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Jackie Schuld Art Therapy Blog

What It’s Like to Be Upset as an Autistic

“I just want to go home.”


I could hear my own tone. My words came out biting.


When I’m upset, some people have described me as “scary.” My facial expression scowls, I glare, and I say things with a very serious, stern tone.


I don’t intentionally do these things. It’s like my body and mind gets taken over when I’m upset.


What’s worse is that it’s also like I’m watching myself from outside myself. I can see that my emotional response is far greater than what the situation merits. I see that others are getting scared in the process. I am painfully aware of myself.


And yet, my ability to behave in the way I would like is very limited when I’m upset.


Autistic art therapist Jackie Schuld shares an illustration of an angry person waving their hands and another person covering their mouth
"When I'm Upset" Illustration by Jackie Schuld

When I’m upset, my sensory system becomes extremely sensitive. Little things that I typically wouldn’t notice, like how much someone hits the brakes at a stoplight, suddenly feel extreme. Little noises become loud and bothersome. My window of tolerance narrows.


Unfortunately, my window of tolerance for others also narrows. It’s like I’m suddenly more reactive to EVERYTHING. The slightest comments from others impact me.


When I’m upset, I know it’s best for me to be alone. (I even wrote an essay about it called Leave the Gremlin in the Cave). However, that’s not always possible. Sometimes I have to be out and about in the world.


In these moments, I wish I wouldn’t get so upset. I wish I had better control. It is usually these moments of self-frustration that I begin to spiral. My mind begins to fixate on how this ALWAYS happens to me. I then ruminate on how I ALWAYS end up “back here,” feeling horrible and not knowing how to get out.


In those moments, it’s like all logic is gone. I cannot remember how many good days I’ve had. I cannot remember all of the evidence that runs counter to my emotions. My emotional mind takes over and all hope is gone. I am a heaping, sobbing mess who WILL NEVER get better. I hate myself for being back in this place.


It usually takes a good night’s sleep and then some time processing the next day to return to my homeostasis again. For all of the hormones coursing through my body to be metabolized and for me to have access to my logical thinking brain again. To be able to look back on what happened and not feel the impact as strongly. To understand with more compassion what got me so upset. To know that I actually am learning to work with my brain better with time.


I wish I could somehow incept that into my mind when I’m upset. I wish there was some “deactivate” button so that I could calm myself and I wouldn't say hurtful things to others… or at least be able to communicate in an effective, neutral manner.


I was once in a therapy session with a client when my therapy dog, Egon, started barking. My suite neighbor had decided to move things into the office during the day, and Egon wasn’t used to anyone being there. I tried to reassure him, but he kept barking. It was jarring to me. It was disruptive to therapy.


As I kept trying to calm Egon, I kept getting more and more upset. I finally opened up the door and asked my neighbor if she could please wait to continue moving until I concluded my therapy session.


My suite neighbor was nice enough to stop. However, it took me a long time to internally calm back down. I later spoke with the suite neighbor, who timidly told me that I was pretty scary when I asked her to be quiet.


I didn’t mean to be that scary. It was like this irate part of me took over and all I wanted was some peace.


These moments can be incredibly embarrassing (for I wish I handled them better) and demoralizing (for it’s yet another time that I overreact). If I focus too much on those emotions, I can begin to spiral. I can begin to beat myself up. That is when things can get dark (which I write about in my essay My Autistic Mind Takes Detours).


What helps the most is if I can catch myself before I spiral into shame. If I can give myself some grace and say, ‘Well, of course I was upset” or understand that this is simply how my nervous system behaves.


That’s hard sometimes though. I once got upset at my partner for not turning early enough into a turning lane. The minute the words came out of my mouth I thought, “Jackie, what the hell?!”


Yes, I understand my autistic brain likes predictability and routine. I envision when is the right time to enter the turning lane and therefor expect everyone to do that too. So I understand why my autistic brain was upset in that moment.


However, I WISH I wasn’t upset in that moment. I wish I had simply held that comment in. Now, I had to deal with a partner who was hurt by my comment.


What’s worse is that I can then begin to perseverate on it. I amplify what happened in my head. I fixate on how I DON’T KNOW HOW TO GET BETTER. And I certainly don’t know how to repair with my partner in that moment.


That thought just adds to the overall level of stress, which only makes me even more upset and reactive. It’s a vicious cycle.


The best thing that can happen is for me to have some time to calm down. To be able to step back enough to regain my emotional composure. Then I can view the situation and make the reparations that I need to.


I admittedly don’t have a perfect strategy or solution. It’s like every scenario or experience requires something different. As a late-identified autistic, I didn’t get to learn or practice the most appropriate strategies for a neurodivergent mind. I spent a lifetime trying to jam myself into neurotypical expectations with a brain never designed to work like a neurotypical. So I also have a lifetime of shame-filled experiences. Shame is a natural place for my mind to go.


I don’t have all of the answers. How could I? But I do hope that I can somehow find an equilibrium between acceptance (that I will get upset), measurable improvement (through new strategies), and reduction in shame.


It means holding conflicting information at once - which is certainly not an autistic strength. I must accept how I am, but also know that I can learn new strategies that can help. I want to actively try new strategies, and also release shame for how I currently am.


I think it’s possible, and it becomes more possible as I tease these things out in my essays and name them. Then my head can wrap itself around them and slowly get to the peace I’m yearning for.

 

Thank you for reading. If you’d like to read more, sign up for my FUNletter. If you would like to explore your autistic identity with an autistic therapist, you can learn more about my therapy services here.

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