If you’re a neurotypical person, you might find being interrupted when you’re in the middle of something important quite irritating. I think most people do to one extent or another. However, when you’re neurodiverse, being interrupted is a whole other level of horrible.
I recently asked a question on my Facebook page, “What does task interruption feel like for an autistic person?” The answers I got were staggering and made me realize, once again, that I am not even close to being alone in my way of experiencing the world.
If you find yourself wondering why the neurodiverse person in your life gets angry, hurt, unfocused, emotionally rattled, or has a meltdown when they’ve been interrupted from completing a task (any task, but especially one they’re deeply involved in), this article may help you better understand what’s really going on internally to cause those reactions.
Below are 12 quotes from neurodiverse people who explain, in graphic detail, what task interruption really feels like for them.*
*Quotes edited for content, clarity, and length. All comments are anonymous.
1) “It’s like I’m writing on a big sheet of glass, and the interruption is like a sledgehammer to the glass. My thoughts are shattered and sent violently flying in all directions. It’s revolting and disorienting and makes me angry and want to cry all at the same time.”
2) “If the task is interrupted, I have no memory of what I’ve done and have to go right back to the beginning and retrace my steps until I find the point where I left the task. I find this incredibly anxiety-provoking.”
3) “It feels like a cold bucket of water to the face after getting a relaxing massage.”
4) “It feels like my skin is being torn off my body (and I know what that feels like with a wound). It also means I’ll be irrationally afraid of going back into hyper-focus in case someone comes back and interrupts me again. In addition, it means I could even forget how to do things like use a microwave or get from point A to point B.”
5) “It’s like my brain has been happily watersliding and comes to a rude end on a cheese grater, essentially.”
6) “It’s like being abruptly cut off in traffic. You know, that kind of cut-off where you’ve got to lock the brakes up and nearly fishtail into that giant big rig next to you? Suddenly, you’re so shaken that you can’t even remember where you were going, much less the color of the offending car.”
7) “To put it succinctly, I no longer have any idea what the heck I’m doing and basically have to start over.”
8) “It’s like someone has literally physically pulled a rug out from under my feet, and I’ve landed so hard on my rear end that I’m completely dazed. It can take me hours, days, or even weeks to get back to doing what I’d started. It may sound extreme, but due to anxiety and other co-morbid conditions, I have already spent hours, days, or even weeks thinking about the task before I’d started it.”
9) “It’s a shock to the system, like going from a really warm house out into the winter cold… only my mind has trouble stopping because if I’m really deep into a complicated project (especially if I’m trying to solve a problem), half of my brain is still there.
The person interrupting me only pulled part of me away, made me feel a bit sick, and left me trying to help them (to be polite). Regardless, I’m really irritated and annoyed with the person while also trying to still be good company, not hurt myself accidentally doing whatever the new task is, while also trying to maintain my thoughts about the project I was interrupted from.
The worst part is, if my feelings of frustration bleed through (even though I try to mask them), the person may yell at me or react badly if I don’t do a good enough job of hiding what I’m going through from them”
10) “If the interruption is not a planned one, I become engulfed with irrational rage and lash out. It’s almost as if I am incapable of being calm and rational and objective. I cannot switch back to what I was doing because I’m unable to capture lightning in a bottle a second time. Afterwards, I’m completely worn out and crash.”
11) “It’s like I’ve been building a house of cards and with each level, I step up so I can reach higher and see/understand more about whatever it is that I’m doing…suddenly someone walks up and says, ‘Hey… Hey!,’ and then gets frustrated that I’m not replying and knocks the entire structure down and me with it just to say, ‘How ya doin?’ only to walk off without even waiting for an answer.”
12) “Interruptions are very stressful. I ask people not to interrupt me when I am doing something unless it is necessary, but people usually ignore my request, and thus I have developed anxiety around people. I only feel safe in a situation or around people where I know that I won’t be approached for no reason. Otherwise, I am constantly on edge.”
As you can see from these descriptive responses, interrupting a neurodiverse person is akin to physically or emotionally attacking us. This is why it’s so important for neurotypical people to understand that interruptions should be saved for legitimate emergencies.
That said, you and the neurodiverse person in your life can also work out a schedule where a certain amount of time is blocked off for certain tasks. Alternatively, and I prefer this method, send an email or text to the neurodiverse person, so we can hear and see that you want to get in touch. This will allow us to disengage from our task naturally and at our own pace, so the feeling is not so jarring.
Also, it’s important to remember that most neurodiverse people don’t even like it when we interrupt ourselves. This means that our bodies may be telling us we should eat, drink water, use the bathroom, or rest, and many of us won’t heed these warning signs (or even be fully aware of them) until the last possible second.
In other words, our behavior isn’t socially-motivated, and it has nothing to do with anyone or anything outside of ourselves. Because being interrupted is so painful to us, we are simply trying to preserve our sense of internal balance (which is off nearly all the time unless we are fully immersed in a task).
This is why we require alternative means of communication as an accommodation as urgently as a diabetic needs their insulin or an asthmatic needs their inhaler. It needs to be taken that seriously.
- Could Student-Focused Learning Help Neurodivergent Learners Get a Better Education? - January 19, 2020
- Don’t Confront Your Autistic Loved One About Concerning Behavior… Investigate Instead - December 9, 2019
- Why We Need to Start Treating “Autistic” As Another Language Instead of a Condition - November 16, 2019
Thank you for this. I’ve suspected that not liking being interrupted was part of my autism, but it’s good to have that confirmed. Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out why my first reaction to being called by somebody is so often a feeling of such anger, when the other person isn’t trying to hurt me.
I have been speculating for some time that I might be on the edge or maybe even diagnosable. Today I Was like wonder how they feel about this. I wonder if it is the same for them, how hard it is to be interrupted (esp. all the time) and how disorienting it is. Maybe this is a common thing. And here we are. 🙂 How an interruption or more can completely throw me off the rest of the day or time. How upset I get. Just another clue, I guess.
Thank you so much for this article, it was so relatable. For me, trying to concentrate is like diving underwater. It takes effort to fight the buoyancy of your air tank in order to stay down but it starts to get easier to manage your breathing the longer you’re able to spend down there. When someone interrupts, it’s like having all of the air in your tank expended to zero and you’re forced to surface immediately. The other person is completely oblivious to how much of my time and effort they just wasted. What makes me angry is being expected to hide my irritation from them just because they needed my help for some reason.
That’s so close to the way I think of it. In my mind, I’m going down a long tunnel. A sudden interruption pulls me back up to the surface, and I’m irritated when I think of how much time it will take me to settle down and get back in the tunnel again. And I’m biting back a scream at the kid who just wanted to say, “Hi, Mom.”