Autistic Adulthood

Creations / Blog / Autistic Adulthood

Sep 24, 2023 | About 4 min reading time

Last year, I started my first ever office job.

Three months later, I quit.

There were a lot of different reasons for this, ranging from workplace toxicity to unexplained chronic fatigue where I would regularly go home and go to sleep on Friday evening only to wake up on Sunday morning (my fatigue issues were not caused by this workplace, but they were certainly exacerbated by it). I hoped that I'd be able to leave, go back to searching for another job, and move on with my life relatively unaffected.

I was wrong.

Since this experience, I've been dealing with what is most likely autistic burnout. While autistic burnout isn't a term often used by professionals, it has been getting more attention in recent years as a real and unique phenomenon. Research on it has shown it differs from both depression and the burnout experienced by neurotypicals. It may also be referred to as autistic regression, because research usually defines it as chronic exhaustion, losing skills, and reduced tolerance for stimuli.

For me, it seems to present itself as social withdrawal (I'm an extrovert and clingy as hell, so this is probably the most notable sign for me), increased susceptibility to sensory overload, more difficulty dealing with my ADHD symptoms (which is especially upsetting because I had just gotten prescribed the first medication for ADHD that actually worked for me a few months before this all happened), irritability, more memory issues, and more issues with taking care of myself. The more I try to force myself to be like how I was before, the worse it gets.

Throughout this all, I keep thinking: "It feels like this was easier when I was a child."[^1]

I got diagnosed with autism when I was a toddler. The neurologist told my parents that I definitely had it, but that I'd likely "grow out of it" as I got older. One of my earliest memories is going to speech therapy because I struggled with pronunciation due to autism, and I still struggle with some sounds, like the "sk" sound at the end of words like "ask" or the rolled "r" in my second language, French.

I don't know why my brain decided one of my special interests would be learning languages when I've already had issues learning my native one, actually.

I also struggled, and still do, with auditory processing, to the point that my parents took me for a hearing test as a toddler because they thought I was deaf. My hearing is perfectly fine, but sometimes my brain's ability to translate what it's hearing just turns off and everything starts sounding like incomprehensible gibberish.

Even with these factors, it did seem that as I grew up my autistic traits became less and less of an issue for me. Things like my social skills and my ability to cope with change definitely improved, and I began thinking of my autism as largely a non-issue: something that explained why I couldn't be in loud spaces without shutting down or why I sometimes failed to get jokes, but something that didn't affect my life too much overall.

Then I became an adult, and everything went wrong.

When I was a child, my auditory processing issues had almost no impact on my day-to-day life. As an adult, they're the reason I can't work at grocery stores and similar places, because the noisiness of the store makes them kick into overdrive. If I'm expected to make phone calls, even a quiet conversation in the room I'm in taking place at the same time renders me unable to hear the other person.

Social skills, it turns out, are also much more of an issue now. I have no idea how to make friends, and when I do have a job, I have no idea how to fit in with my coworkers. I don't really mask or even know how to either, so most people who meet me will instantly see me as odd and awkward and often be put off by it. Meanwhile, my sensory issues affect everything from the jobs I can do to the places I can live (apartments are so noisy and it does not matter if it's nighttime).

It feels like I got thrown into the deep end without the ability to swim, even without tacking autistic burnout on top of that. I try to be capable of all the same things a neurotypical is capable of, but it just worsens the exhaustion.

One of the recovery tips for autistic burnout is simply to remove obligations. I'm not sure how I'm supposed to do that in a capitalist society, especially when I also have internalized shame around my ADHD and feel lazy when I don't fill every waking hour with productive activities (and even then, I still feel lazy). Another one is to stop or limit masking. I guess I'm already doing great there.

Admittedly, other tips like stimming and engaging in special interests do seem more helpful, even for people like me. I still feel resentful that the major thing contributing to my burnout seems to simply be the demands of adulthood. How am I supposed to deal with that?

Why is it - for me at least - that being an autistic child felt easier, in many ways, than being an autistic adult?

[^1]: This is merely my personal experience, and likely an oversimplification, at that. If I got into all the nuances of how autistic experiences differ throughout life, this post would be super long. In reality, both probably have upsides and downsides, even for me, and there were negative parts of my experience as an autistic child that I no longer have to deal with as an autistic adult. This post is more to express frustrations and share my personal experience for others who may relate, and not to be taken as meaning autistic adults always have it harder.