Autistic exhaustion : why life is harder for us.
First, let me say this is not some sort of one upsmanship social game, ” my life is harder than yours, poor me!”
I am not looking for sympathy, empathy, etc, I simply want to explain about the amount of effort and energy it takes me or most any other autistic person to do “everyday life” in the mainstream of society.
We ( human beings) all have struggles, I know, and circumstances in life can be very hard.
Consider that what is effortless and natural, maybe even subliminally understood has to be derived for most autistic people through conscious effort to focus, sort information, categorize it, decide what response is required and to call upon memory and training to elicit the “proper” response.
None of it is “automatic” or intuitive, but for many autistic folk, must be constantly viewed, heard, felt, sorted and processed before we can perform.
It requires a great deal of purposeful behavior, directed in consciously thought of and deliberately performed ways to do what most neurotypical people do from some natural store of saved information and programmed, automatically accessible responses or actions.
Many of us (autistic persons) do not have intuitive understanding about any activity or situation.
That means we have to work hard to understand and come up with the correct response.
Meantime, sensory input is not automatically sorted into background noises, background activities, which is important at the moment and which can be safely shut down (most of us can’t shut input down) and ignored. So we expend mental and emotional energy trying to sort information we recieve from all our senses all the time.
Almost every act, every word , in any social situation requires deep focus and concentration, strict control of responses to self edit and direct words and actions, and conscious attention to not only the person or persons involved in the interaction, but also to keep from being overwhelmed by the other things going on around us, by the emotional responses or anxiety to do well and not “mess up” the interactions, sort visual, audio and other sensory input and grasp what is needed to perform the interaction at the same time as trying to keep all the other sensory input from overwhelming or intruding.
Most “normal” “average” or “neurotypical brains” do this stuff automatically, but for many autistic folk each part of any activity or interaction must be consciously sorted and directed, and in so many cases, this is done much more slowly and deliberately since any response is not automatic.
The major underlying automatic response for me is to be afraid… afraid of what will happen if I mess this up, afraid of making somebody angry or annoying them, afraid of being mocked or bullied or chastised, afraid they won’t understand what I am saying or that I won’t be believed. Coping with this feeling of fearful anxiety takes energy too.
I have a terrible time trying to sort out what is being said, what is actually meant, what is expected of me, and what I should do to respond in every situation. Depending on our sensory processing, the problems other autistic folks have in interacting may be very different from my own.
Unless the setting is exactly the same every time, each experience is new and I have to decide carefully on my responses or dig through my emotional and mental response resources to draw from scripts saved in my head. This is conscious, and not automatic. I can “lock up” or “freeze” when attempting to find the correct response, especially if I feel pressured to respond quickly. Worrying about whether this “freeze” might happen adds to stress and distress of the performance anxiety which is always present in social interactions. Stress drains energy and emotional resources too!
Practicing scripts is useful, and has proved helpful over my long life, but they are only useful if I can find them in my mental files and recognize the opportunity to use them. I can get the scripts very wrong, and can misapply them, leaving aggravation or bewilderment, dismissal and rejection in my wake. So very frustrating.
Communication struggles are one of the core struggles of autism.
These struggles take place all around me every day, even at home.
It is much more difficult to succeed in interactions in unfamiliar places, places with loads of sensory input (lights, sounds, activities of people, machines, traffic, or other unfamiliar surroundings) and it takes a lot of emotional and mental energy to perform under stressful and distressing (to me) circumstances. Things many neurotypical people take for granted must be dealt with as individual actions needing sorted and active responses considered, sought and sorted from previous experiences and applied consciously rather than as simple perception and responses typical of “normal” folks.
No wonder I am exhausted after a day out, whether planned activities for fun, or things I must do as part of living life and the things life brings to us.
Emotional and mental resources give in to overwhelm. Many times after doing things in the “outside world” I come home and almost immediately require a nap!
If you are autistic, you probably understand what I am trying to convey,
If you are not autistic, I hope I have helped you understand why some things that seem so easy and simple for you are actually very difficult for many autistic persons.
I hope you will take this into account when planning activities, outings, or any other situation where you may include us in your agenda. I ask that you will help us find a way to escape the activity if we become overwhelmed, and that you will forgive us and not be offended if we don’t fully participate, leave early, or decline an invitation.
Please understand: Even the seemingly simplest activity can be very stressful and difficult for those with autistic neurology.