Autistic in times of Covid-19 – Saturday 25th April 2020

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.

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Post Author: jorikmol

Professionally Autistic

5 Replies to “Autistic in times of Covid-19 – Saturday 25th April 2020”

  1. Only now I have started to recognise my meltdowns. These involve feeling really weepy and touchy feely about anything and everything. My remedy? Long walks or a short run; virtually anything that involves pacing and being on my own. Dark spaces also help a lot. I tried the talking things out but discovered thst I only want to get things out of my chest instead of advice or solutions. Good job I adopted a pet so he is the one I tell my stories to. Haha.

  2. I find routine very helpful too, I always have. Though it’s only in recent years that I have noticed what the lack of it does to my mind – I can quite easily melt into a lump of uselessness if something I had planned is cancelled or changed. So I am learning to take a stand and think of something new to fill up that time, rather than just, say, playing with my phone.

  3. Loved it! Although I generally consider myself neurotypical (or basic bitch, if you will), I identified quite a bit with your routines and struggles. I am easily overwhelmed by too many “to do” lists, so I dont do any of it, and usually get quite depressed about. I just started to use my food diary again, but lack discipline to do much more. I would love to know what your meltdowns look like, only because I saw so much that I identify with, I’m wondering if mine look similiar. I’ve been very comfortable with this social isolation, more than I thought I’d be. Lol

  4. Ahhh, this lockdown is like the magic ‘off switch’ for life that I have long wished for. In fact for the past few months I had been wondering whether I could ask for a few months of unpaid leave (a sabbatical), yet had felt (without asking) that such an idea would not be well received. Even if it had been though, I’d still have needed to be productive in my self employed business.

    Now, ALL of my normal work is on hold, and it’s just such a wonderful release. This is the first time in more than a decade that I’ve felt completely relaxed, and de-stressed, and really calm. Yes, before I might have thought I was relaxed, but now I know I really wasn’t. The silence is golden, the pace of life is perfect.

    Yes, I’m fortunate that I’m not worried about money. I’ve always saved everything that I could, for ‘a rainy day’. Now, despite the glorious weather, the ‘rainy days’ have arrived.

    Approaching 40 and having been diagnosed 6 years ago, I haven’t really proactively studied Asperger’s and am not so aware of myself as you seem to be. I’ve bought a few books, but only dabbled. Like you my meals would sound and seem dull and monotonous to most neurotypicals. I once lived with a partner who wanted a different evening meal *every* day. But same old, same old is a vital routine that is essential to make sure mealtimes are relaxing. Apart from that, I’m relishing the lack of structure each day. Instead of hyperfocused productivity I’m gently getting things done. I’ve been doing a lot more exercise than usual. Some days I’ve been out for a 15-20 mile walk, and have visited more new paths in the last month, than in the last 20 years. No work has enabled me to start on a long planned summerhouse project (I’ve been stockpiling materials for 2-3 years) that naturally I’m calling the Lockdown Lodge. Sometimes I work on it most of the day, sometimes I take a walk in the afternoon, sometimes I don’t work on it at all. But it doesn’t matter, and whatever I do, it’s all at a calm pace, no pressure, very meditative, uplifting, soothing, invigorating, energising, motivating, positive, fulfilling, grounding, satisfying….all at the same time.

    I can do hyperfocus, and yes, you get a huge amount done in a given time period. But then you are completely wrecked, crashed out, depleted, and you need to shut the doors on life, hide in your safe space, and plug into whatever qualifies as your personal battery charger. And if you get recharged from hugs, but there’s nobody around to provide some… well I’m sure we all know how that feels. And then I get to the end of my rest day, but don’t feel all that much better.

    Hyperfocus gives us an edge over neurotypicals in many work environments. But the way in which that ‘better-ness’ is is measured, I feel not an especially healthy benchmark. So at the moment I’m really glad that my performance isn’t being gauged or measured at all.

    Maybe this should be a sign to me that there are things in my life I need to change 🤔 At the moment I’m not ready to think about that.

    I do have a close friend who, like you, relies a lot on her routines, and for whom a great deal of this recent disruption is proving a significant drain on her energy. She’s doing lots of Zoom conversations, that I’m sure I’d also find tiring, and most of her daily planned going out activities are entirely cancelled. I believe she likes to have very structured days, and uses notebooks to plan and schedule most activities.

    I’d find such strict adherence to routines completely exhausting. Just the thought of even making that kind of plan would drain me and send me to sleep.

    It’s fascinating how much variety we humans can exhibit with each of us searching for what we feel is the most normal. How much ‘one man’s trash can be another man’s treasure’.

    Thank you for sharing your musings Jorik.

    Best wishes,

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