I’m going to lead with a quote from Jim Sinclair and discuss it:
Most autistic people who are capable of formulating questions have frequently experienced the following scenario: We ask for information that we need in order to prepare ourselves for a new experience. Instead of answering our questions, NT people tell us that we don’t need to ask these questions at all. We just need to relax and stop being so anxious. The fact is that being able to ask questions, and getting clear answers to our questions, and thus knowing what to expect, are often the very things autistic people need in order to be able to relax and not be anxious. Asking a lot of questions about the details of a situation is usually not a “maladaptive behavior” that increases an autistic person’s anxiety. More often it’s an adaptive strategy that an autistic person is using to reduce anxiety or to prevent being in an anxiety-provoking situation in the first place. It’s very important for us to have thorough explanations and ample opportunities to ask questions.
Jim Sinclair, Cultural Commentary: Being Autistic Together
So first off be aware this quote is from a specific context. It’s an extremely long article on specific experiences of autistic people’s self-created communities and cultural values. So if your first impulse is to think “But it’s not only autistic people who’d encounter this,” you’d be totally right. But you’d also be missing the fact that it’s quoted out of context from an article that is about autistic people, so it’s gonna mention autistic people explicitly. Just like an article by and about transgendered people is gonna mention transgendered people explicitly. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply to anyone else in the world.
Anyway, I mostly agree with Jim. My only disagreement is the role xe puts on anxiety in the first place, when I often encounter this in situations where anxiety is not even a factor. When it is a factor, it works exactly how xe says it works. But it’s not always a part of things in the first place, and then people just drag anxiety into it as if you must be anxious because they think you are.
Example of something that had absolutely nothing to do with anxiety:
I go into the emergency room around 8:30 pm one night to be seen for cellulitis. I’ve been told (I later find it’s untrue) that I’m not allowed to bring meds from home to the ER. I know that I’m likely to still be there at 11 pm, when I am due a dose of hydrocortisone that is extremely time-sensitive: I can’t survive without hydrocortisone and my body makes absolutely no cortisol. I know that this hospital doesn’t have liquid hydrocortisone that can go through a J-tube,and that the pharmacy has to make a suspension by hand, and that this takes time. So I know they’re gonna need advance notice if I’m going to get this medication on time.
So after describing the infection, I mention to the triage nurse that this is gonna be a serious issue if the med gets missed or delayed, so they probably want to prepare for the situation in advance. I ask if this is something they can do and be aware of so I’ll actually get the meds. I’m doing this in front of an on-call staff person who doesn’t really know me that well.
The on-call staff person immediately starts all the crap they’re taught about calming me down, redirecting me, making sure I don’t have any anxiety, and telling me not to think about the hydrocortisone. I get pissed off and tell him it’s important. He tries to “de-escalate” me. It goes round and round and round.
The time gets nearer, and I am now back in an ER room, it’s approaching 11. So I’m without information about whether they’re working on this, and want to make sure it’s actually happening. So when the doctors and nurses are back there I’m talking to them about it.
And the staff person is saying it’s not eleven yet so I need to stop ‘worrying’ (preparing people in advance for something that needs to be on time and takes time to do, especially in a busy emergency room when I’m not there for adrenal insufficiency) until it’s actually eleven at which point we can address this.
And any time I seem annoyed with him, or concerned, or even try to discuss the matter, he says it’s anxiety and I just need to calm down and not think about it and everything will work out fine.
Everything did work out fine, but only because I did prepare them in advance, so they had time to write the orders and get the suspension manufactured in their pharmacy and delivered to them by eleven.
I also learned you are allowed to bring meds into the ER, that night.
But anyway, that’s a good example of where there was no anxiety at all involved. I was not trying to alleviate anxiety by giving information and asking questions, I was trying to get something practical done that required advance planning.
I might have ended up anxious if there were signs they weren’t listening to me. But in that case calming down wouldn’t have been relevant, what would’ve been relevant would be finding effective ways to advocate for what I needed. Which generally requires talking about something, not pretending it’s all gonna be okay.
Doing what the staff person said in that situation wouldn’t have just been anxiety-provoking, it would’ve been physically dangerous to me.
Often the information I am asking for, when I ask questions, is a similar situation: I need the information in order to make an informed decision about something important. Other people may not know why I need that particular information, but I need that information. Without the information, I can’t make the decisions I need to make. And the decisions may be, and often are, important medical decisions.
And I’m often deliberately left in the dark. People give me as little information as possible. And when I ask for information, it’s treated as an emotional issue: Frustration, anxiety, pushiness, stubbornness, whatever. When if you just give me the information, I generally know what to do. And people are always trying to fix my emotions (as if they need fixing) instead of just giving me the information I need.
Quite often, anxiety won’t even arise until you withhold information from me. And then anxiety is just the by-product of a situation that will go away once I have the information. But even so, I’m not usually asking questions to make anxiety go away — even if it does make anxiety go away to get the answers. I’m asking questions to get information that I need for a practical purpose. Anxiety, if it happens, or goes away, is just a by-product of the situation, not the focus of the situation.
There is no faster way to cause me some combination of anxiety, anger, rage, fury, and frustration, though, than to try to fix my emotions rather than try to give me information. This goes double if you try to fix them by manipulation that you think is subtle. It’s not. I know what redirection is. I know what it means when you accuse me of ‘escalating’ — as if you have no part in making the situation worse. I know what all of your jargon is and what you have been taught to do about ‘situations’ like this one.
And the best possible thing you can do is give me all the information I need, including information I don’t have access to, or assist me in obtaining the information I need, as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Be on my side, don’t sit there trying to calm me down. And certainly don’t tell me to take a deep breath and calm down, focus on something else, watch television with you, or some other random crap.
And by the way, the respectful way to approach a discussion about whether I have anxiety I want calming down from, is to ask. And ask in a way that makes clear you will accept any answer, not in a way that makes it clear that you expect me to say “Yes, I am making myself anxious by thinking about this and need to take my mind off it” or something.
And then if I do say yes, then you can ask me if I want help finding strategies to do so. And then you can ask me about whether any particular strategy works. You don’t just apply strategies at me or shove them down my throat.
It’s really not that hard to be respectful.
But it’s very easy not to be respectful.
It’s not respectful to jump in and assume that I’m making myself anxious and want you to help me calm down. Or that I’m making myself anxious and need you to help me calm down whether I want you to or not.
It’s not respectful to jump in and start manipulating me into calming down. By manipulating, I mean all the things you have been taught about how to calm people down without telling them that’s your actual intent. Like distraction, redirection, and other things that rely on the person not knowing what you’re trying to do. Anything where you’re not being open and explicit about your intent to calm the person down, and anything that uses covert force, is manipulation.
Staff manipulate clients more than clients manipulate staff, but clients get called manipulative for doing ordinary people things that have no manipulative intent whatsoever. So it might surprise you to hear these things described as manipulative. But they’re manipulative. (Clients do manipulate staff sometimes, but we generally do it because we have to in ways you may sometimes have trouble understanding. Staff are taught to habitually manipulate clients, it’s very hard to be staff and not manipulate clients.)
Just about every strategy for changing someone’s behavior and feelings without them knowing is maniplative by nature. That’s what manipulation is. Many strategies for changing people’s behavior with them knowing is manipulative. All behavior modification is by defintion manipulative whether it’s obvious behavior mod or subtle behavior mod.
Manipulative is not always bad but it is always an exercise of power. Staff manipulating clients is especially dangerous at the best of times, because of the direction the power flows. It should not be something you just pull out of your pocket every time you think someone needs to calm down.
It also helps not to be afraid of other people having and showing emotions other than happy shiny ones. Sometimes people get stressed out, pissed off, freaked out, upset, and all-around discombobulated. Sometimes people show it. It doesn’t always need to be fixed and tidied away to accommodate your discomfort. And often it’s a sign something is going wrong — like not having enough information, or not being listened to, or not getting the chance to give the right information to the right people — not a random thing a person is just feeling for no reason that needs to be brought under control before you even understand it. These are perfectly natural reactions, you don’t have to manage them for us at the first sign we’re less than 100% chill.
Attempts to manipulate me into calming down will nearly always backfire because I can spot the manipulation a mile away and will get pissed off. If you don’t want that result, don’t manipulate me. Treat me with respect instead. It’ll get you far.