January 21, 2021

Autism processing delay

By rosieweldon

Taking longer to process verbal communication is a part of my autistic life. It can take me a couple of seconds, or more, to figure out what someone has said and understand what they mean. This is why people (especially new people) are often met by my blank stares.

But, until recently, I hadn’t really thought about other types of processing delay that occur in my life. Autism means my brain is wired differently to others and the way in which I take in information and understand it can be different, and of course delayed. But this isn’t always external information. There is often significant delays in how I process my own emotions.

Last week I wrote about how I reached tipping point after pushing myself to eat tea at the dinner table with my partner and her family. I had previously managed to do this and no longer saw it as a big deal. However, that day many factors built towards me reaching overload and having to leave the table and retreat upstairs to cry out the overload. After my partner supported me through the aftermath, she asked why I didn’t leave the table and eat upstairs when I started struggling. I said that I didn’t know I was struggling until it was too late.

This is often the case with things I go up against. I think people sometimes think I am trying to take on the weight of the world by drilling through, but the truth is I just don’t always know the price I am paying in real time. I can often hit meltdown, overload or shutdown and have no idea in the moment what has caused it. It takes me to get through it, calm down, then look back and understand what built to that moment.

Real-time processing is something most people take for granted and something I am realising many autistic people do not have. Whether it’s processing your words as you talk to us, or our own emotions as we experience something, there is often a delay. I can sometimes get to the point of crying and not understand why until after the situation has passed.

What is most interesting to share with those of you supporting autistic people is that my partner does have real-time processing. She knows me well enough to see the signs as I am struggling with something. After I explained that I didn’t know I was struggling she was surprised, as she said she could see I was struggling more so than most nights I eat tea.

This means that if I trust in my partners interpretation of my situation (which I do) that I can act upon her own real-time processing ability. If she can see when I am struggling and I can take myself away from the situation, then it could avoid situations like overload and meltdown.

If you are close to an autistic person it is important to be conscious of their stims (physical repetitive actions we do that tie to our emotions), general body language and any signs that might show they are struggling. If you think they are, then gently encourage them to take a break from the situation or offer some support to help them. Workers in an office could take scheduled breaks to ensure they are getting respite from the environment before they reach tipping point. Children that get back from school can have quiet time before they show signs of meltdown.

I think many of the meltdowns and overloads I experience would have been avoided had I of been aware at the time I was pushing myself too far. If I had got up and sought quiet from a manic office before it tipped to overload.

At the point we show signs of distress it is often too late to stop the spiralling consequences.

Found this blog helpful? You can support my writing and say thanks by buying me a coffee 🙂