I wasn’t “strong” when confronted with crisis. I was autistic. Yes, autism can create a superpower that enables one to hold it together during emergencies.
I was driving out of a grocery store parking lot at 10 pm. Suddenly a blur appeared in my right peripheral vision; then it felt and sounded as though my car struck a pedestrian.
Thinking I had “run over” a person, I calmly turned off the car and had the presence of mind to take the keys in my hand as I exited.
I expected to see a crumpled body in front. I was neither trembling nor shaken up.
I saw two men at the right side of the car, standing over a third who was on his knees. They were holding him in place.
My autistic wizardry immediately figured out the situation: The man on his knees, who looked like a vagrant, had been caught shoplifting and had been running from two security guards in pursuit.
He hadn’t seen he was on a collision course with my car because he turned his head to look at his pursuers. He had run smack into the side of my car.
With a naturally matter-of-fact approach, I asked the guards if everything was alright. They said they had it under control.
Still in casual mode, I drove off as though nothing unusual had happened, though I kept imagining what it must’ve been like slamming into my car while his head was turned backwards.
Autistic Superpower: Matter-of-Fact Rather than Panicky
“Many autistic people approach problems very logically and do not get caught up in situations that might cause significant emotional distress for neurotypical people,” says Dr. Jessica Myszak, licensed psychologist, and director of The Help and Healing Center, whose practice is mostly autism assessment for adults.
“Especially if they have a clear understanding of what steps should be followed in an emergency situation, autistic people can be very logical and clear-headed in a situation that might induce panic in others.
“On the other hand, there might be some situations that are much more difficult for autistic people — for those with sensory hypersensitivities, situations with loud noises, bright lights, strong smells, etc., can become overwhelming more quickly, and a person who is experiencing overwhelm would likely be less equipped to manage an emergency situation effectively.”
Autistic, not Panic
Having a home-based editorial business, I moved in with my parents to help take care of my father after his back surgery. Nine days later my mother reported chest pains. Two days after she was undergoing quintuple bypass surgery.
Hours prior, three doctors informed me that without the surgery, my mother would have a massive heart attack within a week.
I stayed calm and collected (though my hands and legs were visibly trembling).
I discussed the situation with the doctors while absent any emotional gestures. I wasn’t holding anything back; it was my natural presentation – kind of like a “Star Trek” Vulcan.
I was standing at my mother’s bedside as surgery preparations commenced. She was loopy and rather out of it.
The stoic surgeon said the operation had a 20% mortality rate. He gave me a litany of potential complications including a fatal ventricular tachycardia. I remained in Vulcan mode.
As she was wheeled off to the operating room, a nurse asked if there was anyone she could call for me to come by and give me emotional support. I replied, “No, I’m not like that” (yes, exact words). I thought this was mental strength. I now know it was my autistry.
I’m not saying that ALL autistic people would’ve held up as cool as a clam, or that ALL neurotypical people would’ve fallen apart.
I can only speak for myself: My autism held me together like concrete because I was tactical rather than emotional.
Let’s backtrack that day. Earlier I’d been at the hospital to learn the results of my mother’s cardiac workup.
She was refusing the extremely-recommended cardiac catheterization due to fear of complications while I was pleading with her to get it.
Then I got a call from my father who was at home; his legs were swelling, he feared a blood clot. and he wanted me to drive him to the ER.
This meant leaving my mother, driving 45 minutes, hustling his compromised body (from the recent back surgery) into the car, then driving 45 minutes back to the hospital, worrying he might have a life-threatening deep vein thrombosis.
While I was en route back to the hospital my mother called and said she had agreed to the catheterization. Thank God!
I got my father into the ER. After a long wait he finally had the ultrasound: clear! Then I headed to the floor where the catheterizations take place.
A doctor saw me and said with a serious tone, “I’ve been looking for you. Your mother has severe disease. She’s gonna need bypass surgery.” Her beeper went off and she said to me, “Wait, hold on…” Then she said, “That’s the surgeon. I’ll be right back.” She hurried off, leaving me alone in the quiet, dimly lit corridor.
What did I just hear? I couldn’t believe it. But I remained calm.
“You’re Strong.” No, I’m Autistic.
The next four months were a nightmare. My mother’s self-care was impaired.
I had to do nearly everything including manage and administer her medications, speak to doctors and nurses over the phone and in person, drive her to many appointments and deal with a life-threatening complication following her pacemaker implant: She’d gradually lose consciousness (and her wits) while on her feet after getting out of a chair.
I had to be with her literally every minute. This entailed “sinking” her increasingly-limp body to the floor in her stuporous state, resting her back against my legs to allow the blood to fully return to her brain and restore alertness.
This required physical strength that most women don’t have. I’d been lifting heavy weights for years.
My father couldn’t caretake much due to his back. It was also a given that I’d be in charge of all the interfacing with her medical team.
I was assertive, outspoken and could be quite overbearing and pushy – without worrying what people thought of me – traits that this venture required in order to be optimized.
As time ensued, my brother was impressed at how much I was holding myself together.
I had remarked that often, female caregivers eventually break down from exhaustion. I never even shed a single tear and maintained my thrice-weekly, strenuous gym workouts.
Was I hot-tempered at times? Yes. Did I blow my top here and there? Yes. Did I feel like punching a fist through a wall? Yes. Did I loudly cuss in private? Yes.
The venture was riddled with non-compliance from my mother regarding her rehab, and a father who often took her side.
However, anger and fury differ enormously from breaking down and submitting to exhaustion. Anger and a “type A personality” are like rocket fuel, while a laid-back, wimpy approach saps energy and drains the caregiver.
• Why hadn’t I collapsed from exhaustion?
• Why didn’t I ever need “anyone to talk to” during this horridly stressful time?
The only person I unloaded to was my brother – but my unloading was in the form of the basic human need of “Here’s the latest and I want your feedback” rather than of seeking emotional support – which he was totally incapable of giving (I now believe he’s on the Spectrum).
• Why was I so deftly able to manage her postoperative care?
• How come I didn’t break down when my mother eventually fell one morning without me at her side to sink her (I was no longer allowed to sleep in their bedroom), striking her head and – six weeks later – requiring surgery for a latent brain bleed?
The recovery process was horrendous, but I retained plenty of energy and wits despite averaging five hours of sleep.
My brother said, “Because your mind is STRONG.” Little did I know that this “strength” was being driven by Autism Spectrum Disorder!
Tactics and Strategies, NOT Emotions!
• Never missed a detail; even detected seven mistakes by medical staff immediately following the bypass surgery.
This included the wrong arm being designated for an ultrasound to check for a blood clot. I spotted the error (“right arm”) on the order form while the ultrasonographer was looking it over!
• Wasn’t afraid or self-conscious of asking doctors a ton of questions.
• Not being preoccupied with social graces and impressing people, I focused on information exchange with the medical team. I wasn’t caught up with my looks, what anyone thought of my bland clothes, my mannerisms, etc.
This gave me more energy reserves to focus on what was important: my mother’s recovery.
• Drove my mother 15+ times to the ER over the months following her heart surgery, never once “losing it.”
• As mentioned, I lost my temper a number of times. But anger keeps things hopping, while crumbling from a feeling of helplessness and defeat could only come from having an emotion-based approach to a crisis. I’d even tell my brother, “I’m treating this like a Vulcan would.”
In MY case, I’m convinced without a doubt that my autism enabled me to stay “strong” and very efficient throughout extreme caregiving.
As an actually autistic woman, I vehemently declare that my autism comes with the superpower of standing strong through crises.
Interestingly, it’s smaller things that really rile me. I get very distressed when I can’t get one of those stupid thick plastic caps off a glass gallon of milk, or when I can’t open my TV remote to change the battery.
I’ve cussed and banged the remote against the sofa in response. I once broke the dishwashser handle because the door wouldn’t shut.
I’ve slammed fans to the floor when their gentle hum began getting a whistling noise. I’ve broken two computer mouses when they began malfunctioning. I’ve kicked malfunctioning paper towel dispensers in gym locker rooms.
I’ll become very provoked when I must struggle with an automated phone menu to get a live person.
If I’m disconnected when I’m put on hold I’ll feel like I could punch through a wall. I get infuriated when stuck behind a slow driver.
I hate when a service tech arrives before the designated time window. I’ve hollered at inept tech support over the phone.
With all of that said, I wouldn’t trade my autistry for anything!
Dr. Jessica Myszak, a psychologist who specializes in autism assessment for both children and adults, is the founder of Autistic Support Network. She sees clients in-person in the Chicago area and over telehealth in 31 states. Learn more about her practice at helpandhealingcenter.com.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical and fitness topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer. In 2022 she received a diagnosis of Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder.