Autism and social exhaustion;
Being autistic makes social contact exhausting. Conversations are like puzzles, requiring a lot of concentration and energy. A social situation contains many elements, each of which require thought and effort in order to experience a successful encounter.
Firstly I need to consider context. Am I talking to a professional, acquaintance, family member, friend or close friend. It’s difficult for me to differentiate my approach. Since getting an autism diagnosis I’ve realised that it’s important for me to do so. My instinctive approach is to not censor myself at all, in fact it doesn’t even occur to me to change the way I behave in different situations. I don’t modify my behaviour to suit and this can lead to discomfort, embarrassment and rejection.
Now I realise that social context can be understood more easily by thinking of myself as an onion, every situation requires the exposure of a different layer. It’s only my close friends and immediate family who should be allowed to peel back enough layers to find my core.
In professional situations, or with those who I am not close with it’s best to keep things simple, small talk (no matter how dull I find it) serves a purpose. I should choose polite, respectful topics which will not make anyone feel uncomfortable. This will help me to develop friendships slowly, deal with acquaintances thougtfully and handle professional situations appropriately.
I have to decode what is being said to me, alongside facial expression and body language. I’m useless at reading people, unless they’re displaying an obvious emotion. I can figure out that if someone is laughing and smiling it’s going well. When someone is extremely distressed, with tears, I know what’s happening but everything in between is pretty much a mystery to me. So I make assumptions, and often I’m wrong.
Plus there’s the fact that often people don’t say what they really mean and expect you to read between the lines. Honestly I think this is pretty daft but it’s the way these things work so I need to accept that.
So I’m figuring out context, trying to read the other person and work out what they’re actually saying, and that’s before I’ve even started on me. Not making jokes unless I’m confident they’ll be appreciated, not being too personal, not saying anything innapropriate and not saying too much. I need to focus on listening well, even if the topic isn’t one that interests me, not interrupting and knowing when to end the conversation and leave.
You can see that for me this stuff is a lot of work. Each encounter takes a lot of effort and can feel pretty exhausting.
Prior to diagnosis I knew I found this stuff hard, but I didn’t know why. I often ended my days feeling drained and anxious but had no idea what was causing this.
Now I understand why I’m struggling things are better. I’m learning that I need to minimise social contact. That for me less is more when it comes to socialising. Don’t misunderstand, I enjoy being social I just need less of it that I realised before my diagnosis.
I’m hoping that with this new knowledge about myself I will be able to learn the social rules, and learn to understand other people better. In turn I hope that by being open about my autism other people will be more understanding and aware of the difficulties I am experiencing.
I understand. I have someone close to me who does not have a formal diagnosis, but after working in the field for many years as a teacher, I can see how she fluctuates between silence in social situations to saying the most outlandish things that knock the sails out of you. She shuns social life but complains about being lonely. Her perception when in social situations is very skewed and she finds it difficult to follow conversations. So her comments are often inappropriate. She called me a whore one day as we (husband) had gone to a formal dinner and I had red nail polish on and believed that’s what it meant. She would make up stories about me to make others laugh- she thought that’s how you make jokes. Unfortunately, you can’t talk diagnosis with the family as that is a no-no. Very anxious person and I never knew what I was coming home to, when we lived together.
I’m sorry to hear this person is struggling so much, and also to hear she can be so difficult to be around for you. Thanks for commenting.
I find life exhausting. As you know, I’m considering going for assessment myself.. Being around people not only tires me out but gives me migraines which can keep going for days… I also have trouble reading people and it’s got me into many an argument over the years. I think that having the diagnosis helps to give you understanding of why life seems such hard work. A simple thing like making a phone call can make me ill. That’s because it’s not simple to me.. That’s one of the things I’m hoping to gain from it should I be diagnosed.
Thanks for commenting Tracy, it sounds like a diagnosis, if you have got ASD, would really benefit your understanding of the difficulties you experience and help you to manage them. I wish you the best of luck with the process, always here if you want to ask anything.
Thanks for this really interesting article Ella. I’m recently diagnosed and the label gives me so much more understanding of my social exhaustion, even though, like you, I like to mix with people. One thing I have wondered about, though, is as I’ve been giving myself permission to avoid more and more things, I wonder am I becoming more autistic in my social avoidance just because I now have the label and wonder if I should push myself to socialise more? But really what seems to be happening, is that while I am mixing less, the people I am mixing with are far more authentic people, who say what they mean and are genuinely kind folk. So perhaps, thanks to my diagnosis I am getting more quality interaction and just abandoning the superficial.
Thank you, interesting question, I have wondered the same thing. I think ultimately the gauge us how you feel, if doing things differently now you’re aware of your autism results in a better quality of life, less anxiety etc then it’s got to be the right way to go.
I have a formal aspergers diagnosis as of about a month ago. I finally went and talked to someone for an evaluation after my 3 year old son was diagnosed. This social exhaustion thing really makes sense for me, it explains so much (my whole life makes sense now). My question is, do you think social exhaustion can also come from being around my 2 small kids all day? I’m always so tired and my husband complains a lot about it.
Hi Nicole, thanks for commenting. Yes I definitely think being around two small children all day can cause social exhaustion. When my children were at home full time I found it very challenging and was overloaded a lot of the time. My suggestion would be to see if you can find definite time each day for sensory breaks, I find this regular time to recharge really helpful.