Thursday, January 29, 2015

Adults, Autism and Snipping

We’ve probably all heard about (or felt) imposter syndrome. In my work with adults on the spectrum, I notice that many of my clients struggle with some version of it. Even those who have achieved success in academic, professional, financial, and even social contexts struggle privately with the sense that none of it is real.

In contexts they’ve mastered they can appear socially adept (or so good at their jobs that social deficits are pardoned). But outside of a mastered context (whether the context is reddit or academia seems of little relevance), many struggle with something beyond social anxiety. I call it social panic.

How then are these adults able to function so well in these mastered contexts? It baffles both my clients and their loved ones. There are probably a number of ways to understand the discrepancy, and one way I describe it is via the idea of snipping.

Snipping is my way of describing how people with certain default styles cope with emotions that are beyond his or her capacity to handle. Under extreme stress, some of us snip the connections that bind us to parts of our own experience. It might be a foreign concept to someone who has never experienced it, but many of my clients recognize the phenomenon, though they’ve been unaware of it or unable to describe it.  

For instance, many of my clients are intellectually gifted. Their methods for processing reality may already differ a bit from those with less specialized brains. If the emotional load involved in processing reality in this way is too large to handle (as can be the case with those who perceive patterns and detail that remain out of awareness for most of us), adults on the spectrum have the option of snipping their awareness of the emotions. 

This is not necessarily a neurological reality (though I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets backed up by imagery sometime soon), but it is a way to describe the emotional shutdown so many clients experience, an experience they always describe as involuntary. I’m guessing if I had the option to do some snipping to avoid painful emotions I might rely heavily on that technique for managing everything from boredom to stress to grief.

Some clients snip not just their awareness of their emotions, but their awareness of their bodies, of time, of events taking place around them, of identity itself. Because of this snipping, they may be (in ways that seems almost genius – and maybe are) able to transcend typical limitations associated with the body (think of the busy programmer who forgets to eat or go to the bathroom), time (think of the musician who has been trying to master a piece for 12 hours straight), events around them (think of the cool mindedness of the non-reactive stance you’ve seen in the midst of conflict) and even identity (think of the adult who transcends typical limitations of gender, and even ego).

The snipping phenomenon can be a great tool, obviously, but like most coping styles, it appears to come with both benefits and costs. The benefits seem obvious: untethered from ego and emotion, my clients can often think in ways others can’t. Awareness of ego and emotion, especially, compete for attention and energy; divorced from these sources of internal resource depletion, clients on the spectrum can immerse themselves in music, programming, philosophy, etc. in ways that a more diversified brain might find out of reach. Clients often dazzle me with their perspectives and intellect.

The costs involved in snipping are sometimes immediate (such being unable to participate in a charged emotional situation that demands emotional engagement) and more often long-term (a life that runs like a machine but lacks vitality). Clients sometimes store negative emotions, such as fear and grief, in their bodies – digestive problems, sleep disturbances, jaw clenching, etc. – and even more often suffer symptoms such as difficulty harnessing attention and swings in motivation, as well as compulsive productivity alternating with periods of disassociation. Snipping can allow a bright person to block out fear so s/he can develop and express intelligence and think in ways that are exciting, but the fear has not truly been dealt with and transcended. It has been avoided, and - out of sight - it may even have grown.

The adult who has built not just coping mechanisms, but a life and a career (or even an identity) on a foundation of snipping maybe very wary of changing the system. I think this wariness is wise! When changing how one processes and interacts with reality, things tend to get shaken up. Who is to say it will be worth it in the end? A therapist who promises that it will be “worth it” is promising something she cannot know, and certainly cannot ensure. The client who ventures forth to change the snipping system must want something that s/he might not even be able to name. And s/he must have, to some extent, faced the reality that the system is breaking down, or is limited in ways that have come to be unacceptable.

When working with clients on the spectrum who have a snipped connection, I don’t make promises and I try to remain cognizant of the reality that I can’t sell the worth of knitting together that snipped connection. Realizing that a beautiful system of rationality and logic is limited or inadequate can be both painful and frightening. I have compassion for the pain of the realization, a respect for the difficulty of the path, and a willingness to walk with the client who dares to embark on the journey.