Rejection Sensitivity

Rejection Sensitivity and Autistics

“You’re too sensitive!”

“It’s not that loud.” 

“Stop fidgeting, weirdo.”

“What’s wrong with HIM?”

“Why did you invite THEM?” 

Phrases we as Autistics have heard a million times. And they often stick with us ALL OUR LIVES. We replay and replay them. We can hear their whispers. We can see their sneers. 10, 20 years later. 

Memories of rejection pile up in our minds. We hoard them, like a toxic treasure. 

And with every rejection, the shame and fear of further rejection grow. We enter a vicious cycle of people pleasing, rumination, over-committing, demand avoidance, disappointing – and more rejection. 

As Autistics and ADHDers, our experience of rejection can be debilitating, both physically and emotionally:

“For me, it’s chest pain ache and discomfort, and tightness, and not being able to breathe, like a knife has been stuck into my chest. It can come on so rapidly, it can consume me before I can even consciously articulate it.”*

This extremely intense reaction to rejection is often referred to as Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD). Yet another set of letters to add to our list of deficits? Yes, Autistic people tend to be more sensitive in general, but no, that doesn’t mean RSD is inherent to being Autistic. Rejection sensitivity is caused by – rejection. A lifetime of it. 

It is a perfectly human response to years and decades of being bullied, excluded, ignored, and dismissed. After all that, it makes sense to react extremely even to minor remarks. There is nothing wrong with us for feeling this way. There is a lot wrong with those who caused us to feel so alien and inadequate. 

So what can we do about it? 

If you are Autistic or an ADHDer, it might be comforting to know that you are not alone. In fact, the majority of us experience rejection sensitivity. 

It might help to acknowledge your feelings and change your perspective on social interactions. You are not too sensitive. Others are too insensitive. You do not lack social skills – those who reject others for being different do.

But more importantly: RSD isn’t just some ‘Autistic trait’. We as a society need to do better. In our families, communities, schools, and workplaces. Big change is needed. But we can start today by not adding to the negative memory pile. Add to the positive one instead. Stop being so judgemental. Be curious instead. And stand up for us without speaking over us. 

If you are a professional working with Autistic children and teens, have a look at our Get Konnected Neuro-affirming Social Skills course. Learn how to support your clients with their social interactions and relationships.

* Quotes from this insightful post on NeuroClastic.

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