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.