Several days ago something happened while out for breakfast that I'd made note of at the time, and for some reason today I had a striking thought about the dynamics of it.
Today’s accomplishment: speaking up when I didn’t want the middle-of-the-room table the breakfast place offered me, even though it inherently meant I was asking them to clean off a different one before they were going to get to it. (I can’t really sit in the middle of rooms, but I have a problem “challenging” someone like that.)
In many of these situations, of course, there is no actual challenge, let alone confrontation, not really. Today I suddenly started thinking about why it feels that way to me.
What I landed on was that when people ask me to change course (let alone tell me to do so), that's exactly what it feels like: a challenge, or a confrontation. For many autistic people, task-switching (or, say, context-switching) requires a not-insignificant outlay of energy, and being asked to switch things up on-the-fly can create all sorts of anxious reactions and responses.
(I've written before about how task switching for many autistic people isn't the two things it otherwise might be for the neurotypical; it's more like five things, at least: the old thing, winding down from the old thing, a transitional state, spooling up for the new thing, and the new thing.)
So, when—even for my own good—I need to ask someone else to deviate from their announced course of action, that old autistic empathy kicks in and, essentially, I fear I am about to send them down that selfsame anxiety hole, and then that very empathetic state in and of itself feeds back to cause me anxiety.
What I noticed about how I dealt with the situation at the breakfast place is that I effectively did a form of what I need people to do for me: I didn't just make the request, I explained why it was important, and I offered them time to make the adjustment, explaining there was no rush on getting a different table ready because I knew they'd just been slammed and it might take some time.
None of which is to say that making the request was easy, or that suddenly with this series of realizations I'm no longer socially “impaired”. The request still cost me, but in the scheme of things it cost me less than would have the suffocating anxiety of having to sit exposed in the middle the room.
Now that I understand the dynamics at play, and why this particular part of my social anxiety exists, at least, maybe, I can successfully navigate it a little more often.