Why Being Confused Is Absolutely Panic-Inducing for Most Autistics6 min read

I’ve been doing a video series on YouTube for the past six months called, “Why Autistic People Do That”, and it has been one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever worked on.  The series happened quite by accident because of (yet another) breakup of a short-term relationship that got me thinking, “I really need to explain, in detail, how autistic brains work because this whole communication gap is a serious problem!”

I’ve received wonderful comments on the series, and I feel I’m helping a lot of people.  Being able to turn my experiences into tangible, helpful content means everything to me.  It’s literally the reason I came to this planet!

My latest video explained why many autistic people get anxious when they become confused.  It got me thinking a lot about where the root cause of that anxiety comes from, which lead me to thinking about meltdowns and why they occur and the extremely unfortunate way society has of teaching anything to its younger people, regardless of neurotype. 

So, why do so many autistic people immediately panic when they become confused?  Allow me to explain. 

A Word About Meltdowns

The most common belief among those who are not autistic is that meltdowns are just an inevitable part of the “package” that is autism.

Well, I disagree. 

It’s a bit more complicated than that.  Yes, people on the spectrum have meltdowns.  This happens when we are completely overwhelmed by sensory stimulation, and an explosion of emotional response occurs in reaction to it. 

Now, they are not inevitable.  However, they are virtually inevitable for an autistic person living in a neuroptypical world whose neurotype is not understood by those around them

Stop Kicking My Chair!”

Do you remember sitting in class trying to pay attention when the jerk kid behind you kept kicking your chair over and over and over again until you finally snapped?  Who got in trouble?  You did, of course!  You were sent to the principal’s office for “flying off the handle” while the bully was left smug and smiling at his desk. 

Now, think about how irritating that was.  This snarky kid kicks your chair, you tell him where to go, you get in trouble.  That type of repeated stimulation would bother just about anyone, regardless of neurotype. 

Basically, for an autistic person living in a neurotypical world, our “chairs” are being kicked all the time!  We are constantly receiving unwanted and uncomfortable stimulation from the neurotypical world.  Eventually, we can’t take it anymore, and our emotions spill outward into a meltdown.  And, what happens?  We get in trouble for it!

If the kid kicking the chair wasn’t back there being a jerk in the first place, there never would have been an emotional outburst.  Same with the overwhelming stimulation of the NT world. 

Confusion = Anxiety

So, here we are, in an overstimulating world that’s already driving us to distraction, and we’re trying to add learning on top of that.  Yikes!  That’s like trying to memorize multiplication tables while running away from a dinosaur whose sole purpose is to tear you apart limb from limb.  Learning and the fight-or-flight response do not go well together!

As a child, I had a love-hate relationship with learning.  If I could learn something easily, I was all about it and happy to explore it on my own.  However, if somebody was trying to teach me something (especially stuff my brain hated like math, board games, card games, any kind of game that involved multiple steps and coordination), it was torment. 

First, the person would show me, then I would do it wrong.  Then, they would show me again, and I would do it wrong.  Then, they would get frustrated and explain it again, a bit louder this time.  I still didn’t get it, and I would say so.  That’s when the real kick to the gut came.  They didn’t believe me when I said I was confused!

Then, depending on the person, they would either walk away in a huff, be verbally abusive, be physically abusive, or just dismiss me altogether.  This means I learned very early on in life that asking clarifying questions was unacceptable and that being confused put me in danger

Learning Through Fear and Intimidation Is Not Learning at All

This brings me to my next and final point.  In my opinion, our society has a very skewed way of teaching.  Our school systems largely teach one way and one way only. 

Children are forced to memorize facts and figures and pass tests, and there’s not much allowing for creative or out-of-the-box thinking.  As a matter of fact, that type of thinking is usually punished in some way, even if that punishment is not direct or aggressive.  (Think dirty looks, being left out of things, etc.)

Studies have proven time and time again that human beings, regardless of neurotype, do not all learn the same way.  Some of us are visual learners, some auditory learners, reading and writing learners, or kinesthetic (hands-on) learners. 

For the autistic person, there may be additional ways of learning that they have designed for themselves to compensate for any learning difficulties they’ve encountered in life.  If these ways of learning are not respected, communication very quickly breaks down on both sides. 

Example: I had a job at an insurance company once, and I took the official handbook and made visual diagrams in my own “language,” so I could understand what I was doing and be productive.  New regulations came into effect and my notebook was taken from me because it was against guidelines. 

My productivity tanked, and if the company hadn’t closed down, I probably would have been fired.  Taking that notebook from me was like somebody had thrown out a book in Braille for a blind person and told them they had to read the guidebook in written letters!

Furthermore, trying to teach an autistic person just one way and then becoming angry and frustrated and accusatory when the person doesn’t understand not only completely negates learning, it makes learning a fearful experience

The Post-Traumatic Stress Connection

I have PTSD for various reasons, including lifelong, systematic abuse.  However, I am 100% certain that part of my PTSD comes from being mistreated as a direct result of my confusion and inability to learn the way I was taught

I can very clearly remember a time in second grade, going up to the blackboard to do a math problem (which I had no idea how to do), writing some nonsense on the board, and then seeing the teacher’s face slowly contort with rage before she shrieked, “You need to go back to Kindergarten!”

That image is seared into my brain.  I was never able to learn any type of math without incredible anxiety ever again, and it’s ultimately why I dropped out of college many years ago and stopped tormenting myself to get a degree. 

To summarize, confusion is real.  The thing is, there’s no reason for it to be terrifying.  In and of itself, confusion is not scary, but when it’s coupled with the certainty that one will be looked down on, verbally abused, or ostracized due to their confusion, it can cause instant anxiety, a shutdown, and even a meltdown. 

Learning is not taking place.  There is only fear and the desperate hope to escape the situation as soon as possible. 

So, if you know somebody on the spectrum who becomes immediately anxious, defensive, or angry when they are confused, they were most likely tormented because of their inability to learn the way they were taught. 

Please believe us when we tell you we don’t understand something.  If the way you’re teaching isn’t working, don’t continue to repeat yourself in an increasingly intimidating manner.  Change your tactic. 

If you feel you can’t teach someone on the spectrum (or anyone, for that matter) in a calm and collected manner, don’t teach them.  Find someone else who may be able to take a different approach. 

Learning should not be a fearful experience.  However, since it was for most of us growing up, please understand our responses.  There really is a bully kicking our chair, and he’s been there the whole time.  You just haven’t been able to see him until now. 

Jaime A. Heidel - The Articulate Autistic

Hello, I'm Jaime A. Heidel, The Articulate Autistic. I was diagnosed on the autism spectrum in 2015, at the age of 35. In addition to being on the spectrum, I also have OCD and PTSD. I am VERY grateful that the Aspergian team invited me to join this amazing group of neurodiverse people from all walks of life. In addition to writing, I also have a YouTube video series called "Why Autistic People Do That", so feel free to check it out! Also, I'm a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and I identify as a queer femme.
Buy Me a Coffee

24 Comments

  1. I have meltdowns almost every time I get confused.  I just figured out I was ya omg a meltdown because I thought they were anxiety attacks but I would never have a raised heartbeat.  I would just need to stop it all or cry.  In fact I almost did it tonight.  Raising toddler with sensory sensitivities and no nap. 

    Anyways—I can say I will never be mean or judgmental to someone asks me to help clarify their confusion.  I always ask questions in their pürierst form: a question.  Simply to obtain an answer.  So if anyone needs it…bounce them off me 😉

    And I’m sorry an insurance company treated you like that.  I work for an insurance company and I know they’d support helping someone learn in any method.  As long as the information was getting communicated correctly to the customers.

  2. Confusion locks me up and I get sooo frustrated because I tend be a very methodical person A leads to B leads to C but if I don’t know HOW to start etc I feel lost and I get angry.  I get angry because I feel like I SHOULD be able to figure this out.  I get angry because others are oblivious to how lost and confusing a situation might be and only think about themselves, not how they can better meet EVERYONE’s needs.  Most people just respond, well just ask someone.  But hey, I’ve got social anxiety too and I can’t just walk up to someone and admit I have NO IDEA what is happening because yeah, I spent most of my school years being mocked for asking questions, being curious, or thinking differently.

  3. Have to fill out a forms to get help to fill out forms…..My darling son gets yelled at, at school.  Gets his belongings snatched away from him and work rubbed out on his small whiteboard…..then gets suspended because he swore at a teacher.

    1. Author

      That is so f*cked up!!

  4. Thank you for this article it brought a tear to my eye.  I never knew why getting confused (a lot) caused me to panic, get angry and defensive.  I am 58 and an undiagnosed autistic.  This article reflects my very painful schooling.
    Regards
    Paul

    1. Author

      You’re welcome.  I’m sorry it brought back some bad memories.  I understand. 

      1. Please don’t be sorry.  They were sort of happy tears.  I think I need to face those memories to start dealing with it, because those b***ards have screwed up my relationships, and didn’t realise what or why this was happening.  I feel like I’m being attacked all the time, but hey, it’s time to change 😊

        1. Great Attitude Paul, wish I could have that up beat look on things from my up bringing and schooling.  I have gone to counseling in the past guess another round is in order for me.  🙂

  5. On the other hand, I’ve had several (NT) people tell me I was best instructor they ever had, because I was very patient when they were struggling to understand and I would keep trying to find different/creative ways to explain something until they got it. 

    Almost like I can *empathize* with someone’s confusion!  (haha)

    1. I would say I do that too.  Because I know how frustrating confusion is and other emotions that surround it, I work SO HARD as a teacher to find a way to reach them and have them be successful!

      1. This brought tears to my eyes, so very validating!  I will often say “I’m scared”, “that scares me,” “I’m afraid,” or “stop trying to scare me,” and I general am told (especially by my mother) “You don’t feel scared, use a different word to explain how you really feel” because I am already frustrated and overwhelmed this often leads to a meltdown or shutdown.  As long as I can remember, for sure since kindergarten, I was always humiliated for asking clarifying questions or for something to be explained in a different way.  Because I was considered ‘gifted’ in elementary school I was expected to understand everything immediately.  This has had significant and long term effects on my self esteem.  My academic success also caused a delay in getting an autism diagnosis, even though I showed symptoms from infancy (according to my mother).  Teachers have limited my ability to ask questions to only 3 per class and my understanding has suffered.  I don’t ask questions for fun or to waste time, if I’m asking I need an answer to comprehend what you’re trying to teach me.  I have been trying to articulate how fear and frustration have become linked in my brain wiring for years.  Thanks for writing this.  This is what I have been wanting to say, but been unable to articulate.

        1. Author

          I’m so glad you found this article helpful.  🙂

  6. You’ve articulated this so well!!  I wish I had this article to give to parents and especially teachers when I was a behavior specialist and mobile therapist!  I felt like I was on auto play just repeating over and over that so many things they ascribed intent to was not intentional!  Why would a kid purposefully and consistently do things to upset you just to get publicly shamed in front of their peers?!  I was a pit bull and fought for the kids but it honestly didn’t seem to matter.  Bad teachers and bad administrators will never accept that they’ve got it wrong..  I wish the world was more gentle with our kids, NT or not, you should never have been scared to ask your questions.

  7. This explains a lot.

    I dont remember having many total meltdowns, but this does explain a lot.

    Will be adding this blog to my bookmarks.

  8. I’m currently undergoing yet another investigatory meeting at work for issues between my boss and I and how I work etc…the mistakes I’ve made and the inability to learn new things while being critisized, belittled and berated every day by the new boss. 

    She says for me NOT to be afraid to ask questions when I admited I’ve been afraid my whole life to ask for help, yet everytime I ask for clarification on something to prevent me from making a mistake I’m met with hostility and a constant wall of “we’ve spoke about this already, how do you not understand’ with ever increasing harsh vocals.

    I’m undiagnosed Autistic (though currently on the waiting list for tests) but i was told i had ADHD from and early age.

    This article speaks to me on so many levels and I’m seriously considering giving this to the person who’s heading the investigation as a way of helping them understand my perspective.

    Thanks for this.

    1. Author

      You’re so very welcome.  I’m glad you found it helpful. 

  9. Wow.  Thank you for that.  O feel better about myself now that I can explain me to people ..  aloha

  10. I don’t have a YouTube account, so I want to tell you this way that yours is such a gem!  You have an awesome style of explaining certain attitudes/behaviours with metaphors <3 Thank you for all the enlightening content you create!

    1. Author

      Thank you so much, Alice!  I appreciate it.  🙂

  11. Thanks for this, Jaime.  My oldest is on the spectrum, and linking confusion to anxiety and panic resonated with me.  It fits for NT folks, too, of course, which is one of the many things I’ve learned being his dad.

    1. Author

      I’m glad you found it helpful.  Thanks for your comment.  🙂

  12. Jaime!!  Thank you.  Great analogy, about someone kicking your chair.  Makes total sense.  Sorry you went through all of that in the past.  WTH is wrong with people.

    1. Author

      I know.  People can be terribly cruel. 

Talk to us... what are you thinking?