Brain-lock! A Peek Inside the Inner Workings of an Over-stimulated Asperger’s Brain

What do you do when your husband freezes in a river full of moving people? wheres_waldo

After a Go-Go’s concert, we got up to leave the Hollywood Bowl bleacher seats with thousands of other people. Tom’s hand gripped my shoulder.

“Are you all right?” I said.

He gripped harder and we crept toward the exit. I knew something was wrong so I tried to guide him. People were pushing from all sides. It was like rush hour on the 405 Freeway and there was no place to pull over.

“We’re almost out,” I said.

But as soon as we squeezed out of the theater, many lines of people converged from the various exits. We were in the middle of this crushing mass, trying to walk downhill.

“Wall,” Tom said.

I aimed for the snack bar building, about 20 yards away. We were oozing along with a somewhat raucous crowd of tipsy concert-goers, and the momentum was preventing us from reaching the perimeter.

And then Tom froze. He wouldn’t move or respond to me.

He says:

One of the hazards of Asperger’s Syndrome and ASD is something I call brain-lock. People on the autism spectrum tend to be hypersensitive to everyday stimuli that people not on the spectrum have the ability to ignore. Brain-lock occurs when too much sensory information comes in and the mind seizes up.

A crush of humanity triggers brain-lock in me.

At the end of the concert of 80’s bands, I held back and waited for the crowds to thin out. I know my limitations. There seemed to be a break so off we went. That’s when the crush began. I gripped Linda’s shoulders and let her lead me through as brain-lock descended. I honestly had no idea of who, what or where I was. It’s like standing in the eye of a swirling hurricane of colors, sounds, sensations and thoughts, where nothing—even your own existence—makes any sense.

“Are you all right?” I heard Linda ask through the swirling blur of loud Hawaiian shirts, shouting voices, the feel of bodies crushing in on me and the smell of stale margaritas. What she was saying made no sense to me.

I tried parsing out the words.

Are—R?  Arrrgh?

You—U? Ewww? Ewe?

All right?—Al Wright? Awl rite? All left?

“Wall,” was all I could manage. I knew if I had something solid, I at least stood a chance to get my bearings and just make it all stop. If nothing else, I knew it would eventually end when enough people left. We couldn’t make it. There were just so many souls in this river of humanity that the wall was about as far away as the moon. We kept going.

Eventually we reached an open area and I dove for the nearest people-free space. I vaguely remember clinging onto the railing of a closed snack bar, gasping for breath until my brain unlocked and the world slowly returned to normal.  The hurricane subsided and I was myself again.

Just another middle-aged guy in a Hawaiian shirt

©2013 Tom & Linda Peters

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9 Comments

  1. This story had my heart hammering in my chest. I know exactly what it feels like, adding social anxiety to the mix makes it even more inevitable. At those moments I just want out, away, make it STOP. It must be scary for those I am with, too. The way Linda describes it. I’ve never seen that side, at that point I don’t have brain power left to pay attention to how other people respond. It’s so frightening and paralysing. I feel it now just from reading your words.

    Reply
    • This was a tough post to write, but it’s something I don’t think I’ve ever seen addressed before. While I can deal with the day-to-day irritations that come from having Asperger’s Syndrome, going through an episode of brain-lock always reminds me that I am, in fact, autistic.

      It also gives me an appreciation for what those who are profoundly autistic live with every minute of every day.

      Reply
  2. This is my own first time my partner and i visit here. I ran across so many engaging stuff in your blog, especially its discussion. From the a lot of comments in your posts, I reckon that I am not the only person having all of the enjoyment right here! Keep up the excellent work.

    Reply
  3. Heather

     /  December 31, 2013

    Thanks so much for sharing Brain Lock. We experienced this recently at my daughters’ Christmas Recital. After the school recital they dismissed the kids to find the parents in the room. It was utter chaos and my daughter (high functioning autism diagnosis) ran away from us and went up high on the bleachers. Her eyes were darting back and forth and she couldn’t keep in one spot. My husband tried to approach her and she said something rude to him and ran off again. I knew she was overwhelmed and asked the teacher if she could leave this room. Right then she came up and asked if she could go change. I was sad to see all the other kids so happy and hugging their parents and what a struggle it was for my daughter to just be in this room. later, I inquired what exactly was it like to be in that room. She responded that she can’t see faces and can’t understand all the noise. Thanks again for sharing your experience.

    Reply
    • That’s really tough on everybody: your daughter, you and your husband. The key is to know your limitations, and avoid them if at all possible. That’s a lot easier said than done. I once had to be rescued from the Sea World Shark Encounter, when shifting lights, a crush of humanity and my screaming toddler caused me to completely seize up. It does get better, though, as self-knowledge, experience and being aware when brain-lock starts to set in.

      Reply
  4. Heather

     /  December 31, 2013

    Oh yes, Sea World. We avoided a recent trip as she teared up at the mere mention of the place. She doesn’t like to see animals in cages. Yes, thank you. She is 9 now and I am planning on discussing more about her diagnosis and how she can help herself as well. I’m constantly learning and appreciate all insight.

    Reply

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