girl looking into the camera with tears rolling down her face, crying

Why Being Called “Dramatic” Is Both Completely Wrong and Psychologically Damaging to Autistic People8 min read

Sarah Bernhardt was a famous French stage actress of the early 19th and 20th cen­turies, and I grew up hating her. Why? Because her name was used to inval­i­date my emo­tions and expe­ri­ences throughout my child­hood.

Allow me to explain.

When I would jam my hands over my ears at sudden loud noises, flinch when some­body tried to touch me, or had shrieking, head-banging melt­downs, I was told I was being “dra­matic,” and that I was such a little Sarah Bernhardt.

In adult­hood, I even­tu­ally con­fronted those who called me that, and they said the thing that most adults do when you con­front them about what hurt you as a child.

Oh, it wasn’t that big a deal!”

So, basi­cally, they lay­ered inval­i­da­tion right on top of inval­i­da­tion. I’ll explain some­thing called pri­mary and sec­ondary inval­i­da­tion a bit later in this article.

The Difference Between Drama and Distress

I’m nearly 40 years old, and times were dif­ferent for autistic people in the ’80s. Unless there were phys­ical signs of a dis­ability, you were not given any extra help or spe­cial treat­ment.

There were no tools for what would have been con­sid­ered a “high-functioning” female autistic child. It wasn’t even on the radar, so any­thing that I did that was con­sid­ered unusual, dra­matic, attention-seeking, etc., was ascribed as such.

In other words, people attached neu­rotyp­ical moti­va­tions to my autistic traits, which, in the end, did an immense amount of psy­cho­log­ical damage to me (and so many others like me).

There is a dis­tinct dif­fer­ence between being dra­matic and being in dis­tress, and since this is some­thing that many people, regard­less of neu­rology, have dif­fi­culty under­standing, I will explain by using two fic­ti­tious sce­narios.

Scenario 1 – Drama

Let’s say a mother is at the gro­cery store with her 5‑year-old neu­rotyp­ical son. He’s just been told he can’t have the candy bar he wants, so he throws him­self head­long into the aisle, screaming at the top of his lungs and beating his fists against the linoleum.

Every few sec­onds, he opens his eyes (which are com­pletely dry) and looks around to see what kind of reac­tion his behavior is pro­ducing. If his parent ignores his behavior or simply grabs him up and takes him out of the store, he will even­tu­ally get over the tantrum he’s having and move on to some­thing else.

This is a neu­rotyp­ical child who is using an out­burst as a tool to get some­thing he wants. He was not legit­i­mately dis­tressed. He was angry, sure, but he wasn’t expe­ri­encing any sig­nif­i­cant emo­tional or psy­cho­log­ical pain.

Also, and this is very impor­tant, if his mother says some­thing to the effect of, “You were being very dra­matic in there” once they get to the car, the child will most likely admit to the fact because he knows exactly what he Did, even if it wasn’t the right thing to do.

He will not be dam­aged because of inval­i­da­tion because he was not being inval­i­dated, he was being called out on his behavior in an attempt to cor­rect it. This is a typ­ical and nat­ural exchange between a neu­rotyp­ical parent and child.

This is actu­ally how neu­rotyp­ical par­ents teach their neu­rotyp­ical chil­dren how to behave.

Scenario 2 – Distress

Now, let’s take an autistic child in the same gro­cery store, but change the sce­nario up just a bit. This is an autistic 5‑year-old girl. She’s been in the store for over an hour now, walking up and down aisles as her mother shop for gro­ceries.

Her feet hurt, her sweater is too hot, and the tag her mom forgot to cut out of the back of it is dig­ging into her skin like barbed wire, she’s get­ting over­heated, and the con­stant buzz of the over­head lights sounds like a bee’s nest in her ear.

Impulsively, in an attempt to stop her feel­ings of dis­tress, she reaches out for a candy bar because she knows it will help her calm down. Her mother responds by imme­di­ately grab­bing it out of her hand and scolding her.

This is the event that trig­gers the melt­down.

All of the sen­sa­tions and emo­tions that have been building up in the child for the past hour come rushing to the sur­face, and she begins to scream and sob, and, in an attempt to run away, she crashes into a dis­play, top­pling it over and hurting her­self in the process.

Shocked and embar­rassed, her mother picks her up and tells her to stop being so dra­matic, but this only makes things worse because now the little girl is sob­bing from the heart­break of hearing these words and knowing she is still pow­er­less to stop what is hap­pening to her.

Pay close atten­tion to how I worded that:

The child is powerless to stop what is happening to her.

A melt­down is hap­pening to her, and she cannot, even on pain of death, con­trol it. This is not an attempt to seek atten­tion or get some­thing she wants, it is an explo­sive neu­ro­log­ical vol­cano of emo­tion and sen­sa­tion hat has erupted after too much sen­sory stimuli and dis­com­fort.

A child in the middle of a melt­down will run into objects and even into traffic. There is no thought of safety or aware­ness of sur­round­ings. There is just the sin­gular desire to stop these hor­rible feel­ings.

If this same child is told over and over again throughout her life that she is being dra­matic when she has these melt­downs, she will not learn and cor­rect her behavior. She will learn to mask all of her dis­com­forts, inter­nalize her emo­tions, and become fearful of having phys­ical needs.

Eventually, this will lead to serious and per­ma­nent psy­cho­log­ical damage.

Primary Invalidation and Secondary Invalidation

The con­cept of pri­mary and sec­ondary inval­i­da­tion is some­thing I came up with in the process of cre­ating this article.

Let’s say, in our second sce­nario, our autistic little girl had pre­vi­ously told her mother that the tag on her sweater was both­ering her, but her mother dis­missed it as no big deal.

Let’s say the little girl then told her mother that she was get­ting over­heated in the store, but her mother insisted she keep her sweater on because “it’s not that hot in here.”

Maybe this child then tried to ease her dis­com­fort by cov­ering her ears or shielding her eyes from the sen­sory inva­sion she was expe­ri­encing, only to have her mother take her hands away from her face and yell at her to stop.

This is what I call pri­mary inval­i­da­tion. In other words, the child is telling her mother how uncom­fort­able she is and doing what she can to avoid a melt­down, but her mother, not under­standing that her child is neu­ro­di­ver­gent, not neu­rotyp­ical, dis­misses her daugh­ter’s com­plaints as pleas for extra atten­tion or an attempt to manip­u­late a sit­u­a­tion.

After all this, the child finally has a melt­down. Her pri­mary needs were ignored in a mis­guided attempt to “cor­rect” her behavior (like the mom of the little boy in sce­nario 1). Now that she’s in serious dis­tress, she’s told she’s being dra­matic. That’s what I called sec­ondary inval­i­da­tion.

In other words, the inval­i­da­tion of the orig­inal feel­ings that caused the melt­down brings more inval­i­da­tion as a response to the melt­down.

This is why it’s so psy­cho­log­i­cally dam­aging.

It’s basi­cally like having a child say that she’s hungry only to be ignored and dis­missed all day, and when she finally just grabs food out of sheer des­per­a­tion, she’s back­handed across the face.

Yes, that’s what it feels like emo­tion­ally.

The Hot Stove Comparison

I think I came up with this com­par­ison about 15 years ago in therapy. One day, I said, “It’s like my entire life people were forcing my hand onto a hot stove and then get­ting angry at me when I screamed.”

That’s what it’s like for someone who is autistic. They already have their hand on a hot stove (the sen­sory issues and con­fu­sion that everyday life comes with on the spec­trum), but when they react to it, they are hurt yet again by people who don’t believe them or take them seri­ously about the dis­tress they’re expe­ri­encing, and, in turn, stress them out even more.

Unintentional Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a form of psy­cho­log­ical abuse where the abuser makes the victim think they are losing their mind. They do this by telling their victim that they are over­re­acting, remem­bering things wrong, or being dra­matic, when, in reality, the victim is having a com­pletely jus­ti­fi­able response to what is hap­pening to them.

Unintentional gaslighting occurs when a neu­rotyp­ical person engages with an autistic person, but ascribes neu­rotyp­ical inten­tions to the autistic person.

It’s not that the neu­rotyp­ical person is trying to hurt the autistic person, it’s that they don’t under­stand each oth­er’s neu­rology. They are both speaking dif­ferent lan­guages and trying to be heard, and they are both failing because they lack the under­standing and tools needed to bridge the com­mu­ni­ca­tion gap.

The problem with this is, even though the non-autistic person is in no way trying to pur­pose­fully men­tally abuse the autistic person, psy­cho­log­ical damage still results, and PTSD often develops from a life­time of these con­fusing and dis­tressing inter­ac­tions.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is this: to the non-autistic person, crying, screaming, blocking ears, wincing in pain at cer­tain sounds, or flinching at touch can seem like an over­re­ac­tion to the neu­rotyp­ical person observing these behav­iors.

After all, non-autistic people do not have the same sen­sory expe­ri­ences as autistic people, and, since they only have their own brains and expe­ri­ences to go by, a neu­rotyp­ical person may mis­in­ter­pret these reac­tions or attach inten­tions to them that do not exist.

It may be con­fusing to a non-autistic person that their autistic friend or family member can have such a strong reac­tion to sen­sa­tions that they barely notice, but that does not make them any less valid an expe­ri­ence for the autistic person.

The most impor­tant thing to keep in mind is that we are all dif­ferent, regard­less of neu­rotype. When some­body says that some­thing bothers them or reacts to some­thing in a way you don’t under­stand, believe them and respect it.

Not only will you improve your com­mu­ni­ca­tions with the autistic people in your life, you’ll be making the world a safer place for both honest com­mu­ni­ca­tion and neu­ro­di­ver­sity.

28 Comments

  1. I’d like to add a caveat to the melt­down example — some­times we can, to a lim­ited extent, con­trol the man­i­fes­ta­tion of melt­downs. However, we cannot stuff the emo­tions back down into the box once in melt­down mode. And so of attempts to reg­u­late a melt­down, the “sanest-looking” one is a shut­down, which can be inter­preted as sul­len­ness, and can be paid for later with an even worse melt­down that is utterly impos­sible to con­trol. And if the melt­down is too pow­erful to go into shut­down mode, con­trol attempts involve releasing emo­tions in a dif­ferent kind of out­burst. Like run­ning or other vig­orous exer­cise (which is, in adults, the most socially accept­able of the bunch, though it can be of lim­ited use­ful­ness if you run out of breath with more melt­down emo­tion still to be released), pushing an object (a factor that is often severely lim­ited if there isn’t a suit­able object in an imme­diate enough vicinity, which can mean it has to be right in front of you) or things like redi­recting a scream into a self-injury episode, which I once did so well I had myself con­vinced I was being rational even though I was stomping on my own feet with intent to make them bleed (both feet, even dis­tri­b­u­tion) so as to “get even with myself” for acci­den­tally step­ping on a wom­an’s foot) or vice versa. Or angry loud singing which obvi­ously sounds upset, or (and I attempted this once) redi­recting into a dis­play of fake hap­pi­ness that might be so uncon­vincing that it would have people con­cerned with the mental health of the person having the fake-happy melt­down.

    And in light of the example of the girl at the gro­cery store, I’d like to return to what the girl did — she screamed, and then she ran away. It is very pos­sible that her run­ning away WAS her effort con­trol­ling the tra­jec­tory of the melt­down, a twofold strategy that was a com­bi­na­tion of releasing pent-up emo­tion harm­lessly in a way she saw as less dis­rup­tive than screaming or hit­ting or other things she had pre­vi­ously gotten in trouble for, and also trying to get away from the stressful sit­u­a­tion (hence the run­ning in a spe­cific direc­tion). And in the girl’s case, the melt­down was so pow­erful that her attempt to con­trol it by run­ning away failed and caused her to swerve into a dis­play (which you can liken to wrestling with a strong dog on a leash or horse on reins, all the while the animal is trying to drag you, you manage to keep the animal on a straight path for a little while and con­trol it for a little, then the con­trol fails and the animal runs in another direc­tion drag­ging you along).

    1. I said “pushing an object”. I meant “punching”. And in my case it has to be a thing right in front of me, so some­times that means the object will be my own body, unless I am lucky enough to have a pillow or bed right in front of my face.

      And yes, you might have heard punching a pillow is inef­fec­tive when the pillow is there. but that study wa done on abu­sive men taking anger man­age­ment classes, so for them the pillow-punching kept their desire to dish out phys­ical abuse alive. That is not what hap­pens during a melt­down.

    2. Author

      I agree with what you’re saying about the run­ning away. I used to try to run away in an attempt to 1) Get away from the sen­sory expe­ri­ence and 2) Get away from people before I went into full “Hulk” mode. You only have so much time before you cannot con­trol your­self at all, and you will either hurt your­self or others not meaning to.

    3. This response sums up my thoughts on reading this piece. Now that I am older (very old in fact) I can usu­ally blunt a melt­down with phys­ical exer­cise or shut­ting down emo­tion­ally. I have iso­lated myself all my life because of just not having the capacity to deal with others all of the time.

      1. Author

        Thank you for your com­ment. I’m glad you got some­thing from the piece.

  2. Wow! Another AMAZINGLY insightful article from the Aspergian … thank you so much for pub­lishing this.

    Primary inval­i­da­tion … sec­ondary inval­i­da­tion … such helpful con­cepts to explain what is going on!

    I used to have this when I was little, and sev­eral of us were trav­el­ling together on the back seat of a car (no child booster seats and rear seat belts in the 70s and 80s …). I HATED having some­body in actual phys­ical con­tact with me … so I’d always sit by the door, and scrunch myself up uncom­fort­ably in order to create a little bit of clear space between me and my brother. Then he would simply expand into my buffer zone, and we’d be in con­tact again … and now I’d have the double dis­com­fort of being scrunched up AND having him in phys­ical con­tact with me. So I’d scrunch myself up even more …

    … and so it went on until, ulti­mately, I HAD to accept the dis­com­fort of having some­body pressed against me.

    But if I tried to ask my brother NOT to invade the space I had cre­ated, at some cost to myself, for my own greater com­fort, his atti­tude would be “You’re not using that space … why shouldn’t I ease the dis­com­fort I am suf­fering by occu­pying it?”

    What he didn’t under­stand was that I WAS using it. And even if he was right and I wasn’t … it wasn’t HIS space to occupy in any event. It was MINE. I had cre­ated it by making myself more uncom­fort­able than I need have been in order that I could have that space. But try as I may, I could never get him to see it that way. And I couldn’t get my par­ents to under­stand, either … their atti­tude was that it was going to be a bit of a squeeze with four of us on the back seat, and that nobody was enti­tled to ask others to move aside so they could have a bit of clear space between them (on my god­fa­thers! I HADN’T asked him to move aside for me … I was the one who had moved aside!!! All I wanted was that he shouldn’t chase me into my space when I did so … ).

    There’s your pri­mary inval­i­da­tion for you!

    And nowa­days?

    Whenever I try to talk to my par­ents about any of this, she will put on her best sar­castic voice and say “Oh, you were SO hard done by, weren’t you?”

    There’s your sec­ondary inval­i­da­tion.

    I’m not seeking any redress or any­thing, or even an apology. I just want people to under­stand me. I was diag­nosed late in life (I was 50) and my diag­nosis has helped me under­stand so much about myself, and make sense of many dis­tressing child­hood expe­ri­ences and mem­o­ries. I want others to come to that under­standing, too. But … the will­ing­ness doesn’t seem to be there.

    (Sorry if this turned into a bit of a rant … I needed to get some of that out of my system, and I don’t really have any­where else to turn … )

    1. Author

      No need to apol­o­gize. Thank you for sharing. I under­stand. I can’t bring any­thing up about my child­hood, either, or I get accused of “holding on to the past”. No, I have PTSD. The past is holding on to me.

  3. Do you know the poem, “We Remember Your Childhood Well” by Carol Ann Duffy? Reading this article and the com­ments reminded me of it.

    I’m neu­rotyp­ical, mar­ried to a man whom I think is on the Autism Spectrum. I’ve noticed his sen­sory issues: low pain threshold, accuses the dogs of kicking him all night when they sleep on the bed with us, gets uncom­fort­able if I touch him when sit­ting next to him on the sofa & would far rather sit on his own in the arm­chair. Before I sus­pected AS, I thought it odd. I wouldn’t cor­rect him about it, though, because I was able to acknowl­edge that his per­cep­tion may not be the same as mine.

    Thank good­ness we’ve all come a long way in our aware­ness of AS since last cen­tury. We’re not there yet, but I believe theaspergian.com is helping.

    1. Author

      I’m glad this was helpful to you! 🙂

  4. thank you, today you gave me the words i did not have, the words i need to read, to ease the pain

    1. Author

      You are so very, very wel­come. I’m so glad you found it helpful. 🙂

      1. i hope i have per­mis­sion to trans­late your words for my german adhd and autims group

        1. Author

          I would be hon­ored!

  5. Thank you. I have com­plex PTSD. I think the phe­nom­enon you described played a role.

    It hurts when you are in pain and nobody believes you.

    1. Author

      Yes, 100%. I truly think I have CPTSD, but I haven’t received the diag­nosis, just PTSD (which still works, but I feel like I’m missing some­thing).


  6. Thank you for writing such an enlight­ening article, Ms. Heidel. Descriptive expla­na­tions or expe­ri­ences like that help me better under­stand my two kids in the spec­trum and hope­fully make me a better person.

    1. Author

      You are so very wel­come. 🙂

  7. This has been my whole life. I am autistic.

    I cannot speak up about any­thing per­taining to myself without being called selfish, exag­ger­ating, manip­u­la­tive and annoying. Everyone else can ask of me, but if I dare for a second ask for any­thing it’s Suddenly Too Much And Selfish.

    I am every­one’s emo­tional toilet, but I have nowhere to dump my own prob­lems because, according to most people, I don’t have ‘real’ prob­lems and should shut up.

    So I have shut up. I say I’m fine when I’m crum­bling because that’s what people want to hear and my feel­ings and emo­tional needs don’t matter, but if I crumble it’s “drama” and I should get over it.

    I’m too every­thing. Too emo­tional. Too sen­si­tive. Too dra­matic. Too angry. Too sad. Too aso­cial. Too quiet. Too loud. Too intense. Too (fill in the blank).

    The irony is nobody asks how I really am. But I better ask them how they are or else I’m selfish.

    Ultimately I am selfish and thought­less even when I don’t com­plain or even speak a word. It’s like existing is selfish, but only ME. For everyone else it’s okay and fine and no problem.

    But I am always some­thing bad and that is all I’ll ever be. I’m worth­less unless someone is dumping their prob­lems on me without asking about mine. I’m under a moun­tain and nobody cares.

    1. Author

      You are absolutely, 100% NOT the problem in this sit­u­a­tion. I have also found that I can do what I per­ceive to be the exact same thing as NT people and get looked at funny or ostra­cized for it, and I don’t know why. If I can ever figure out what the dif­fer­ence is, I’ll let the world know, because it doesn’t make sense to me, either. I’m so sorry you have such unsup­portive friends. You deserve better.

  8. Note: First I would like to say that I am from Brazil and I am not fluent in English. I can read the arti­cles on the site with Google trans­lator and to write this I also used Google and I apol­o­gize for pos­sible errors in machine trans­la­tion. I would prefer to write in Portuguese but I believe it is nec­es­sary to write in your lan­guage. May this dif­fer­ence not only limit us to com­mu­ni­cate.

    The story is won­derful. I learned a lot from him. Thank you for sharing. The site is great and I read most of the posts. Very impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the com­mu­nity.

    1. Author

      You’re very wel­come. I’m glad to help. Thank you. 🙂

  9. Reading this was like reading my biog­raphy. Thank you, for putting it into words with such a well written piece.

    1. Author

      You’re wel­come. Thank you for your com­ment. 🙂

  10. I just wish I had under­stood sooner. I’m just a mom trying to raise a son. I have so much guilt about not doing it right. I got to the point that I didn’t like the person I was, the parent I was, I felt like I was being abu­sive, so I had him tested. He was in the third grade then. It’s been an edu­ca­tion for me ever since. I still don’t get it right, but I love him so much and only want him to be happy and healthy.

    1. Author

      Come hang out on my Facebook page. You’ll learn a lot! There are some really great dis­cus­sions going on between NDs and NTs. 🙂

Talk to us... what are you thinking?