The Over/Under On Autistic Reactions

A Response To The Neurotypical Narrative

SOMEONE ON TWITTER asked fellow autistics whether or not they feel they overreact. It got me thinking about that word, and who or what decides what kind of reactions allegedly are “too much”.

Without going too far down the rabbit hole, it seems to me that true reactions are not the sort of thing that can be “over” or “under” because they are what their name claims to be: reactive. There’s an action and there’s a reaction.There’s no debate, and no decision.

In physics, it’s usually described as being “equal and opposite” but of course the wrinkle when we move from physics to psyche is that the impact of what might be deemed the same stimulus is going to be different from one person to another, especially when we’re talking about brains that aren’t neurotypical. Any given stimulus could be a mild annoyance to a typical brain, yet the emotional equivalent of a sharp stick to the eye to an atypical brain.

Reactions, in other words, are the things we cannot control. Responses, however, are the things that we can.

I cannot control how my brain reacts to stimuli. I can, sometimes, control my responses to my environment. More, sometimes it’s true that reactions to certain stimuli happen at a comparatively slow enough pace that even there I can control how I respond. My inner reaction might be more severe than I let on with my outer response. Where that line is, I have no idea. I’m sure it varies.

The gist is I don’t believe that “overreaction” is a thing. Reactions are built into the structure of the system, in both physics and the psyche; the system reacts to stimuli in the only way it can. Responses are the decisions we get to make both to our general environment, and, sometimes, even to how we present our reactions to the world around us. Masking, for instance, is a response, hiding our innate reactions.

“Over” and “under” when it comes to reactions really is about social expectations as informed by how the typical brain behaves. You could argue how autistic people “should” respond to things (you shouldn’t, but you could), or investigate the degree to which that sort of control is even possible in different environments and with regard to different stimuli, but you simply can’t argue that we overreact.

My reactions to stimuli are proportional to the force with which they act upon my brain. If anything, autistic people are taught, both explicitly and implicitly, to underreact (which, here, really means underrespond), for the sake of polite, neurotypical expectations.

Let’s talk about that instead. Let’s talk about the overreaction of neurotypicals to how autistic people present themselves. Let’s talk about the dangers of actually-autistic people buying into that narrative.