The mental fatigue of autism

posted by Jeff | Saturday, January 7, 2023, 3:12 PM | comments: 0

I find myself mentally tired a lot. As in, I get to Friday night and I don't even have the energy to watch mindless TV. I can't relate to people who always have to be doing something. I am in fact at peace with doing literally nothing other than occupying space.

When I ask others if they ever get like this, almost everyone says they do not. With me, I get it more in the winter, so there's an environmental variable. I also feel this way when I have a lot of consistent human interaction. This may explain why I experience it more in this, the later part of my career, where I'm not heads-down making stuff and spending far more time talking with others to make things happen or lubricate the gears of industry.

The odd thing about this is that I'm reasonably good at it. Over the years I've been able to emulate a lot of positive and constructive behaviors that would not otherwise come naturally to me. For example, right out of college, I went into hardcore unannounced door-to-door sales mode selling myself to get a radio job. I got the idea from reading about work in sales, and figured I could just apply it to selling me. This strategy worked, and I got a job. The end of those days I would be completely fried and sleep most of the next day. I know now that autism likely played a role in that fatigue, as it takes a lot of energy to emulate a behavior you don't enjoy or typically feel comfortable with. I also know that most neurotypical people have filters and adherence to social contracts to know you "shouldn't" show up at offices without an appointment.

Conforming to the expectations of the rest of the world is often described as a coping skill for people with autism spectrum disorder. We have to be less weird, and engage in customs and social contracts that may seem arbitrary or pointless. Everyone learns to do this, obviously, but there is a larger cognitive cost to do it with ASD. I started learning about this some years ago in following Simon's journey, but even then it sounded so familiar to me that I was sure that it applied to me. I would even talk about it with some people. But it was after my diagnosis 15 months ago that I felt like I had permission to sincerely explore how it all has affected me my entire life. Things made more sense.

I'm not looking for exceptions or accommodations at this stage of my life. I can self-regulate behaviors for the most part. I'm not always perfect about it, but I imagine I get along as well as anyone. But what I do want from people who get to know me is just a little empathy to understand that sometimes I'm spent. I need to disengage because I don't have anything left. It isn't personal. It's another aspect of the brain that is separate from intelligence.

This first week of the year involved a lot of change, new employees, new plans and such. I'm not overwhelmed in the moment, but when I unplug, it's like a long exhale after holding my breath for days. My hope is that now that I understand this phenomenon, I can figure out ways to lessen the impact.


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