Often, I feel like an imposter writing about neurodiversity, autism, and PDA as a neurotypical woman. Throughout my life, social and academic learning has come naturally to me. I don’t remember how I learned to read or when I made friends as a child, because it unfolded without a hiccup. It simply happened, like rainy days or squirrels running across tree branches in the summer. These milestones are not embedded in my brain as searing emotional memories, like they are for many neurodivergent children. When I watch my son struggle to learn or relate to his peers, I observe an implicit experience not of unfolding ease, but of blockage, confusion, and shame at how his brain isn’t doing what every other child’s brain around him is doing.
Additionally, sensory input has never interrupted the natural flow of me moving through the world. Sure, I don’t love pulling wet spinach out of the kitchen drain and I sometimes gag after a poop explosion from my youngest, but these are the exceptions to my days, not the rule.
While living in New York City, I used to love the din of the subway and the crush of people, the opportunity to create my own little voyeuristic bubble as I stood clutching a germ-infested pole to steady myself in the crowded subway car. It is only now that I notice the sounds of distant birds, garbage trucks, and the rustle of trees around me, and this is solely because both my sons’ behavior alerts me to it. Their small hands pressed tightly to ears, long eyelashes blinking rapidly, gazes scanning their surroundings, hypervigilant.
But there is one aspect of my PDA son’s experience that I know on a visceral, cellular level: Anxiety and panic attacks.
At the age of 26, and a few months into my first semester of graduate school in New York City, I remember studying in the silence of the law library with two friends. There was a moment when my eyes were scanning a text about colonialism and suddenly, the words on the page blurred and doubled. I felt pain in my chest, like a fist around my heart, and a tingling sensation that started at the base of my spine and enveloped me up through the crown of my head. It felt like trying to see through a giant, transparent cotton ball that blurred my vision and created a layer of distance between me and the outside world.
I poked my head above the cubicle and looked for the back of my closest friend’s head, searching desperately for co-regulation, years before I would ever hear the term.
“Rajan, I think I am having a heart attack.”
He walked me out of the library, arm around my shoulder, as my hands shook, to the university medical clinic. A motherly nurse gently asked me questions about my symptoms as she took my vitals.
“Physically, everything looks fine,” she said.
I told her that my heart hurt and that I couldn’t really see. That I felt like I was going to throw up.
She took my arm and walked me in silence across campus to another building. As she handed me off to the campus mental health services, she said,
“You are having a panic attack”.
I started crying as she walked away, wanting, needing her to stay with me. In a small dimly lit room, a therapist began telling me to take deep breaths as I paced her small, dimly lit room.
“I can't,” I said. My lungs felt like they were collapsing and there was too much weight on my chest. And “Fuck you” I thought “For asking me to do something I can’t.”
Her words faded behind the invisible cotton ball around my head, and I caught only snippets as she rambled on, “stress,” “sleep,” "caffeine intake," “therapy,” “calm”. I don’t remember how the panic attack ended, but I think it involved Rajan walking me home and a glass of water and silence. For a while after, I was still convinced it had been a heart attack.
Now, thirteen years later, with over a decade of consistent therapy, all. the. medication., lifestyle changes, yoga, etc. I don’t often have panic attacks. When I do, I recognize that it isn’t a heart attack, it is my body’s nervous system response. And that eventually it will pass if I don’t fight it and judge it and try to stop the tsunami of physical sensations.
Now, when my son goes into fight or flight throughout the day, I try to remember myself pacing in that therapist’s office, the taste of acid in the back of my throat, the rage towards the words flying at me that I couldn’t make sense of, and my body yearning for someone to envelope me, make it better, make it stop, make it stop, make it stop.