk, or understanding other peoples’ emotions, and that they don’t get overwhelmed by their environments, but autistics and other neurodivergent (ND) people often experience challenges when it comes to functioning in our complex world, making each work or school day harder than it is for their NT counterparts.

Overwhelm, Meltdowns and Shutdowns

Feeling overwhelmed by what’s happening around them is something that autistic teens and adults have to worry about at school or in the workplace. Several factors can lead to different types of overwhelm – sensory overload, emotional overwhelm, cognitive or mental overwhelm, and social overwhelm. Being overwhelmed can lead to shutdowns and meltdowns. 

While the terms ‘shutdown’ and ‘meltdown’ are often used interchangeably, they are different. An autistic person is experiencing a meltdown when their environment becomes too much for them and leads to a loss of control – either mentally or physically.

Just like autistic adults, autistic children are experiencing a range of intense emotions and physical sensations during a meltdown, but they can’t always express what they’re feeling, so it often appears to be a ‘temper tantrum.’ Older autistics can usually understand and express what they’re feeling, and report emotions like anger, fear and anxiety, and physical sensations like stomach pain and a feeling of pressure on the chest.

Someone experiencing a shutdown, on the other hand, will often be quieter, more distant and withdrawn, and sometimes even emotionally cut off from what’s going on around them. A shutdown often follows a meltdown, so they might sometimes be a result of feeling emotionally and physically exhausted from the meltdown.

Eva Silvertant, co-founder of Embrace Autism, describes the feeling of a shutdown as:

“…a numbness both of the mind and the body. I feel a strange mix of apathy and contentedness. I guess because a lack of emotionality feels like quite a relief after a meltdown. I don’t wish to be apathetic generally, but after emotional overwhelm, not experiencing much in terms of emotions feels very welcome.”

5 Reasons our World is So Difficult for Autistic Individuals

1. Sensory Overload

A common type of autistic overwhelm is sensory overload. Many autistic people have sensitivities to sensory sensations like light, sound, texture, smells, and tastes. Something that might be a minor inconvenience to a NT person, like bright or flickering fluorescent lights, a fire alarm, or a strong perfume or cologne on a colleague or classmate can lead to sensory overload in an autistic individual. 

2. Impaired Processing Speeds

Many autistic individuals have impaired processing speeds. 

Psychologist, teacher, and researcher Dr. Ellen Braaten, describes the impairment in the following way:

Processing speed involves one or more of the following functions: the amount of time it takes to perceive information (this can be through any of the senses, but usually through the visual and auditory channels), process information and/or formulate or enact a response.”

Autism is often associated with intellectual disability (ID), but 70% of autistic people have IQs in the average or above-average range. For years, ND children who were experiencing slower processing speeds were diagnosed with ID. By simply giving autistic individuals a little more time, we can allow them to perform their best.

3. Expected Social Behavior

A common symptom of autism is impaired communication skills, including socializing with others. Autistic brains have trouble using episodic memory – a type of long-term memory that involves the conscious recollection of previous experiences together with their context in terms of time, place, associated emotions, etc. This means that autistics often struggle with recalling their past experiences and understanding how those past experiences relate to what’s happening to them in the present.

Jessica Flynn, a writer, disability advocate and autistic young adult, says:

“I love talking to people and making friends. But that doesn’t mean it’s not very challenging until I’m completely comfortable with you. My mind scripts everything I’m going to say, I rehearse and collect conversation starters, questions and ideas in my mind like a billion and one cue cards.”

Other symptoms that may lead to difficulties with socialization at school or in the workplace include:

  • Challenges taking turns in a conversation
  • Monopolizing conversation with one’s own interests or thoughts
  • Difficulty making interpersonal connections
  • Hyperfocus on a specific topic or interest
  • Difficulties with eye contact and body language
  • Not “picking up” on body language and facial cues of others
  • Literal interpretation of language
  • Inability to “see” the perspective of others
  • Misperception of language or social situations
  • Challenges with adjusting behaviors to match different social contexts
  • Socially awkward, not “fitting in” with any social circles
  • Challenges with accepting feedback or corrections
  • Lack of motivation to engage with others

These differences in socialization can mean more than just difficulties making friends. Not knowing how to socialize the way neurotypicals do means that many neurodivergent teens and adults struggle with important conversations at school or at work. An autistic employee might offend or give off the wrong impression. Many autistic adults struggle with finding or keeping a job – up to 75% of them are unemployed or underemployed – and it’s easy to see why.

Autistic students are also impacted by socialization expectations. Teachers may misinterpret social communication challenges as behavioral problems or as an intellectual or learning disability.

4. Impaired Executive Dysfunction

Executive function skills are the “mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.” Some sources say that up to 80% of autistic people suffer from executive function disorder, and when they enter school and the workforce, they face special challenges caused by executive dysfunction. They may have difficulties with time management, beginning or finishing tasks, meeting deadlines and other skills that contribute to success at work and in school.

5. Changes in Routine

Many autistic individuals struggle with changes to their routines or other unexpected changes, even small ones, which can trigger feelings of anxiety and can sometimes lead to a meltdown. While some autistic people follow strict schedules and have unpleasant emotional and physical reactions when they get derailed, others may have different problems, or no problems at all, with schedule changes. 

Jessica Flynn’s idea of a disrupted routine is a little different than a simple schedule change. She says:

“I don’t need to do the same thing every day at the same time. But if I am told something is happening at a certain time, my brain is going to fixate on that time. So if that time magically comes and the thing I was supposed to be doing is no longer happening, taking longer than expected, or the worst, canceled…I am going to get aggravated. Because this thing I’ve been focusing on for days or weeks…Now it’s changed and my brain cannot wrap itself around that concept.”

The Impact on Autistic People Trying to Succeed in Our Neurotypical World

Despite the fact that we know more about autism and neurodivergence than ever, the NT population overall isn’t adapting for the ND population. While more schools and employers are making accommodations for ND individuals, many aren’t proactive about offering accommodations, and many ND people are hesitant to ask for them, due to worries about the stigma surrounding autism or the discrimination they may face.

This is especially true for adults in the workforce, who may worry that they will be perceived as less competent or capable than their NT colleagues. 

Because of this, many autistics choose to do (or unconsciously do) what’s called masking, or camouflaging – they hide their true behaviors and personality and adhere to expected NT societal norms in an attempt to ‘fit in.’

Constantly hiding who they really are and trying to understand, assimilate into, and succeed in the neurotypical world can make autistic individuals feel overwhelmed, worthless, and hopeless. As a result, autistics often experience depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions.

Christine M. Condo, autistic writer and neurodiversity advocate, compares navigating the NT world as an autistic to “being in a foreign country and only knowing a smattering of the language, and having to concentrate all your energy on suppressing yourself and your natural instincts so you can move in it, can hear and see it the way the natives do, can respond to them in ways they understand.”

How We Can Help

We can all help to improve the understanding of and reduce the stigma associated with neurodivergence. A few ways we can make a big difference include:

Making Accommodations

If you’re an employer, human resources professional, teacher, or even just an employee, student or member of an organization, start the conversation about accommodations for the ND population.

Some accommodations that can help both autistic employees and students to succeed include:

  • Noise-canceling headphones
  • Short breaks throughout the day
  • Dim lighting
  • Seating away from foot traffic to limit background noise
  • Extra time during meetings or class to process information

Most importantly, if you are in a leadership position, work to cultivate an open and honest environment that focuses on acceptance and diversity, and that encourages ND people (and others) to come forward and ask for any accommodations they may need.

Educating Ourselves and Others

There is still a widespread belief that because someone is autistic, they must automatically be very logical and emotionless, have an intellectual disability (ID), or be nonverbal, but, in reality, autism is a spectrum – everyone experiences it differently. 

Dr. Rachel Craddock, an engineer and leader of the Thales Neurodiversity Group in the UK, is passionate about the importance of humanizing neurodivergence. She says that one misconception people have about ND people is that they’re all the same, but that being neurodiverse in society affects each individual differently. 

About the different experiences autistic people can have, she says, 

“Someone like me, can work, can drive and survive ok in society. It’s certainly not easy, but I manage through a lot of hard work and effort. However, there are people who need 24-hour care and then there’s everything in between.” 

Understanding that ‘autistic’ doesn’t mean one single thing is the first thing we need to know, and to let others know. 

Another thing that’s important to know is that while there are neurological differences that are going to make autistic people a bit different from the NT population in the ways they see, experience and react to the world, they are, for the most part, like everyone else – they have ideas, interests, feelings, and goals. 

Another common misconception is that ND people are mentally ill. Neurodiversity is not a mental health condition, but, just like NT people, ND people can suffer from mental health conditions. In fact, depression and anxiety are more common in the ND population. Dr. Craddock refers to this reality as “the result of trying to live in a society that doesn’t understand us or accommodate us well.”

Accepting ND Individuals For Who They Are

Life can certainly be challenging for ND individuals, but most are vocal about wanting their neurodivergence to be accepted, not changed. While ND people can do their part by trying to improve the life skills they may be lacking, it’s ultimately up to us, as a society, to meet them halfway and make changes on our end, too. 

On ‘curing’ autism, Dr. Craddock says:

“People also ask ‘can we cure it?’ If you cure it, you change me. You would have rewired my brain and I won’t be me anymore. A cure is society taking the easy way out, and getting everyone to conform, rather than putting in a bit of effort to accept everyone’s differences. I like being neurodiverse and being me. I don’t like feeling excluded by society and having to put in all the work to survive in a neurotypical world.”

Our world is built for neurotypical people, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Over time, social change has led to important long-term consequences for society. Relationships, institutions, and cultural norms have changed in response to social movements that have focused on human rights, like civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ+ rights.

We can do the same for autistics and other neurodivergent people, by recognizing their unique experiences and needs, doing our part in making the world easier for them, and accepting them for who they are.

About neurodivergence acceptance, Christine M. Condo says:

“We work so hard for everyone else. All we want is for those around us to reciprocate a tiny bit, set aside their assumptions, be open to the idea that they don’t already know who or what we are, make a choice to treat us with respect no matter what we look [like] or seem to be. It shouldn’t be too much to ask.”

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