Why Being Called “Dramatic” Is Both Completely Wrong and Psychologically Damaging to Autistic People

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

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.

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32 Responses

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

  4. 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. 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).

  5. 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.

  6. 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. 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.

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

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

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

  10. Hi, I’d like to let you know that your article has been featured here: https://quantumlivingpsychology.wpcomstaging.com/2020/12/08/child-emotional-neglect/

    I love how this article really puts you in the mind of an autistic child. Lots of people just don’t get what it’s like. Articles like this one can help them understand. It has certainly reminded me to respond with empathy, and to ask what’s wrong, instead of assuming that someone is overreacting. After all, even if it’s small to you, it could be big to them!

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