January 28, 2019

I want to say a bit about how grief and heartbreak affect me as an autistic – and I want to say it now, while I’m neither grieving nor heartbroken. Maybe it won’t sound as powerful as when the experience is fresh and raw, but now is when I feel grounded enough to analyze and articulate.

There are at least three neurological traits that affect how I process loss: Intense interests, solid expectations, and repetitive thoughts.

Intense interests, commonly called “special interests,” can cause me to highly value others’ happiness, presence, or mere existence – more highly than my own wellbeing. When I first considered the possibility that I might be autistic, I didn’t think my hobbies were intense enough to count. Then I learned that for autistic women and girls, special interests often include people or characters. That explained my fascination with learning everything I could about those I loved, and also why rejection struck particularly deeply.

Solid expectations mean that my brain is not naturally prepared for transition, and unexpected changes can hit like a load of bricks. Everything is easier to handle if I have time to mentally prepare, but if I don’t see a major change coming, it can feel devastating. Heartbreak in particular has often surprised me, because my struggle to read nonverbal cues has hidden the clues leading up to it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to keep in mind that things can always change, but that wasn’t my default narrative – it’s one I had to learn from experience.

Repetitive thoughts, technically called “perseveration,” can amplify both interests and memories. I tend to remind myself, again and again, that I’ve lost something I loved, and that things didn’t go as I hoped. Before I found out that this is a common autistic trait, I didn’t fight such thoughts, because I believed they were justified. Now that I recognize how perseveration can deepen and prolong emotional pain, I think I’ll handle grief differently in the future. I’ll set aside times specifically to process it, and when painful thoughts arise outside those times, I’ll try very hard to redirect them to more hopeful things.

I can’t be certain that any of this new self-awareness will make it easier for me to handle future losses, but I hope it will. In the meantime, I hope it might help someone else.

This post was inspired by a question on my “ask me anything” thread: facebook.com/534206893738169

P.S. I write from my personal experience as an autistic. What I share is not a substitute for advice from an autistic medical professional. Also, some of my opinions have changed since I first wrote them.