Fight or fight

A few years back, I was at a conference dinner. Two senior scholars, who were seated next to me, and had been engrossed in conversation, suddenly turned to me and asked what kept me motivated. My immediate response was “Rage”. We all chuckled, but it’s the raw, unedited truth. To me, my Rage is like a force of nature. It used to torture me when I was younger.

Autism correlates with differences in amygdala function compared to allistics. One line of research suggests exceptional growth of the amygdala in childhood, which levels out later on. The amygdala is responsible for activating your fight-or-flight response to perceived threats. This process is usually mediated by your frontal lobes, but when you’re overwhelmed or stressed, can play out as an “amygdala hijack”, leading to an overreaction.

Autistic individuals often have high rates of anxiety, can be prone to panic attacks, and, of course, to autistic meltdowns. I have experienced all of these, and sometimes still do, but the most dramatic effect of what was probably an overly active amygdala were my childhood rages. I was frequently flooded by a rage that felt as endless as the ocean. It was terrifying. My parents didn’t know how to handle it. They would put me in my room and close the door until it was over. I was afraid that, one day, I would cause horrible harm. I felt that my rage was enough to blow up the entire planet.

Still today, when faced with a threat, I do not have a fight-or-flight response. I have a fight-or-fight response. I do not feel fear or sadness when confronted with whatever type of danger or obstacle. Only rage. Lucky for me, this rage no longer takes over my entire being (at least not usually). Instead, I have learned to channel it. To let it push me to be a better teacher, mother, researcher, colleague. To stand up for what I believe is right. I can feel it, always. It moves under my skin. My Rage is white. It burns like the sun.


Given that I am highly multilingual, I often get asked how many languages I speak fluently. I generally respond with “none”, and this isn’t a joke. My thoughts are not word-shaped. This is one reason why I was puzzled by claims in the Chomskyan tradition (e. g. Hauser, Chomsky, Fitch 2002) that the capacity for language originally evolved as a tool for thought, not communication. I do not generally feel a need to put my thoughts into words until I want to share them with others. Sometimes, I fail, and produce entirely nonsensical sentences, because I don’t find a good match between my thoughts and words.

Autistic people often have a different relation to language compared to allistic people. Many autistic children have a delay in acquiring speech compared to allistic children. Some autistic people prefer to not communicate with what we call mouthwords. They might prefer speaking a signed language, or use devices for augmentative and alternative communication (ACC). In other cases, autistic children acquire an unusual amount of vocabulary at an early age and form highly complex sentences. We can delight in words the same way we may delight in interesting rocks or plants. Words and phrases can be something to study, something to collect. Often, autistic people have a heightened sensitivity to the literal meanings of expressions.

Two other aspects of how the autistic experience of verbal behaviour can be different from allistic people are social behaviour and echolalia, about which I will write separately.