Navigating through a “normal” day is completely exhausting, and often a losing battle, for those of us on the spectrum. The sensory bombardment of commonplace stimuli is like a full-on physical and mental assault. The energy and effort to be social and observant of social interactions and then “act the role” is like a constant game of mental chess, necessitating careful calculating, analyzing, and emulating catalogued behaviors. Tasks that should be simple can be monumental undertakings: getting gas, grocery shopping, lunch with a friend in a bustling cafe, a medical appointment. Mundane, unremarkable, or even calming situations for neurotypicals can, for autistic individuals, completely overwhelm the thalamus—the brain region that processes sensory signals. As a result, the thalamus sends dire fight-or-flight signals to the amygdala, which interprets the sensory overload as a threatening and fatiguing situation. The body is under a constant state of perceived stress and imminent danger, as if prepping to run from an oncoming lion attack, only there’s no lion: it’s just a quick trip into the post office to mail a package.
Lights, noise, temperature variations between indoors and out, smells of perfumes or cheap plastic products are all summative offenders so that by the time 2:00 or 3:00pm rolls around, I’m relegated to a limp sprawl on the couch with dark curtains drawn and soft blankets around me to decompress from the day. Sometimes I can’t even talk, I can’t tolerate noise, and my skin feels so irritated that my own seamless clothing feels like it’s digging its invisible nails into each sensitive inch of my body.
I equate this daily drain to riding a bike on a trail studded with broken glass and rusty nails. With the exception of the hazardous topography, the path is beautiful and goes exactly where I need and want to venture. It feels nice to be out and about, attempting to enjoy the environment and interact in a normal way, but suddenly, I get a flat tire—a sensory or social intense effort for my brain to process, assimilate, and handle. With a sufficient break and the employment of sensory toolkit strategies, I can recover enough to reset the cognitive madness back closer to baseline. This is analogous to pulling over, getting out my spare inner tube, and repairing the tire enough to keep going along the path. This time, instead of covering a decent distance before an issue, with just a few smooth pedal strokes, yet again, my tire springs a leak. Perhaps it’s even the other tire now—the back wheel—which is more difficult to change. Either way, the second puncture was inevitable given the surface I’m traveling on. Now, I’m out of spares. I do have a patch kit and a couple of CO2 cartridges, so I remove the wheel, pry the rusty nail out of the rubber (like removing myself from the exhausting sensory or social onslaught) and glue a patch on, inflate the tire (to try to relax and rejuvenate), and get on with my ride. However, now I am relying on the weakened equipment. Within just a few seconds, my tire has sprung yet another leak.
And so it continues. I can keep trying to cobble things together enough to ride, but eventually I will run out of patches and the possible cycling bouts between subsequent deflations become increasingly short. Eventually, my tire has so many holes that it remains flat, no matter how much I try to pump it up. The only solution is to get off the hazardous path: retreat to the comfort and sensory and social safety of home. I’m done for the day and I have to cancel any afternoon or evening plans. I just can’t get there. I won’t be able to repair enough to handle it. After all, I now need to buy a whole new tire at the bike shop and even get my rim repaired; riding on the flat tire too long damaged my bike. They have to work on my bike, order a new wheel all together, and it may be a few days until I’m able to get back on the bike. In fact, this is the reality of the magnitude of the impact of autism and sensory fatigue on my stamina and my ability to function. It can take days to recover from seemingly typical and casual encounters. I become a hermit as my body suddenly feels it must go into survival mode and conserve all physical and mental efforts to recuperate.
To extend the biking analogy, after my failure on the path, I try to research more well-maintained paths (places that are less overwhelming or social engagements that are less taxing) while I lie at home in the self-inflicted isolation and exclusion from society around me in order to heal. I find that, yes, there are some paths touted to have somewhat superior surfaces (perhaps stores that are more sensory-friendly, friends that are willing to just meet for a short mid-morning walk in the park, or ways to avoid doing errands all together by ordering online). Such paths are reported to “only” have shards of glass (but no rusty nails!), which is certainly an improvement, but obviously still damaging. What’s more, these routes cannot replace my desire to ride on the main beautiful path, which is the sole option to travel in the direction of my desires and interact with the world in the way that those around me whom I love and would like to join are gliding along with puncture-proof Teflon tires.