Autistic replay in the brain

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IMG_6661Have you ever watched an autistic individual joyously laugh or begin to sob broken heartedly for no reason apparent to yourself?

It’s very likely they are replaying a memory of an event that has passed, possibly as recent as that day or even months or years ago. We can feel the exact same intensity that we felt at that moment, see the same sights, smell the same smells and hear the same sounds.

Depending on if it’s a pleasant memory we may sit there smiling, giggling or laughing uproariously to the amazement of anyone nearby. Similarly our distress is absolute if it’s a depressing memory, tears will run and the devastating sadness experiences at that time will be identical.

Can we stop replays? No.

Can we control them? No.

They can be triggered by a sight, a smell similar to one we would have smelt at that time, a sound like an alarm or a song can all provoke a truly realistic memory reel to begin playing at its own will.

For instance I was unfortunate enough to be scrolling through Facebook one day and saw a video of a baby being assaulted. It’s replayed in my head for three days.

I looked it up and found the child minder involved had been arrested that day and was now in prison, the baby had recovered yet it gave me scant relief. I could feel the devastation that I imagined the baby could feel, and the actions wound like a non stop preview whether my eyes were closed or open. I couldn’t eat for two of those days. I couldn’t sleep for all of them. That was jus one example, similarly a happy memory of a little baby chimp statue in a shop window that made me giggle can still make me happy till this day, the giggles erupt and the bubble of joy I felt is mimicked to perfection.

If your child or adult autistic is seeming to have a replay leave them alone.

If they seek comfort give it but otherwise leave them to go through the literal visual, auditory and sound reel they are witnessing. We need to replay it though it’s involuntary,  to get it out .

If possible try to think of a recent meal you have eaten that you do not have regularly, a song you haven’t heard for a while on the radio, an advert or even a phrase could start a replay.

If your child or adult autistic seems very upset by what they are replaying and you can narrow it down to something they have seen on the TV or their tablet/ computer get a cloth and wipe it down firmly in front of them. Clean the keyboard and even surrounding desk as this will visually cleanse the area. Wipe the viewing history. Snap the DVD in half if it’s that and it helps, I have had to rip a video to pieces after seeing something distressing on it and I then binned it. That didn’t work as the bin was still in the house, once I’d emptied it I felt better.

If your child/adult has memories of bullying, something that upsets them ask them to write or draw it then bury it or tie it to a balloon and let it go. You may have to do this several times if it’s a particularly distressing memory. Alternatively if they are laughing and giggling in glee join in!

We need more of that in the world and a joyful memory shared is something to be cherished.

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  1. JW  September 11, 2015

    Thanks. Really nice, practical tips about strong symbolic visual ways of “letting it go”.

  2. Brynne  September 12, 2015

    I’ve always experienced this, but didn’t know if was an actual phenomenon. I always tell people I don’t just remember something, but there’s also the original emotions that come along with it. Thank you for posting.

  3. Howard  September 15, 2015

    I just came across this article by chance today. Wow! It explains SO MUCH about me! I am 56 years old and have just been formally diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Fourteen years ago, long before I knew anything about autism, I posted the following on an anti-bullying website: “Posessing an unusually keen memory has also meant that bitter and painful childhood memories even from nearly 40 years ago are as vivid in my recollection as if they had happened earlier today. It is like my entire childhood has been videotaped, archived and indexed, ready for instant retrieval and replay in my mind upon being triggered by any vaguely similar event of the present.” Now I understand why.

  4. Heidi Renee  September 17, 2015

    My daughter is 19 and on the spectrum. We have been talking about this a lot lately. I understand about viewing something graphic and disturbing and how it replays in your mind. But what we have been talking about lately is how she brings back hurtful memories or cruel words spoken to somehow punish herself or make herself feel something when she feels she should be having emotions or tears. We have termed this emotional cutting and like those who self injure it feels to her very similar in its motivation and outcome. Cutters are hoping to elicit pain so they are able to feel something, anything – and let the pain out. We had been going through the pain of her grandfather having his leg amputated and that evening after watching me grieve she went to her room and ended up bringing out her emotional knives. She didn’t understand why she did it, but the next day we were able to talk about it and made the connection to self injury. She wanted to feel my grief and shamed herself for not being able to cry when she thought she should. We talked about it and she understood that it was okay not to have tears even when others have them, and that she may be able to one day learn that her emotional cutting is unnecessary and does more damage than it helps. We’re not far enough into the knowledge that we talked about to see if understanding the triggers helps her, but hopefully she’ll be able to identify it and talk about it instead of digging up the memories of pain and suffering to elicit emotion or punish herself for not having what she thinks she should.

  5. Carla-marie fletcher  September 17, 2015

    This is so like my glad I read, so glad u printed it too see ?

  6. Jen  September 17, 2015

    I have relatively few childhood memories.Most of mine are of things that boosted my adrenaline. But those moments of being overwhelmed or left out can do a number on me- and I’ll be in tears describing the touching scene on television 3 days later. Telling someone about it tends to help slow the loop frequency so that it fades quicker. I’ve never before been able to explain that, like the fact I have at least one song playing in my head and often it’s like 2 or 3 radios are playing at once (which happens to my father, a man with many Aspie traits, as well, and telling each other what’s in our brains will add it to their pile if we know it- at least our preferred genres are different, but we’ve lived in the same house for over 35 years (I did manage a few semesters away in college), I will have the words of a TV show (face-blind so don’t have clear visuals) or a book scene replaying over and over

  7. Lisa  September 19, 2015

    Thank you for this, I stumbled upon it when my daughter who is 5 and on the spectrum was having a day where she was very emotional and would cry for seemingly no reason at all. This makes a lot of sense as she has a great memory for things that happened years ago…


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