Normal Is Overrated

Musings and meanderings on the autistic spectrum

July 2, 2007

The stress of seeming ‘normal’

I’ll admit it: in a typical social encounter, I probably don’t seem that unusual. Perhaps a bit quirky, but lots of people are a bit quirky. But what this slightly quirky appearance belies is just how much effort is involved in keeping it up.

I liken it to the so-called ‘spoon theory’ described by Christine Miserandino in this post at But You Don’t Look Sick. Although the situation described by the author is not identical to that which I experience— Miserandino has lupus, not an autism spectrum disorder— the general idea of having a limited amount of energy to use in one’s everyday life nonetheless mirrors my situation quite nicely.

Simply put, a good number of tasks which are effortless for most people take a good deal of exertion for me to accomplish.

What sorts of simple tasks, you ask?

I already touched on a few of these in my post on auditory processing last month. For most people, it’d be a cinch to carry on a conversation in a crowded restaurant or to make a phone call to someone new. For me, it’s extremely exhausting. In fact, listening to speech in general can be quite exhausting, though not as heavily so as the extreme situations mentioned above. After a day of listening to lectures, for instance, I don’t want to come home only to have to deal with a phone call; by that point, I barely have enough energy left to make much sense of the call, and just want to collapse in a quiet room.

My issues with driving are also exacerbated by a lack of energy. In this case, it takes a good deal of effort to make sense of the cluttered visual environment around me, in both identifying the objects in the environment themselves and determining how they are positioned in space. The longer I spend behind the wheel, the more mistakes I start to make out of mere exhaustion. It’s hardly unique to driving, though; a particularly busy visual field will exhaust me even as a passenger or as a pedestrian. Grocery stores, what with their intentionally busy design and bright fluorescent lights, tend to get me overloaded more quickly than, say, a low-key coffee shop; Wal-Mart is even worse in that respect, as it’s not only visually noisy but aurally so as well.

Oh, and let’s not forget all the little social niceties, most of which are completely alien to my Aspie brain, thus requiring further expense of energy to emulate. The worst of these by far is maintaining eye contact: not only do I have to consciously remember to do so, I have to force myself to do so against my instincts, as eye contact is in many cases quite uncomfortable and overloading for me. (Amanda Baggs’ “EYEBALLS EYEBALLS EYEBALLS” post sums that feeling up rather well… totally resonated with me when I first read it.) Oh, and the social cues that I have to consciously watch out for make phone calls doubly exhausting: there’s not only making sense of what I’m hearing, but also keeping the conversation flowing!

The worst part of this whole situation, by far, is that the required energy for all these tasks is all in a single mass, so to speak; thus, every one of these factors influences how much energy I have left to expend on the others. It’s not as if I have a pile of spoons for visual processing, knives for auditory processing and forks for social skills. So after a long day of classes, I’ll probably need rest before I decide to go grocery shopping at a visually overwhelming grocery store. After a particularly stressful day in general, I might not be very sociable until I get the chance to settle down, because it takes so much effort to socialize. And after a long, involved phone call, I might need to rest for a bit before doing, well, anything else.

And now that I’ve thought about it, I think there’s a correlation between this loss of energy and the state of overload I described in my post on that subject. It makes sense: the less energy I have to process what’s going on around me, the less I manage to process. And it would explain why, when I’m feeling particularly overloaded, I also tend to feel less sociable.

Filed under: General — codeman38 @ 8:55 pm


  1. What I will be wondering about now is why social activity takes more mental energy for some people and virtually none for others. Although I want to make friends and social connections, the more stress and worry I have about school or work, the less I feel like socializing. My wife is also like this, although we are quite different in many other respects. For other people, socializing is an easy and fun way to relieve stress and escape, and if I was like that then I’d be less of a homebody.

    Now, in your experience, does just any social interaction, even with friends and family, use a lot of energy, or just the interaction with strangers and mere acquaintances?

    Comment by Adrian — July 2, 2007 @ 9:22 pm

  2. Socializing with friends and family uses some degree of energy – there are some times I just can’t manage it – but it’s not nearly as stressful as interacting with strangers or acquaintances.

    Comment by codeman38 — July 2, 2007 @ 9:33 pm

  3. I could really identify with the description of only having so much energy per day for coping with social situations. I need a lot of quiet downtime to recharge from a typical work day, and I work in a fairly subdued atmosphere to start with. Perhaps part of that requirement of mine is because I am an introvert, but I’m quite sure that I’m not “neurologically typical”, either. People who know me even somewhat well would be quick to agree that I am hypersensitive to certain types of auditory input.
    Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, I also will block out auditory input, sometimes for several minutes at a time, if I need to put my entire focus on a visual-spatial problem, like steering in a lane with concrete barriers on either side. Visual “clutter” itself doesn’t necessarily bother me, especially if I am not trying to navigate through it. But a busy visual scene plus flickering, buzzing fluorescent lights and noise bouncing off the walls will send me into overload within a minute or two.
    Eye contact isn’t a big issue for me — although as a child I was accused of “staring” at people often enough. I seem to be better about “appropriate” eye contact as an adult. I’m not entirely sure why — years of trying to teach myself social skills? Not being as hypersensitive to visual stimuli as other people may be? I still do get very upset if people I don’t know well (or have a bad feeling about) invade my personal space. I’ve learned more tactful ways to deal with that than screaming and running, although screaming and running are still up there as options for me in those situations.
    I do have certain particular methods I use to calm myself in situations that are stressful for me. Countering unpleasant noises with white noise is one thing I do regularly. Trying to adapt the situation to one I can be comfortable in works at times. I also wonder if sensory integration training would (or would have) helped me…

    Comment by Emilie — July 4, 2007 @ 12:26 am

  4. I have had the same sensory overload experience at Wal-Mart. I have auditory language processing problems. Can’t make out the lyrics.

    One thing has helped–paying cult to Hermes.

    And you thought I was going to mention Someone Else. 🙂

    Serious about the Hermes bit, though. I am _extremely_ lucky.

    Comment by Ted Garvin — August 21, 2007 @ 12:03 am

  5. For some reason (procrastination, most likely) my mind was on proofreading this morning, and it brought me back to your site after several years’ hiatus. And then lo and behold, you’ve started this new blog that speaks to me all too well. Like the article’s author, I have SLE (thankfully in a milder form), and this “spoon theory” describes *exactly* how I feel much of the time. The next time someone gives me one of those Looks I’m going to wave a bunch of spoons in her face! Between my INTP-driven social exhaustion and my lupus-driven physical exhaustion, I have to pace myself just to get through the day without collapsing by lunchtime. Perhaps someone should write a spoon theory for INTPs too; just because I don’t like parties or dealing with emotions doesn’t mean I’m a robot, but some people seem to have issue grasping that concept.

    Incidentally, my little sister has sensory integration disorder, so I imagine that when she’s a bit older I’ll be pointing her towards your sensory overload posts.

    -Elise, who used to be known as Lesi ’round these here parts

    Comment by Elise — October 3, 2007 @ 12:31 pm

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