In this post, I offer alternative perspectives for why an autistic person may demonstrate a “big” reaction to a perceived “small problem,” and I discuss the potential harm that attempting to make problems formulaic can be for the autistic population.

What is the “size of the problem” lesson?

The “Size of the problem” lesson is part of the Social Thinking Methodology popularized by Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke. The lesson targets discussing the expected “size” (small, medium, big) of a problem and ascribing corresponding expected reactions based on the problem’s size. A small problem, or “glitch” is described as one that can be resolved without assistance. In other words, “small problems are no big deal.” A medium problem is described as one that can’t be immediately resolved or may require outside assistance. A big problem is described as very serious that will require adults to help resolve or involves many people.

In the lesson, a student identifies expected reactions to a stated problem. They may also determine whether their reaction “matched” the size of the problem or not. The lesson claims to encourage self-regulating emotional reactions when faced with a problem.

The Social Thinking Methodology teaches that problems happen, people have feelings and reactions and that is all okay unless…another problem is created.

-Social thinking

The problem with “size of the problem”

Now the main problems I have with the method can be boiled down to one point: assigning objective ratings to subjective problems is not productive.


  • Human are complex creatures with complex thoughts and feelings.
  • We can’t truly know what someone else is facing. Everyone has a different life.
  • Few problems are fully visible from the surface.
  • The cost of getting it wrong is HUGE – (I’m not exaggerating, mental health is no joke!)

We’re missing the context of the autistic person’s experience.

Is getting sick a fitting reaction when your brain experiences an undesirable food texture as eating eyeballs? Is crying a fitting reaction to feeling like the shoes you’re expected to wear for the next year are cutting your feet?

Autistic people, kids especially, are often told we’re overreacting to our sensory issues. Because from a neurotypical lens, from someone who doesn’t experience the same struggles, the problems can appear trivial. We need to include the autistic person’s perspective to redefine what we consider overreactions.

Autistic problems may not be visible from a non-autistic lens

Determining the size of the problem assumes the adult can adequately comprehend the problem(s) a student is facing. Yet as teachers or SLPs, we can’t know everything our students experience outside of the classroom, outside of school. And even if we did, problems are subjective. A problem for me, might not be a problem at all for you, and vice versa.

So, how can we assign a “fitting” rating to someone else’s problem?

When dealing with something as complex as human emotions, we need to individualize, personalize, humanize them. And sometimes, that means giving people the benefit of the doubt.

Let me tell you a story about a very small problem that elicited a huge reaction from me. Then, we’ll go deeper into the “why” behind some autistic big reactions.

Personal story – An overreaction

One evening I was making dinner and had pasta in a colander in the sink. My boyfriend at the time without looking, turned on the water and got soap to wash his hands in the sink. I screamed something like “no, what are you doing??” before turning his attention to my dinner he was about to ruin. He saw this as a very small problem, barely an inconvenience, so after he pointed the faucet away from the noodles, he quickly moved on and couldn’t understand why I was still upset.

  • It was an accident.
  • Nothing bad actually happened.
  • The dinner was fine. Problem solved.
  • Time to move on.

But instead, I started crying, completely overwhelmed by the almost catastrophe and stuck in a loop of uncontrolled emotion triggered by his mistake.

The problem is when our reactions are larger than the size of the problem and create a whole new problem.

– Socialthinking

My response really doesn’t appear justifiable – it’s not a good look. It’s hard to sympathize with or imagine my perspective. And that’s precisely my point.

Some of your students or clients will have reactions that seem excessive, that won’t make sense to you. I’m challenging you to try and empathize regardless, even when it’s hard.

So then, why might an autistic person have such a big reaction to a seemingly small problem?

Four reasons an autistic person may have big reactions to small problems

  1. The alexithymia delay
  2. Masking and crashing
  3. Concrete just makes sense
  4. Disrupted safety zone

1. The alexithymia delay

Sometimes I work with children and adults who can’t put words to their feelings and thoughts. It’s not that they don’t want to – it’s more that they don’t know how.

Deborah Serani, Scientific American

What is alexithymia?

Alexithymia refers to a difficulty identifying, interpreting, and describing emotions, also known as “emotion blindness.” Alexithymia is more commonly occurring in the autistic population. Like autism, there’s a range and variability in how alexithymia presents; therefore, I’m going to give a basic summary.*

*If you’d like to read more to gather an in-depth understanding of alexithymia, Neurodivergent Insights’ article, “Alexithymia Traits Explained,” is an excellent resource that goes into greater detail.

The difficulties associated with alexithymia can be broadly summarized into two categories: 1) cognitive perception (“the thinking”) involving emotions, 2) affect expression (“the feeling”) involving emotions. The intersection of these two areas of difficulty involves differentiating between emotions and bodily sensations, (e.g., “am I feeling tired or hungry?”)

For example, a person may have difficulty noticing or maintaining awareness of emotions in themselves. Likewise, they may also struggle with recognizing or imagining emotion states within others, as the brain struggles with awareness of the impact of feeling states. They may struggle to relate to the intensity and range of emotions felt in others, although they may have an easier time with naming their own emotions and sensations if they are made aware. They may identify a feeling related to a given scenario but not view the feeling as integral to their decision-making, favoring the influence of facts.

Another person with alexithymia may feel the impact of emotions very strongly, but struggle to interpret or name the emotions they’re struggling with. They’re aware emotion(s) are there impacting them, but they struggle to register what that emotion is or what it means. They may have adjusted to the common visual bodily cues and reactions in those around them so interpreting emotions and reactions present in people outside themselves might be easier. Energy states – i.e., feeling energy high or energy low, or distinguishing comfort or discomfort might be easier starting places for interpreting emotions.

Alexithymia interferes with the problem-reaction chain.

If a person doesn’t recognize when and how problems affect their inner emotions, one of two outcomes will come into play: 1) their reaction also doesn’t register, or 2) their reaction registers, but they won’t have the tools to adequately address the problem.

If you’re not sure what you’re feeling or why, you won’t be able to process and work through those feelings. Emotions become akin to a logic puzzle. They suddenly come “out of nowhere,” (quote credit: myself).**

Personally, my inner experience feels convoluted. It can take me days to figure out what I am feeling and why. When I notice I’m feeling something “different,” I can drown myself in questions:

  • Am I anxious or stressed about something?
  • Am I tired or depressed?
  • Am I annoyed or lonely or bored?
  • Do I need a break or do I need something to interest me?
  • Do I need less socialization or more connection?
  • Do I need physical activity or rest?

If you don’t truly understand what you’re feeling, how can you determine what you need to regulate the feeling? A guess-and-test approach does not inspire confidence.

Experiencing emotions on delay can turn a small response into a big one.

Sometimes reactions to problems are delayed. When the brain struggles to register an emotional response in the moment, the reaction may not register until later. But life doesn’t pause until it sees you’ve grasped the one problem and reaction. Very quickly, the problems stack. More problems, more unrecognized or misinterpreted emotions – like mixing too many paints and coming out with a muddy brown. Good luck picking apart the original colors.

Someone with alexithymia may need several experiences that invoke the same emotion for them to register the emotion, and by this time, it’s not a small reaction, it’s magnified by the number of problems underpinning that emotion response.

Everyone has a state of overload. Many autistic people have a lower threshold to experiencing overload, but the time between warning and actual overload may also be diminished. That delay, that lack of warning, can make those big reactions much harder to mitigate. Because they can appear to come out of nowhere not just to you, but also to themself. Behind-the-scenes emotions can overload someone’s system just as easily as apparent triggers.

2. Masking and crashing

Masking – What Would the Neurotypicals Do?

“Masking” in the autism world specifically refers to an autistic person playing a “role” as a neurotypical person. WWTND? (What would the neurotypicals do?) Play that message on repeat throughout the day, consciously or subconsciously, (and sprinkle in some anxiety over choosing “wrong”), and you can start to see the autistic masking experience.

When someone is masking, one of the most common autistic behaviors to inhibit is self-stimulatory behaviors – don’t stim. Or minimize stims, substitute natural stims with more socially conventional stims like nail biting, (a self-destructive behavior yet somehow more socially acceptable than hand flapping). If an autistic person is masking to try to blend in with their surroundings, or “camouflage” themselves, they’re using significant energy to maintain this role while using even more energy to inhibit their natural self-regulatory behaviors.

Masking fills the problem tank full with concerns before a problem even starts.

  • Am I being “normal enough?”
  • How can I get people to like me?
  • What’s the right thing to say or do now?
  • Was I being too annoying in that last conversation?
  • What’s the social script for this environment?
  • How can I get closer to fitting in next time?

Especially coupled with a high stress or socially demanding environment, “What Would the Neurotypicals Do?” becomes a more urgent ask. With baseline self-doubt, potential problems flourish.

When there’s no energy left for handling problems

The autistic person masking is focusing their energy reserves into their “typical person” performance. Constant performance depletes energy, and once your energy is exhausted, there’s minimal mental space for handling additional problems. Even small ones.

When an autistic person’s threshold for overload is lower, any problem can activate big emotions or reactions. High stress or high demand environments can make the smallest of inconveniences that “straw that breaks the camel’s back,” that tiny problem that triggers an onslaught of reactions.

Safe spaces are haven for overwhelm

Prolonged, highly effective masking requires the autistic person to develop skills (i.e., coping mechanisms) to bury, suppress, or otherwise conceal their problems and reactions, particularly if they do not feel a problem or reaction is “allowed” in a certain environment.

Many autistic people don’t have the capability to push away a meltdown or shutdown just because it’s inconvenient. But some autistic individuals (often branded as “high-functioning”) appear to function well because of the coping mechanisms they employ while masking, such as selective attention to their emotions depending on the environment. Alexithymia makes this practice easier – just don’t pause to notice the feelings. Appearing to function well despite an overloaded system can be a survival mechanism in our society.

But eventually, the overload will inevitably hit; it doesn’t get pushed away forever.

Many people consider home a safe space. That place where melting or shutting down feels allowed again. Even though over-the-top reactions aren’t wanted, the concern of grand social repercussions among peers or adults outside the home evaporates. But once that emotion channel opens, a rush of all the reactions ignored during the day are suddenly unleashed.

This is why many of our “high-functioning” (i.e., low support needs) autistic students will meltdown or shutdown once they get home after navigating the school day. In a safe space, small problems can trigger big reactions if the autistic person doesn’t feel the need to uphold their mask once they’re in a safe space.

3. Concrete problems make sense

There’s no correlation between problems being small and being concrete or large problems being abstract. But if a small problem is concrete, there’s less barrier to entry for eliciting a reaction. A concrete problem just makes sense; it clicks. There’s no deeper meaning we have to invest in order to grasp our reaction.

If your pencil breaks, you have a problem. It’s concrete; very limited nuance is required. You don’t have to account for how the pencil feels. Nobody will argue you to appreciate your pencil breaking. It is an inconvenience / annoyance every time. Broken pencil = that’s bad / that’s not good.

So what does that mean for reaction? It’s easier to identify. A reaction immediately follows. It doesn’t matter if you can just as easily get a new pencil, the pencil breaking is still identified as a bad event.

Consider the problem of Covid-19. A very big problem, a virus we can’t see, only some effects of infection are clear. It’s shocking and knowing how to react might take a bit of processing. Now consider the mandate to wear masks. If we set aside the rationale for the mask mandate, we’re left with a very concrete problem: I have to wear a mask and I don’t like how wearing a mask feels.

Which problem does the negative reaction click quicker? The mask. An immediate concrete impact on people’s lives is a much easier path for reaction.

4. Disruption of safety mindset

Change triggers danger response

Sometimes simple problems feel big to an autistic person because they involve change or uncertainty. The future’s uncertainty can be one of the greatest perceived threats for some autistic people. In other words, a big problem.

Change and uncertainty at times can be objectively scary. Think about big problems that involve uncertainty and sudden change – natural disasters or fires, injury or illness, divorce, death, crime. Unexpected change reminds us of the harsh reality that anything bad can happen at any time. Stability, safety, is not guaranteed.

We mentally prepare for unexpected tragedies in school – fire drills, lockdowns, weather drills – so that if / when they occur, we can react in a relatively more calm, rational manner. Our danger response is still activated, but we know how to proceed. Without preparation, the danger response can lead to impulsive reactions or overwhelm.

If an autistic person expected and mentally prepared for x but y happened, suddenly the big picture has been thrown out. Anything that the autistic brain has been primed or prepared for may no longer apply. The danger response is triggered.

The autistic mind often processes stimuli in isolation; it takes in each detail and processes that detail on its own. Processing the big picture requires the brain to take all the pieces they’ve gathered and fit them together to form an overall conclusion. This is not an efficient process. It takes longer than someone whose brain naturally starts at processing the big picture and breaks down the details later.

A small detail can change the entire big picture conclusion, and changed details, means completely re-evaluating all the pieces they’ve gathered from the environment. The processing starts over, even if the big picture conclusion is ultimately unchanged, as the autistic mind will process the details first, and come to the big picture after.

Adapting to change, a cognitively demanding task

Why is this need for routine and resistance to change commonly amplified in autistic people? Both masking and adapting to change or uncertainty require a substantial amount of…can you guess it? Energy. And maintaining energy supply is difficult in a world designed for a neurotypical not autistic mind and body.

Processing large amounts of new information can be overwhelming. An unfamiliar environment may generate loads of sensory stimuli at once, so an autistic person sensitive to stimuli may feel bombarded by sudden high processing demands. Each stimuli might not look like much individually, but all together they can create a much bigger problem. Predictability, familiarity, and routines alleviate some of these processing demands, so energy can be directed elsewhere.

The need for self-soothing

We’ve briefly touched upon stimming as a tool for self-regulating emotion states, as well as routines and predictability. An autistic individual may naturally self-soothe via designating “safe” items, places, or routines. Fries might be a safe food for one autistic person, so they might want to self-soothe by having fries every day at lunch. Another autistic person may self-soothe by wearing the same type of fabric or accessories each day. These items and actions act as a reprieve from other sensory stimuli.

However, disrupting that reprieve may trigger a larger reaction if the autistic person was expecting to have it. A sensory break or enjoyment of a certain stimuli is grounding, and the autistic individual may need to be grounded if their environment is overwhelming or demanding.

Personal story revisited: The big picture of my reaction

Now, let me go back to that small problem personal story, the almost ruined noodles, and offer some context. It was 9PM and I was just making dinner, not having had a proper meal since lunch. I was living that grad student life.

Four days per week, I went from my day shift hospital externship straight to evening courses, and often not getting home until night. My two SLP supervisors had contrasting personalities and styles, so I was trying to adapt to differing expectations as I switched between them every few days.

An intense environment for any person, let alone an autistic one.

When I looked at the incident on the surface, I wondered how did I get here? But seeing the full scale of the situation, the reaction began to make more sense.

  • Alexithymia for my own bodily sensations (hunger) and emotions throughout the day
  • Masking and energy depletion from a high stress, socially demanding environment
  • At home in safety zone
  • Concrete problem
  • Sensory reprieve interruption

Without realizing it, I had created the perfect storm for overreaction.

Intentional masking and inhibiting self-regulatory stimming throughout the day plus alexithymia meant I wasn’t adequately observing or feeling my emotional responses in that high stress environment. I “couldn’t afford” the feelings so I didn’t feel them for as long as I could stand.

Until I’d come home. In my safe space, the weight of social demands felt lifted. I felt allowed to be myself, to have authentic feelings again without playing a role. Except these feelings no longer correlated with the problems in the moment – they were elevated, escalated. My tolerance threshold for any problem was on the floor. Any disruptions felt like an invasion of my temporary relief.

Not being able to eat the food I just made is a very concrete problem. It’s intuitive, doesn’t require deeper thought. But this was also noodles, my comfort, go-to safe food when I was overstimulated and overwhelmed. Without thinking about it, this was one of the small ways I was naturally self-regulating.

But at the time, I didn’t realize any of that. I needed time and space to fully understand how in the world this massive reaction happened before I could adequately address it.

Premature labeling brings out guilt and avoidance.

Skipping to labeling my reaction as an overreaction and discussing how I should have acted in the moment or how I should act next time wasn’t useful because it only served to make me feel guilty.

Guilt = negative emotion I don’t want to be feeling. And what’s an easy response to a negative emotion I don’t want to be feeling? Avoidance.

Feeling a negative emotion doesn’t make me interested in understanding the problem-reaction chain; it makes me want to avoid thinking or talking about it entirely. And avoidance behaviors only make the trigger seem more daunting, as you’re feeding the original fear.

This response is the opposite of what we want.

Uncovering the underbelly of that emotion iceberg was essential for improving my ability to self-regulate. Because once I fully understood what I was dealing with, I could start to identify the problems on my own, catch them a little faster, and address them before they became leveled up multi-beast problems.

Practicing reflection – Understanding complex emotions and reactions

Now, this reflecting on the problem doesn’t come naturally for me. I often need to recount what is going on in my life and “connect the dots” – identify emotions that seem fitting for the circumstances and what I know about myself. What is a sensitive area for me? What are my common triggers? How have I responded in this kind of scenario before?

It sounds like determining the “size of the problem,” except there’s a key difference – it’s in reverse. I’m not taking a problem and determining which emotions would be appropriate for the projected scenario. I’m considering what emotions might correlate with my known circumstances and determining which ones fit with my actual felt emotional response.

Instead of pre-determining a reaction, I’m post-interpreting my reaction. The former overshadows the true emotion in favor of a preferred one. The latter aims to understand the complex relationships between emotions, reactions, and their triggers.

Screw teetering on the tip of the iceberg, we need to dive deeper.

Complications from learning “size of the problem”

Alexithymia + learned formula for reactions = a recipe for masking.

Emotions and reactions are not intuitive with alexithymia. Therefore, a formula for understanding which emotions correlate to which problems can be very enticing. Great! A clear cut, black-and-white presentation of what the **** is supposed to be going on in my system.

That sounds like steps toward emotion regulation, doesn’t it? Well, not exactly.

Instead of healthy regulation, this formula for problems and reactions is more likely to lead the person who struggles with alexithymia into masking or camouflaging their emotional responses.

Because we can’t regulate emotions we don’t understand.

What size of the problem in my opinion gets right is attempting to identify the relationship between problems and emotional responses. But looking at a simplified problem through a neurotypical lens and expecting the autistic person’s response to match with little to no consideration for how the individual got there, this is when “size of the problem” not only loses function for me, but becomes harmful.

If we don’t address our small problems or “handle them ourselves” by pushing them down in order to appear more socially acceptable, we are setting ourselves up for a much larger load to carry, as the problems get bigger, not smaller.

Anxiety, depression, self-doubt, self-criticism, withdrawing from others happens when we blindly label ourselves or natural aspects of our personality as the problem and think we need to “fix ourselves” to measure up to where everyone else already seems to be.

Prioritizing everyone else

Determining size of the problem and teaching expected responses places a standard that behaviors should match these expectations. But isolated problems often don’t fit neatly into our little preconceived boxed up formulas.

When someone doesn’t learn to fit into those neat boxes, size of the problem teaches that they are the problem. And they must adjust themselves to meet others’ expectations.

Labeling a problem as “small” and solvable without assistance teaches that either: a) you don’t believe the person’s problem is valid, i.e., “overreaction,” or b) their feelings are considered less important than the feelings of others.

The society or whole is more important than the one, okay this makes sense on the surface, but it is a dangerous path to lead someone who thinks very literally and concretely. The autistic person is more likely to interpret these not as guidelines but as rules and not as open to interpretation based on the situation but as absolute, unwavering.

It becomes very easy to interpret the message as the person’s feelings, perceptions, experiences are less important than everyone around them. That their feelings are an inconvenience or burden on others.

As a result, they may turn to unhealthy self-coping mechanisms, such as repressing feelings and concealing problems. Or the opposite, they may turn to elevating their responses to see if / when they become higher value, enough to matter at least as much as others. It’s two sides of the same coin. One chooses to internalize the harmful message and reject their needs; the other chooses to reject the harmful message and further externalize their needs. Because nobody wants to feel like they don’t matter.

Belonging, feeling worthy, are human needs. And neither response will truly get the autistic person’s needs met. We need to present another way.

If not size of the problem, then what?

Centering the person who reacts “too big” as the problem is not productive. Autistic people don’t melt down for fun. Being told not to do that next time is not a helpful preventative measure for future meltdowns.

Instead, we need to center the problem as insufficient supports and / or accommodations in the individual’s environment to lower their distress. Accommodations and supports are far more likely to prevent future meltdowns and bonus – it’s actually healthy.

So what does that look like? Well, it can look like several things.

  • Creating inventories for better understanding the student, such as:
  • A trigger inventory – identify known triggers and trigger patterns, whether that’s environmental, physical, or situational
  • A reaction inventory – match reactions to emotions, identifying patterns of reactions
  • A self-regulation inventory – list strategies for self-regulation, note which are helpful and which are not
  • Creating a meltdown / shutdown plan – prepare how to proceed when emotions are high, practice a routine for handling meltdowns / shutdowns
  • Reframe focus on preventing unsafe behaviors rather than “unexpected” ones and discuss safe alternatives
  • Teach recognizing or identifying emotions in others and yourself, including how those feelings are manifested in the body
  • Destigmatize asking or receiving help for “small” problems – remove judgment or criticism from the equation
  • Teach and practice self-advocacy skills

With these approaches, we are teaching the autistic person that they matter just like everyone else matters. And we don’t need to lower the importance of everyone else to do so. We are giving the autistic person tools for working with their minds not fighting against them.

When we humanize problems, it becomes easier to empathize with them. We’re not blaming the person for a big reaction, we’re trying to find ways to accommodate and help them have a safer environment. Because we’re centering the person and their needs, we can work together to mitigate unexpected big reactions. When we treat our autistic students as having genuinely big struggles that warrants additional support, we are teaching them that seeking help for problems early may be better than letting them stack and suffering in silence until the next overload.

I like the materials offered by Autism Level Up as they work to prioritize the individual and identify and address the full picture of their lived problems.

The PIC – Person In Context – is an inventory tool for gathering background information that can be useful for identifying common triggers that can escalate emotions. The Emoji Communication Log can help identify potential patterns in emotions that may be contributing to intense responses. These tools don’t simply look at surface-level problems in the moment, they attempt to dive deeply into the person’s experience and uncover all the underlying facets and triggers that may be contributing.

Autism Level Up also has several materials for helping autistic people with alexithymia better identify their feelings and regulatory states by shifting the focus to energy levels. Noting the effects that certain activities have on their energy levels may be an easier place to start, so they can explore strategies for self-regulation outside of the context of problems. It gives them more autonomy and less pressure as we’re simply exploring the relationship between energy states and activities, rather than jumping into the unpleasant experience of rehashing big problems and big emotions.

Identifying some of these underlying factors can be far more informative for finding ways to better self-regulate throughout the day than ignoring them. Let’s work on shifting our focus from managing the disability to supporting the individual.

I hope that you feel more confident in approaching problems, reactions, and emotions together with your autistic students. Know that every small step counts, and you’re already a more neurodiversity-affirming therapist by having made it this far.

If you found value in this post, please let me know by commenting below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *