These are a collection of thoughts that have occurred to me over the past few days and that might be useful. They are unedited, sometimes unfocused and might appear in different contexts afterwards.
The past three weeks have been very busy indeed. I have had meeting after meeting for the Autistic League and have been rewriting the Autistic League Manifesto. I still didn’t get any writing done, but lots of other things did get sorted. I’m proud of the work I’ve been doing under lockdown and I’m feeling more emotionally stable than I have in a long time, despite the brutal realities of the current moment. Now I’m in my thirties, I can finally see that consistency is my lifebuoy.
I hated my autism for a long time, so I deliberately pushed away any idea of structure or consistency in my life. In recent years, I have started to appreciate how much consistency provides me.
I write a daybook – a combination of food diary, journal and checklist – every day. It allows me to put the past in the past and be in the present. If I haven’t written my daybook, the last day doesn’t quite feel finished.
My days are structured between meals, daily exercise, daybook writing, maximum one hour of news consumption, learning languages (a special interest), regular contact with friends and making sure my flat is clean and organised. The rest of my time is dependent on my energy reserves and whether it’s a work or writing day. I used to include an hour of reading for pleasure and an hour of writing too, but since these are dependent on energy reserves, I took these out of my daily checklists. Now my partner is on a diet plan (connected to his exercise regime), I cook only once every few days and have meals at the same time every day. Breakfast and lunch are identical each day. I take my medication at the same time each day. If I don’t, I feel it the day after.
This lifestyle would have disgusted me when I had not accepted my autism. But, like a nun, I’m a creature of habit.
I’m here all week.
These habits allow me greater control over my overall energy resources. I get energy from exercise, regular meals, communicating with my friends, cuddles and engaging with my special interests. If I over-exercise, take on too much work, do not sleep sufficiently, eat too little or too much, get into complex interpersonal tangles or, simply, get into bad misunderstandings with people I don’t know well, I deplete my energy resources and get into meltdowns.
Being under lockdown has been excellent for my energy resources. I sleep better, eat and exercise less and more regularly and I have to mask less* in front of neurotypicals. Far more than before, I have had my body and brain under control. I have been highly productive, both on more long-term projects and to strict deadline. I am a massive deadline whore – I can get a huge amount done in the few hours before a meeting, as long as I rest afterwards.
Unfortunately, this week, I had a meltdown after a few days of consistent high-intensity work. This still happens to me and will happen for the rest of my life. Accepting that has been tricky. I used to count out my life in days since a meltdown, like an alcoholic battling to stay clean. But meltdowns are not a bad habit or an addiction. They are also not a mental health crisis. They are a natural response to being overwhelmed.
I have a long history of meltdowns. I get very frustrated with myself and rushes of anger with myself for having a meltdown in the first place. This is very confusing to others, but the only way to resolve it is for me to sit down in a quiet space, reduce sensory input and allow me to cool off. I then get rushes of shame, but those do not last.
When I had the meltdown this week, my partner got me down. I then had a day of full bed-rest. I need a break from all mental and physical labour. When I melt down, that is when my body says: enough. In the League Constitution, we insist on rest. We are not allowed to overwork ourselves, as much as we’d like to. We are in this for the long haul, so we need to pace ourselves. That includes myself, as much as I may dislike that.
I switch between periods of hyperfocus and inertia, with little in-between. Like many autistic people, I am a black-white, all-or-nothing kind of person, especially when I’m tired. The trouble is, like my feelings about my meltdowns, I love my hyperfocus and hate my inertia. When I feel inert, I usually don’t do what I really should and curl up with a book or video game. I fight it, desperately pushing for productivity, when little ever gets out. This increases frustration and depletes my energy resources even further.
The truth is, on my good days, I am far more productive than an average worker. On bad days, I have nothing to give. The trick is to allow that productivity free reign, then provide periods of rest. This, however, is not an exact science. I am known to snipe at myself for not being back on form after a single day of rest. I’m going to have to accept: if I need more than one day, I need more than one day. As long as I use my time in a healthy way, use healthy coping mechanisms† and use my habits to my own benefit, I can get a lot done and be happy as a result❧.
How about you? What are your autistic coping strategies? If you are otherwise neurodiverse, how does this apply to you? If you are neurotypical, how do you respond to exhaustion? Comment down below. I’d love to hear from you.
Lots of love,
* More on masking in a subsequent entry.
† More on healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms in a subsequent entry.
❧ More about the relation between happiness and productivity for autistic people in a subsequent entry.