Autistic hypervigilance isn’t the solution. It’s part of the problem.

Essy Knopf autistic hypervigilance
Reading time: 6 minutes

Autistic hypervigilance involves the careful observation of neurotypicals (NTs) in an attempt to appease or minimize their negative reactions.

These reactions happen when NTs read us and/or our autistic remarks or behavior as odd, tangential, patronizing, confusing, incomprehensible, inappropriate, or offensive.

NTs may perhaps find our delivery too harsh, or our comments ill-considered. They may perceive indirect or direct criticism where none was intended.

Alternatively, they may feel challenged by our confident discussion of a topic that is unfamiliar to them. Or they may simply struggle to correctly read our attitudes and motives. 

This is often due to the double empathy problem, which results in NTs perceiving autistics in a negative, if not threatening, light.

Living in shame-prone cultures

When confronted with such threats, NTs may react in a defensive or offensive way. This, according to author Brené Brown, is a response that is part and parcel of living in a “shame-prone” culture.

In “shame-resilient” cultures, Brown argues, self-worth is unconditional, thereby enabling us “to be vulnerable, share openly, and persevere”.1

In shame-prone cultures, however, leaders and other authority figures “consciously or unconsciously encourage people to connect their self-worth to what they produce”.

This link between self-worth and productivity stems largely from capitalism, and drives people to behave in ways that are “small, resentful, and afraid”.

A classic example of this is the NT preemptively defending themselves or their position, or retaliating against a perceived assault with an accusation or criticism, or cutting off communication with the autistic.

The legacy of living in shame-prone culture is that we all carry around with us some measure of internalized shame that is automatically triggered when we feel our worthiness has been called into question.

The NT’s hostile response to the autistic serves not only to fend off a perceived attack but to deny the implication that they were somehow deserving of this attack in the first place.

In such instances, the NT has failed to give the autistic grace; to entertain the possibility of a misunderstanding, ask clarifying questions, and work to repair the social rupture.

The shame of ableism

When NTs respond this way, they may in turn trigger the autistic’s own hoard of internalized shame.

The source of this shame isn’t just that we also live in shame-prone societies, but that these societies are ableist and privilege NTs, while oppressing the neurodiverse.

What follows often is a descent down a spiral of self-guilt-tripping. We tell ourselves that we’re “stupid”, “inferior”, “unlikeable”, “terrible company”, and “always messing things up”, because that is the message we are routinely given by NTs.

But unless we are provided constructive opportunities to build and hone our social skills, free of criticism and judgment, we’re likely to continue making mistakes and spiraling ever deeper into shame.

When fight-or-flight goes awry

When our shame is triggered, the autistic may similarly marshall their own defenses, launch a counterattack, or flee.

NTs and autistics who react in such a fashion are experiencing a “fight-or-flight” response. As The Happiness Trap author Russ Harris explains: 

The fight-or-flight response is a primitive survival reflex that originates in the midbrain. It has evolved on the basis that if something is threatening you, your best chance of survival is either to run away (flight) or to stand your ground and defend yourself (fight)… So whenever we perceive a threat, the fight-or-flight response immediately activates. In prehistoric times, this response was lifesaving.2

Fight-or-flight may be an ingrained evolutionary response, but it is also exacerbated by shame-prone cultures, which provide narratives justifying our reactions. 

Given the comparatively safe conditions in which many modern humans now live, the fight-or-flight response today is more maladaptive than adaptive.

Why? Because when it is engaged, it can lead to us developing unpleasant feelings. It results in the negative reactions detailed above, usually with destructive results.

Autistic social challenges

Misunderstandings between autistics and NTs largely occur because of inherent differences in cognitive and social styles.

Autistics as a population for example have been found to exhibit egocentric (self) bias, as opposed to altercentric (other) bias when it comes to social interactions.3

That is, we tend to ascribe our feelings, thoughts, or needs to others, rather than intuiting, reading, or asking. 

This tendency may result in part from developmental prosopagnosia, which is more common among autistic individuals.4

Developmental prosopagnosia refers to impaired face identity and facial expressions recognition, a skill that is essential for correctly gauging others’ emotions and intentions.5

These differences leave us autistics less capable of realizing we have made a social blunder, which can in turn make the task of overcoming them appear almost impossible.

The downside of autistic hypervigilance

Accidents or misunderstandings are par for the course when interacting with NTs, and the most we can ever do as autistics is to proceed with caution. 

Taken to its extreme, caution can become autistic hypervigilance—the constant assessment of our social surroundings for potential threats. We in turn work to compensate for these threats with strategies that include masking.6

Hypervigilance and compensatory strategies are common resorts for the overly-conscientious autistic. 

For years, I myself employed hypervigilance, scanning strangers during social interactions for friend/foe signals, subjecting every conversation to extensive analysis. 

Hours were spent trying to decipher the meaning behind a particular facial expression or a specific choice of word as if doing so might protect me against future mistakes. 

And yet for all this effort, I continued to put my foot wrong, with NTs often distancing themselves from me despite my attempts to explain myself or apologize.

Autistic hypervigilance is what happens when fear monopolizes our psyche. It leaves us frozen; incapable of feeling and expressing our emotions; unable to engage in spontaneity, jokes, and laughter. 

Such expressions can’t happen without vulnerability, and to be vulnerable in a hostile social environment is to open oneself to attack.

To remain in a hypervigilant state, however, constitutes a complete betrayal of both ourselves and our needs. 

It puts the onus on us to do whatever possible to ensure our social interactions are successful—an expectation no one can reasonably meet. 

And it deprives others of the opportunity to get to know our authentic autistic selves.

Empathy as an alternative to autistic hypervigilance

As discussed in a previous post, modulation—selective and strategic presentation of the self—is a practice all individuals engage in during everyday interactions. It is key to generating social harmony and cohesion.

Modulation as a practice is highly advantageous to autistics. It is not a compensatory behavior, not an attempt at appeasement, but rather concerned with meeting the other person where they’re at. 

Social interactions, whether they involve autistics or NTs, are a dance that must be navigated carefully, patiently, and kindly. Both partners must regularly check in with each other to ensure the other party is doing okay. 

Ruptures in these relationships happen when:

  • We don’t ask our partner’s permission before initiating the dance
  • We insist on not following the tempo of the music
  • We fail to match our partner’s pace or to coordinate our steps with theirs
  • We step on our partner’s toes—and don’t apologize

The good news is that these ruptures can be repaired through acts of consideration, kindness, and empathy. 

Openness and vulnerability: the way forward

Autistics need not live in a perpetual crouch, terrified of negative consequences when we commit a faux pas. 

Rather, we can approach social ruptures with an attitude of openness. When others offer complaints or requests, we have the option to listen without immediately reacting. 

If someone shares that they have been genuinely hurt or harmed by something we’ve said or done, we can create a space for their feelings, without taking them on, while braving any discomfort that might result.

We can lean into our mistakes by acknowledging, apologizing, and pledging to do better—while also asking the other person’s advice, when appropriate, on how we might do so.

As someone who is autistic, I have found that interpersonal conflict rarely continues if I admit my errors soon after they are brought to my attention.

For those of us with a history of being criticized during past social interactions with NTs, such an admission might not come easy. But if we are to triumph over our internalized shame, we must be willing to reach for self-compassion

Practicing self-compassion means choosing to accept our fallibility and to love ourselves regardless. It means embracing our vulnerability and having “the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome”.7

Four steps to overcoming autistic hypervigilance

Vulnerability is a key ingredient for empathy, an approach that forms the basis of all solutions I will propose to common autistic social challenges.

These solutions typically involve one or more of the following actions:

  1. Assessing needs
  2. Asking permission
  3. Seeking clarification
  4. Listening reflectively
  5. Admitting mistakes
  6. Sharing intentions
  7. Adjusting behaviors 

I share my approach here with the caveat that these actions are not exclusively for autistic folks. 

NTs are equally capable of making mistakes and equally responsible for taking action when it is brought to their attention. 

The fact that many choose not to, instead of pinning blame exclusively on the autistic for a misunderstanding, is a reflection of neurotypical privilege. 

It’s perfectly fair to expect NTs to practice the actions I’ve listed above. Arguably, autistic hypervigilance wouldn’t be necessary at all, if NTs indeed did so.

But, as in any social interaction, we should strive to focus on only that which is within our control. Namely: whether or not we choose to take the high road, and the rigor with which we apply ourselves to that effort.

More to come in a follow-up post.

Why modulating, not masking is key to autistic social success

Essy Knopf autistic social success
Reading time: 4 minutes

Achieving autistic social success isn’t necessarily about mastering certain skills. At its essence, it’s about bridging the autistic-neurotypical (NT) communication divide.

This divide stems from the fact that NTs often demand that autistics observe and conform to social norms. Some even demonstrate ableist privilege by painting neurodiverse approaches to communication as somehow lacking, or even inferior.

So, rather than treating difference as a source of enrichment, they reject and punish autistics.

This attitude stems from a deficit-based approach, which involves focusing on the apparent shortcomings of autistics rather than our strengths.

A strengths-based approach acknowledges that many autistics are endowed with unique qualities which can actually help us shine in many social contexts. 

Autistic social strengths

Autistics are hyper-systemizers, interested in learning and mastering the complexities of our world. Marrying this thinking with one of our “special interests” can actually make us super interesting conversation partners.

For example, our extensive knowledge of these topics and our enhanced powers of analysis allow us to discuss topics in great detail. Many of us are exceedingly eloquent, sporting rich vocabularies and speaking with surprising exactitude.

Autistic folks are renowned for being truth-tellers and straight shooters who are compulsively honest about our thoughts and feelings. We bring an authenticity to our interactions that many NTs find refreshing. (Assuming we don’t feel compelled by society to mask.)

Autistics can challenge social conventions in other positive ways. For example, we prefer not to speak in subtext. We don’t infuse our communication with secret meanings, so as to avoid confusion or misunderstanding.

We also inherently trust others, taking them at face value and believing their stated intentions rather than ascribing hidden motives.

Social challenges

But there are some downsides to operating outside of the bounds of social convention. 

Many autistics know what it’s like to unwittingly say something that is insensitive, inappropriate—or outright offensive—only to receive a swift rebuke from an NT.

In such instances, many NTs will condemn our behavior and even shun our company. These reactions can leave autistics feeling misunderstood, attacked, excluded, and abandoned. 

Realizing that we may not always be treated with grace, we remain perpetually on guard, ears pricked in anticipation of criticism. 

In some cases, we may even go on the defensive, thus deepening the relational rupture. 

In others, we shut down and withdraw. When a world of pain can be just one interaction away, it is easier to absent oneself, internalize others’ criticisms, and self-stigmatizing.

An overprotective reaction makes sense—at least initially. But what starts as adaptive quickly becomes maladaptive, at least when it comes to achieving autistic social success.

Socially shapeshifting, or “masking” in order to present a version of ourselves that is more acceptable to NTs means stymying spontaneity, swallowing our emotions, and stuffing our authentic selves out of view.

Worse still, when we withdraw, we deprive ourselves of opportunities to build and refine our social skills. And it prevents others from getting to know our brilliant authentic selves. 

Ruptures happen

What’s important to recognize here is that misunderstanding and conflict play out in all relationships, whether NTs or autistics are involved.

Years ago, a friend offered to make some tea for me. As he didn’t have a kettle or a stovetop, he proposed microwaving my water instead.

While my friend saw this as a convenient solution, something about the idea of blasting water with microwave particles rubbed me the wrong way. So I expressed my discomfort, suggesting we skip making the tea altogether.

Rather than listening and respecting my request, my friend decided he would try to persuade me to agree. Drawing upon his background in physics, he explained in great detail the mechanics behind the microwave. 

When I again declined his offer, however, my friend grew angry, telling me I was just “choosing to be stupid”. But what he failed to understand was that my initial refusal was rooted in fear and anxiety.

The breakdown in our communication began when my friend decided the remedy for this fear and anxiety was logic. When logic didn’t work, he concluded that I was stubborn and illogical.

Speaking for myself, as an autistic, I have often resorted to logic in the place of empathy. This is of course not to say we are wholly incapable of it, an incorrect charge that has been leveled against autistics in the past.

But what strikes me most about this story now is that while I was hurt by my friend’s allegation, I understood where he was coming from. As our minds functioned in similar ways, I inferred (correctly, I believe) the source of his frustration, but also his ultimately good intentions.

Had I been NT however, the case might have been quite different. Rather than absorbing my friend’s words in thoughtful silence, I might have lashed out at him or stormed out of his apartment.

The double empathy problem

Previously, it was believed that autistic individuals suffered from “mindblindness”, the inability to understand others’ thoughts, emotions, and intentions.

Researchers believed “mindblindness” impaired autistics’ social cognition, resulting in behaviors that are potentially inappropriate, insensitive, or offensive to NTs, and inhibiting autistic social success.

They now acknowledge however that the reality is much more complex; that mindblindness may in fact be a mutual phenomenon, what is referred to as the double empathy problem.

This concept acknowledges that both autistics and neurotypicals experience mindblindness when it comes to reading one another correctly. It goes a long way to explaining the source of the struggle many autistics face in social contexts.

It also highlights that the difficulty individuals experience communicating across the autistic/neurotypical divide is mutual. Neither autistics nor neurotypicals bear full responsibility for misunderstandings.

It follows, therefore, that the onus is on both parties to do what they can to bridge this divide.

Modulating, not masking to create autistic social success

In a series of subsequent posts, I will discuss a range of “classically autistic” behaviors I myself have exhibited. 

I acknowledge these behaviors have on occasion been a source of misunderstanding and conflict during social interactions with NTs. But I want to stress that my focus here is not problematizing autistic behaviors, but rather problem-solving the resulting communication breakdowns. 

For this reason, I will refer to these behaviors as “challenges”, while presenting some “alternatives” that fellow autistics may consider engaging in, as they see fit. 

These alternatives represent hard-won lessons from many years of personal struggle. They are not concerned with “masking” one’s autistic identity or interests; their focus instead is “modulating” one’s conduct. 

Modulation—that is, selective and strategic presentation of the self—is a practice all individuals engage in during everyday interactions. Modulating helps to win the acceptance of others while bolstering an atmosphere of mutual understanding and respect, and preserving social order.

In my experience, NTs have an easier time modulating than we autistics, especially given how extensive our loyalty to our truth-telling natures. 

But I’m a firm believer that with enough observation and practice, we can match—and even exceed—our neurotypical peers in this regard.

More to come in a follow-up post.