But that’s the ‘experts’, looking at us from the outside in. What does it feel like from the inside out, from the autistic point of view? What exactly is happening, when an autistic child goes into meltdown over a change in routine, eg their mother driving to the library before the supermarket, rather than the reverse, as they usually do; or an autistic adult gets in a muck sweat of anxiety over having to do something new, eg drive to an unfamiliar town?
I can only say what it’s like for me, and as I’m an extremely visual person, I search for an image when trying to explain something. The most persistent image here is one that probably borrows heavily from science fiction movies, it has shades of Avatar, or maybe the Ewok planet from Star Wars.
Imagine a world where the people live in giant trees. The ground is far below, the bases of the trees lost in a swirling, misty darkness, with strange and terrifying creatures half-glimpsed in its depths. To fall from these trees is to fall seemingly forever, into that dangerous abyss. The inhabitants of this world have built platforms for themselves to live on, high in the trees, and move from one tree-home to another by means of rope bridges, some quite big and wide, others more narrow. They can’t of course see very far, but the routes are familiar and well-used, and the inhabitants have little to no anxiety about using them. Their only fear is of falling.
Now imagine another race comes into the area. They look the same as the original inhabitants, with this sole difference - they can fly. And when they want to go from one tree to another, they simply launch themselves off the platforms into space. Come on, the visitors call, let’s go this way! The original people, not unnaturally, balk at this. They know they will fall into the abyss if they try. They stick to their bridges and platforms, their ropes and branches. If the new people try to force them to jump off, they scream in terror, even though the new people are loud in their scorn and impatience. They know it’s impossible.
That’s how it feels to me. The world is a frightening jumble to us, and our familiar places, routes, etc (those platforms and bridges) that form our support, our ‘ground’, are only slowly created out of that chaos. We cannot just ‘walk into empty space’. We need to prepare, to in effect build a new ‘bridge’ to get across that gap. It can be done, but it takes time and (lots of) preparation. The abyss below is the dangerous unknown, and even now, with all the skills I’ve learnt, to think of doing something that might cause me to fall into it causes my heart to beat wildly, my guts to cramp, and my breath to come short. Fear, in other words, is what causes us to resist change. Our rigidity is the result of our fear. Try and force us into new things without that prep, and watch us fall apart, or even go into meltdown. Even if we do it to ourselves as adults, it’s still not a good place to be in. We’re falling into that abyss, and it’s terrifying. Give us ample preparation time however, and/or teach us how to find out what we need to know before going into something new, and it’s my belief you will witness us become much more flexible – because we’re more secure.