Aspie Obliviousness: A Good Thing?

Head in the Clouds by Wings of Dust
Head in the Clouds by Wings of Dust

How many times have you been told that you don’t pay attention enough, aren’t aware enough of your surroundings, or even worse, that you have your “head in the clouds” all the time? I heard this quite often, especially as a teenager and coming from my absolutely favorite aunt (NOT!). If you remember my post from a while back that talked about EMSs (early maladaptive schemas) and negative core beliefs, you’ll remember that sometimes we form these beliefs based on negative feedback from significant figures in our childhood – parents, relatives (well-meaning or not) and the like. So as a result of her negative comments, I developed a sort of hypervigilance which basically required me to pay attention to everything in my environment. Literally.

You can imagine that for someone on the autism spectrum, this would be downright tiring. And it was. I was constantly scanning my environment for details, dangers, etc., especially when I would move from one environment to the next. It would take me a while to get comfortable when I arrived into a new room, got out of the car and went into the house, and so forth (you don’t want to even know how taxing it is to try to notice EVERYTHING – including passing scenery – when you’re in a moving vehicle as a passenger). When I was in my early twenties, I dispensed of this habit: unfortunately, some events in my mid-twenties reactivated a healthy (again, NOT!) dose of post-traumatic stress disorder that I had mostly gotten rid of with help from my fiancé – the same PTSD I’ve mentioned that I am battling right now. And with the PTSD came the hypervigilance and the environment scanning. The only good thing that has resulted from this is my tendency to store visual details, which I can access later for my writing.

I recognized near the end of last week that this practice was downright exhausting and no longer worth my time, so I decided to stop completely. I decided that I was only going to pay attention to what was important, or what caught my notice. And couple of days later, this new approach paid off.

A Loud-Mouthed Walrus

My fiancé and I were in a local quick-service restaurant, eating breakfast before we commenced running our errands for that day. After we’d ordered and received our food, I picked up the food-laden tray and turned around to carry it to an open booth and found…a female toddler running across my path. I had to stop suddenly to avoid bumping into her or knocking her over. I thought nothing else of it and followed my fiancé, who was carrying our drinks, into the dining area where he’d spotted several empty booths. We sat down and then commenced eating.

Shortly thereafter, we happened to notice the same female toddler running wildly around the restaurant. We found ourselves annoyed at the whole display, but kept trying to eat our breakfast. During the little parade of whirling strawberry blond hair that was doing figure-eights and stumbling across the tile floor, we noticed that she belonged to a young teenager, who herself was eating with a man whom we later learned was her father. Of course, distracted by the bratty parade, we couldn’t help but look in their direction. I turned away and resumed eating. This was about the time that the older man began to issue loud complaints interspersed with plenty of cursing – evidently he thought we were staring at him.

Attack Walrus
Attack Walrus Courtesy of Cheezburger.com

Every now and again, I’d look over in the direction of the brat parade, and then look back at my fiancé and/or my food. The man began to complain LOUDER, even threatening to tell the restaurant manager. This continued on for about fifteen minutes. However, during the whole time, I was not even aware that he was complaining about US. So we kept sitting and eating – and the whole time, I kept wondering exactly who it was that he was complaining ABOUT, dismissing the whole thing as one overly touchy and grouchy man running his mouth.

Finally, he became so loud that I could not stand it, and we were nearly finished eating. I looked at my fiancé and I said, “I will go get a bag for the rest of this stuff, and I suggest we leave – I’m getting tired of the negativity over there.” At this point, I was still not aware that he was complaining about us. I was repelled by the negative vibes from this man, but only very mildly nervous as I rose up from the table and walked over to the counter to ask for a to-go back. Following my fiancé’s suggestion to refrain from looking in the direction of the old man, teen mother, and the brat, I made my way to the counter, asked for the bag, quickly walked back to our booth, and began bagging up our remaining items. After I was finished, we dumped our garbage and left the restaurant.

It was not until we’d exited the door and were walking into the parking lot that I turned to my fiancé and asked, “Was that man talking about us?”

My fiancé said that yes, he was, and that he was angry and upset over the whole affair. “But we weren’t staring at him,” I replied. My fiancé responded that no, we hadn’t been, which launched into a conversation about what a moronic asshole the man had been and our speculation over what could have made him so touchy.

DUH?

I started to think about this whole incident and realized that the entire time, I’d been oblivious to the fact that the man was complaining about us. I then realized that had I not been oblivious to this fact, I would have likely gotten angry, walked over to the man, and possibly confronted him – which would have yielded potentially disastrous results. So you could say that in this case, my obliviousness saved our hides.

WTF? I can hear some folks out there (including my deceased and least favorite aforementioned aunt) exclaiming. You can’t be serious. But oh yes, I am. I needed proof that my old approach of hypervigilance was not only unnecessary but also a good reason to dispense of said behavior, and oddly enough, this incident provided both. You see, by the fact that I didn’t realize that the man was angry at and complaining about us, I was able to eat breakfast and then act calmly, deciding to pack up and leave what could have been a very nasty situation. So, this flies right in the face of anyone who ever told me that I needed to “get my head out of the clouds” and “pay attention more”.

What Next?

I don’t think I would say that said obliviousness pays off all of the time, but at least this incident proved to me that I think better without the whole bag of junk I’d been carrying around as a teenager as a result of negative conditioning and PTSD. What I mean by the “bag of junk” is the emotional responses, ego responses, and reptilian brain-type responses that my system would have normally conjured up had I even been aware that the man was complaining about us. My flight-or-fight response did not engage quite so quickly, and I wasn’t frightened of the man or the situation. And I have a feeling that I’m not the only Aspie out there carrying around a “bag of junk” due to childhood bullying, abuse, or other negative events in life.

I am beginning to think that the key would be to manage our responses so that we aren’t overwhelmed by fear, hatred, or other negative emotions that would cloud our judgment when responding to a stressful situation: in essence, turning off the “Oh My God” response that we might feel within us, along with the tightening chest, the quaking nerves, and the lumps in our throats. As I write, I am remembering that some who’ve commented on this blog before have documented that they are able to do just that. An observer might conclude in these situations that we have no feeling, but I would respond to that assertion with two statements: 1) if someone in that situation was to turn his/her feeling on, he/she might become a frightened, paralyzed jellyfish unable to act or think, and 2) I would invite a comparison between Aspies/Auties who do not have significant amounts of trauma/PTSD/etc. versus those of us who do.

Look for more about this subject later, but right now I’m putting this out into the Universe for feedback, comments, and so forth. So, talk to me. What do you think?

-Nicole

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9 thoughts on “Aspie Obliviousness: A Good Thing?

  1. Hi, [ 1) if someone in that situation was to turn his/her feeling on, he/she might become a frightened, paralyzed jellyfish unable to act or think, and 2) I would invite a comparison between Aspies/Auties who do not have significant amounts of trauma/PTSD/etc. versus those of us who do. ]
    1. I for one do turn into a paralyzed jellyfish – or at least a paralyzed me, if I allow my full reaction to the world. There are some places I simply cannot go – loud, crowded places like concerts for instance. Just today I had to go to the store – always a possible anxiety inducing experience. On the way – driving – I started to react to traffic. For me a fluttery fear feeling starts in my chest and works its way up to my throat. I consciously tell myself things are o.k., don’t over analyze the traffic environment, and calmly keep driving toward the store. 2. One of my parents was hyper-vigilant and unfortunately passed it on to me along with a lot of other negative reactions. Also, I’ve had traumatic experiences that continue to echo in my emotions. Some, I can control when I notice I’m re-living them. Some have taken a firmer hold and all I can think of is to do art about them to see if I can either manage them or in a sense be-friend and therefore neutralize their fear-inducing impact.
    Sorry so long of a response. Thanks again for your thoughts. I really appreciate finding your words!

    • Hello Pat: Thanks for dropping by. I’ve been curious to hear from other Aspies, especially Apsie women, about how stress/trauma/etc. affect them, and what you said about hypervigilance and traumatic experiences that continue to remain hit home for me. Yes, I do have trouble also with trying to avoid reliving those experiences and I’ve been struggling with this for the last several years. In PTSD lingo, I’m talking about being triggered and having flashbacks — some flashbacks are strictly emotional, as I remember and feel the trauma all over again; and some are visual, which means if I see a hand raised, my mind flashes back to my aunt and I think I’m going to get hit again.

      Now, I will say that I think we need our feelings sometimes to act properly and make a good decision. The major problem seems to be fear. Fear has a paralyzing effect on anyone, but I think for anyone on the spectrum fear can paralyze them even more so than a neurotypical. In my case, my mind shuts down and I literally cannot think. Second only to that is anger, which is dangerous when combined with arrogance/ego reactions. That’s what I would likely have felt had I not been oblivious to what the man was saying and doing, and I could have run my mouth and made things much worse (I blame my sense of unhealthy competitiveness on my aunt’s programming — growing up I witnessed her turn nearly everything into a competition). Now, I know at some point that I will need to learn how to manage these negative emotions, but I will say it’s nice to have a reprieve from them to think clearly instead of being overwhelmed.

      This is making me want to revisit the stress/anxiety posts I wrote last year and this year. Thank you for your comments, Pat. Hopefully will see you around here again. 🙂

      -Nicole

      • Hi Nicole,
        Thanks – I’d like to be around.
        I have experienced so many times being oblivious of a social situation and then a little (or a lot) later suddenly realizing …. oooh, that’s what was happening. I’m glad you got out of the restaurant at the right time. Having my head in the clouds at least part of the time is really the only way I know of that I can manage. My hope for myself and other cloud dwellers is to feel safe, be safe, and not be too lonely.
        In the book Watership Down, there is a rabbit who gets paralyzed with fear; long ago when I read the passage I realized that I was vulnerable to that kind of response and must be careful about certain people and some situations. The problem lies in knowing who/what/when/where those situations are – for me some are obvious, some not.
        Will stop here as this would quickly get too long. 🙂
        – Pat

      • Hi Pat: I understand — I tend to become wordy too, interjecting more details as I talk or write. But I do get your point. I think the important (and actually tricky thing) is to find a balance between being oblivious and not worrying about things that should not be worried about, and being alert and aware enough when there really is danger. Now how to do that, thought, is easier said than done. I’m still trying to figure that out myself. 🙂

        Cheers,

        Nicole

  2. I absolutely relate to this. I have always been away with the fairies or as this beautiful art work suggests, have my head in the clouds. The clouds are nice actually. At least it’s peaceful there. The only other times I feel peaceful is when I am swimming. The world is too busy and too loud. So if you know someone who seems a little vague, spaced out, lights on but no one home? Give them some space and time to come to your world. We need patience, not constant badgering to listen and get our heads out of the clouds. Now excuse me while I catch the next one floating past….

    • Hello Amanda: I will agree with you that the world is too busy and too loud and it’s gotten especially worse in the last five years or so. I just remembered Rache; Cohen-Rottenberg’s post about this very phenomenon ( http://www.journeyswithautism.com/2011/05/23/disorder-in-society-disorder-in-self/). I was wondering if my fiance and I were the only ones annoyed by how LOUD the world is getting — TV’s in restaurants, music blaring out of cars with excessive amounts of bass, and the whole nine yards.

      And you are right — we need patience, and I would add to that understanding and tolerance. The problem is that people are conditioned to expect conformity out of others — and along with their own prejudices this makes them blind to see and accept differences in other people.

      Thank you for stopping by. I’m glad you could relate to this. May you always find a passing cloud.

      -Nicole

  3. I am moved nearly to tears in reading this post. Although my partner doesn’t have a formal diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome, she has many Asperger traits, which are inherited from a long line of her family members.

    Although her obliviousness sometimes frustrates me, I am deeply grateful for it (it protects her from rude comments, for example, about which I stew all day!). Plus, it’s very much a part of who she is.

    In any case, I look forward to reading more posts from you, especially as they relate to maintaining healthy relationships in a neurodiverse couple.

    • Hello Alison: you sound very supportive of your partner insofar as her obliviousness is concerned. My fiance is also encouraging me not to be so hypervigilant. It is tricky to know when to pay attention and be concerned, but again I’ll say that sometimes the obliviousness can be a blessing.

      And it’s interesting that you mentioned posts about relationships and neurodiverse couples. My fiance is what I call “almost” neurotypical — he shows some autistic traits but only a few and if he had the opportunity to be diagnosed with anything as a child, it probably would have been PDD-NOS. But basically, I’m further on the spectrum than he is. I’ve seen a lot of literature and discussion up until this point about Aspie men in relationships with NT women, but not a whole lot of the opposite and certainly not much about same-sex neurodiverse couples. This is an area I intend to explore further: thanks for lighting a small flame under my butt 🙂

      Thank you,

      Nicole

  4. waht if the source is your mother and father (both with asperger’s, bipolar, borderline or worse, narcissism) and you are an adult child who can’t move out and is always confused by the wierd crap that goes on and your own feelings and sensations despite years of working hard with your mind trying to develop tools not to be, like MEMORY PALACES?
    What if your parents won’t help themselves and are in an enabler relatiopnship with each other and you cna’t leave, yet are doing everything you can for yourself, due to your health problems while thy never stay there, mentally, for very long? What if its made yo uso hypervigilant that you thought you were paranoid and (until you discovered an article on hypercigliance yesterday )had to convince them to let you see a psychologist to prove you HAVE asperger’s, and then when you were proven right the psychologist turns around and says (in paraphrase) he thinks your mother is a loving person and you need to reconcile with her? i just discovered this word, HYPERVIGILANCe. It makes me realize that this is what I have.. and then I read this article… which confirms it. But I have such a bad memory problem, possibly from asperger’s plus adhd, and more from stress… haha… plus the cog def and the exec dysfunct… sigh. Waht is a libra virgo scorpio to do when the world really IS crzy and there seems to be no escape, except for waiting for the state lady to call and set up our ssi-type thing appointment which may take months or years, in which case my parents , being older in their 60’s and 70’s, will probably die nad levae me homeless? ;( I cna’t understand what I’m being told by myself/the universe. Shoudl I leave, whether or NOT I have somewhere to go and money to do it with, or should i wait until i have those things, becaue I sure as hell can’t generate any funds on my own, regardless of skill level, due to the way my health problesm interact with my life stress. REgardless of how hard I try to make things better, for them AND for me.

    You know, it;s like… BY OUR POWERS COMBINED, WE ARE CAPTAIN… SHYTECANIT.

    LOL. not a good day today for me. mom did one of her wierd things and i was hungry = grumpy and … well… the sun is not relaly out today. i need ot live somewhere wiht SUNNNNNNN. sun sun sun sun sun…. stupidSeasonal Affective go ‘way! doesthat fit any of you? nobody has really helped me, and all the adults i went to as a child, desperate for htem to hear me, never did. I feel alone, all the time. Even that damn psychologist didn’t help me like i thought he would. Waht am I supposed to do? Wait for htis lady? what? all i need is one word. a one word answer that actually fits my situation. geez. 😉 i don;t want to be turned into a paranoid, and i don’t want to turn into her. there’s something wrong wiht my mother. I know it. they know it. but she is the type who will NEVER go there. ;(((((( I am not perfect either but good grief.

    okay, enough of that. everyone have a nice day, okay? and give free hugs!

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