Interestingly enough it was an article in the Harvard Business Review (Decisions and Desire) that prompted a bit of an “aha moment” around being autistic and social cues/social interactions. In the article, the author says: The amygdala responds instantaneously to all manner of perceived potential threats and pays particular attention to social cues. As someone who has an interest not just in psychology, but also cPTSD and trauma, this sentence jumped out at me like a frog leaping from a pan of hot water.If our amygdala is too busy searching for and processing threats, then it won't have enough bandwidth available for social interactions. Like really bad cell service, those "social cue calls" are just going to drop. Click To Tweet
Many individuals who are diagnosed autistic (and other neurodviergent conditions) also experience trauma in their lives, and for some of them–a lot of trauma. All that trauma adds up and makes the amygdala work overtime. It’s constantly responding to social cues like tone of voice or even a look and perceiving threats instead of handling the social side of things. Therefore, there’s no energy, no bandwidth available to try and deal with it on a social level. If you think someone looked at you angrily, and you believe that they are doing so because of something you’ve done (which is a common thought pattern among autistic individuals), there’s not a lot of room to question the expression or even realize that it wasn’t you they were angry at, but something completely unrelated to you, such as a persistent insect or something on the television.
The amygdala is the fight or flight part of the brain, the one that psychology textbooks label the “primitive lizard brain”. (Having pet bearded dragons, I think lizards are pretty cool, but they’re also not known for nuance.) If it’s busy going “threat! threat!” (much in the way my beardies go “Food!Food!” at feeding time), then it isn’t going to leave any thought space for social interactions.
This has serious ramifications for autistic individuals. If both individuals in the relationship are aware of this and open to keeping communication fluid between them, then there might be room to ask “Hey, everything okay? You sounded angry.” And often, at least in my household, the answer is “It wasn’t you, my mind was thinking about something else.” For neurodivergent people who may have trouble with emotional regulation and voice tone control, this two-way communication is vital, because it keeps misunderstandings from happening. And it also requires a fully present amygdala.
But if you’re a late-realized autistic or are just learning to explore the neurodivergent parts of your brain, then it’s possible that there isn’t enough knowledge to make these distinctions and your amygdala is still going “trauma! trauma!” without any thought to social cues outside of protecting itself from being hurt. (Which is very okay, because we’ve all been there, and many of us are still trying to figure out what being neurodivergent really means for us. So please, don’t feel bad!) Because that’s the real stickler when it comes to social interactions: If we put ourselves out there socially, then that will possibly involve some degree of hurt. It’s inevitable. Misunderstandings happen, and sometimes relationships just don’t work out. All of this leaves the amygdala going “told you so! trauma!” and helping you avoid the hurt, which does not really help trying to be more social and caring for our social needs.
The social sector of the wellness wheel is just as important as the physical or emotional sectors. And yet, too often we get so focused on one area of the wellness wheel (like our physical health) that we neglect the others.It's easy, too easy really, to think that we just "aren't likeable" or some other label and completely ignore our social wellness. And our overactive amygdalas make that possible. Click To Tweet
Trauma-informed care, trauma-informed wellness is vital for us. Because if you don’t believe, or understand, the trauma autistic individuals endure, then you won’t make room for them socially or any other way. So yes, the amygdala is involved in social cues more than people thought, but then that should make us think what other things an amygdala which is constantly on the look out for trauma might be impacting, too. And that brings us back to social cues and social wellness, we need to be aware of this so that our social wellness doesn’t suffer any more than it already might due to the trauma we’ve experienced, and so that we can be aware of ways in which we may heal and find support.