One of the most difficult concepts to properly explain to neurotypicals is how the events of the day — any routine, mundane day — greatly drain and debilitate the autistic. Neurotypicals have a basic understand that certain aspects of life — social and sensory in particular — present ongoing challenges. But, the more one understands the autistic drain cycle, the more one truly understands an autistic person’s daily experiences.
On a basic day, the neurotypical wakes up refreshed and restored. Let’s say work is particularly trying because of a very important presentation to the boss. Maybe the errands are a bit more tedious due to construction around the local shopping center. After handling a quick phone call to resolve a work emergency, it’s time to unwind with a glass of wine and some television. All in all, a pretty basic day. To explain how exhausting this “basic day” is for an autistic, I think the proper comparison is a morning marathon. Imagine running 26.2 miles to start every single day followed by all of the elements of a “basic” day. Tough to complete the day, let alone to wake up the next day refreshed, restored, and ready to run another marathon and complete another (hopefully) basic day.
Most people are thinking, this comparison has to be an exaggeration. There is simply no way these activities can be that exhausting. Let me try to explain. Neurotypical understanding of autistic drain seems inhibited by a lack of understanding on two fronts.
First, neurotypicals are not fatigued by the same elements as autistics. No one finds errands particularly energizing and enjoyable. Autistics, however, are exhausted by every small talk conversation, every loud noise, every temperature change, every garish fluorescent light, every jostle. While work is called work for a reason, most neurotypicals aren’t pushed to meltdown by the jangling bracelets and click-clack high heels of their coworkers, the chatty receptionist who enjoys talking about The Voice, and the fridge bandit who eats everyone’s food. Of course, no one loves rush hour, but when the diesel fumes invade your car, drivers break basic rules repeatedly, and your usual route is under construction, you can play your favorite song and drive on to your destination. The autistic turns the car around (carefully and legally) and drives home (obeying the speed limit) catastrophically overwhelmed, succumbing to a neurological inability to constantly filter irrelevant sensory stimuli (ISS).
Second, the severity and duration of the fatigue are significantly more debilitating for the autistic. The autistic has no choice but to sweat the small stuff, leaving limited, inconsistent resources for the big stuff. Neurotypicals think, “I just have to run by the grocery store after the office before going to the party.” For autistics, running errands may be more accurately described as a complex, multi-stage process, the planning of which is exhausting unto itself: 1. Gearing up for the grocery store by strategically selecting a non-busy time to commute, park, and shop, 2. Prioritizing the absolute necessities for purchase, 3. Donning the appropriate protective gear — earbuds/plugs and comfortable attire, and 4. Avoiding as much social interaction as humanly possible. Arriving home, energy teetering, the groceries are shelved and exhaustion sets in. The autistic’s day might be done.
The endless permutations of activity, severity, and duration provide a window into the complexity of surviving in a neurotypical world. Perhaps we can conceptualize the cost-benefit analysis in a series of equations.
Daily Energy Level (DEL) = Sleep + Health + Emotions Toward Day’s Activities + Previous Day's Bullshit + Next Day’s Bullshit
Current Energy Level (CEL) = Daily Energy Level - Activity - Unexpected Events
Activity (A) = Sensory (both relevant and irrelevant) + Social + Importance + Interest Level + Expectations of Others
Unexpected Anything = (Reconfigure plans + PANIC! + Prioritize?!? + Frustration) X (-2)
Expectations of Others (EoC) = Social + attitude toward person + attitude toward activity
A lack of shared experience with ongoing sensory, social, and emotional fragility sets neurotypicals up to be unaware of, blind to, and dismissive of these experiences of the autistic. Ironically, it seems to be an issue of “social and emotional reciprocity” (per the criteria for autism spectrum disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) — for neurotypicals. But, it is also indicative of neurotypical privilege. For autistics, the energy required for the day often exceeds the energy available for the day. Ultimately, the ongoing feeling of running on empty is not something a simple energy drink and a long weekend can reset.