Ruminating. With minds wired to seek repetition, routine, and consistency, we as autistic people find ourselves continuously thinking the same thoughts, or ruminating. And one thing autistic adults may wind up ruminating on is our pasts.
So many past mistakes, so much perplexity, so many confounding heartbreaks. Being a person with autism, perhaps even undiagnosed, we experienced many difficult moments but never quite understood why or how to make it better. For this reason, we often replay our pasts on repeat. We want to learn, but we don’t understand. We want to move on, but we are scared that the same confusing difficulties will follow us into the future.
The tendency to ruminate comes from the autistic trait of perseveration. Perseveration is the prolonged repetition of an action, phrase, or thought. Echolalia is perseveration in that it’s the repetition of words. Stimming is perseveration. Ruminating on the past is perseveration.
Sometimes we perseverate on the past because we need to accept what happened to us and normalize/desensitize the pain. This is documented in young children when they voluntarily play out trauma with their toys or draw pictures of devastating occurrences. Adults ruminate, too, but instead of expressing our pain through play and art, we tend to turn inward, spiraling into dark thoughts, fear, and melancholy.
This is the part where everyone says that if an autistic person can’t let go of the past, we should get therapy. While I’m a huge proponent of therapy, the reality is that not every autistic can find or afford a therapist that understands autism and many autistic people may be semi-verbal or nonspeaking.
Talking about our pasts can certainly help, but autistic people may need alternative therapies. Music, art, dance, writing. There are many ways to heal, often in conjunction with therapy. We may need to be more like children and express ourselves. As an autistic person, we may have to fight against the ableist pressure to pretend we are neurotypical, to pretend we are “fine,” and take a moment to illustrate our pasts through safe mediums. To get the thoughts out and into the open air.