The Trauma of Being an Empathic Autistic Advocate

When you scratch the surface of all autistic advocates, an indelible layer of trauma exists from our early lives, whether we were professionally identified in childhood, adolescence or not until adulthood. Whether the trauma is caused by inadvertent behavioural conditioning from our parents & teachers, abuse in its many varieties (physical, verbal, psychological, etc.), failed friendships, awkward encounters and everything in between, we all have our baggage. I have taken a significant step back from advocacy because I have felt triggered through the actions of autistic activists and from some within the online autistic community.  It’s very hard to keep pushing through when I feel like I’ve been hit right on the nerve that causes me so much upset, heartache and internal “ickiness” that will never go away. I feel the need to state that whilst I hate how certain groups on the political Right have taken the word “triggered” and use it in a derogatory way towards those who they perceive as “special snowflakes”, I cannot think of another word more appropriate word to use.  I hope it’s interpreted in its intended form. I draw a line of differentiation between advocates and activists; both groups aim to have autism and neurodiversity accepted in society (awareness is never enough), but I find that activists can be a bit more “warrior-like” and outwardly angry by actively pointing out what’s wrong with how autistics are treated in a multitude of settings, and advocates tend to take more of a softer approach, sharing personal stories in the hopes of others identifying with their words and helping others speak their truths. Don’t get me wrong – both activists and advocates are essential to changing the world; the problem arises when infighting occurs and one group tells the other what they’re doing is wrong or ineffective. To be transparent, I started writing this post seven months ago – I’ve felt that exhausted by what was happening in the community that I couldn’t bring myself to login to my WordPress account to write anything new, let alone finish this post. Given that I started writing this in April, which is Autism Awareness(/Acceptance) Month, it’s not surprising that I needed to step back.  April turns into a perpetual fight against the blue puzzle piece assault by the Auti$m Organisation That Must Not Be Named, which brings up difficult conversations with friends and strangers alike. You don’t speak for my child – you’re much higher functioning! You don’t know what it’s like – you’re not an Autism Parent! These kinds of conversations never end well and unfortunately perpetuate the divide between the autistic community, parents of autistic children & young adults, and everyone else. Whilst I may not have practised as a social worker since 2013, there is an undying part of me that persists and perseveres for understanding and acceptance – I just don’t have the energy to get as angry as some activists do, and rather do what I can with the energy reserves I have.  I am thankful for those who can get angry about things and continue to function; I just wish that their anger would be directed more appropriately towards those who need to change their attitudes, behaviours and treatment towards the autistic community, not fighting among the ranks of those trying to make a difference for future generations.

Autistic Burnout & Regression

I started this draft back in April.

I got as far as the title.

Executive Functions include basic cognitive processes such as attentional control, cognitive inhibition, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility.

Autistic/Aspie Burnout was brilliantly defined by Planet Autism Blog as: “a colloquial term, that the clinical world doesnโ€™t seem to acknowledge as a genuine part of the autistic spectrum, resulting from the attempts to ‘be normal’, fit in and keep up.”

I won’t go into great detail about what specifically happened, but after several months of desperately “treading water” at work, an angry parent aimed their acerbity towards the local authority directly to me in a quite public and personal manner. Having endured years of working as a front-line social worker and various complex situations in SEND, this was the first time that it was made personal, despite me figuratively bending over backwards to sort this case out in a way that the parent would be happy and, of paramount importance, the child would have their needs best met.

When this all kicked off, I was shocked and rendered speechless; I could not believe what I was reading. When I flagged this up to my manager, she was quite comforting and told me to not worry about it (let’s face it – this advice DOES NOT WORK for me). I went home and told my husband about it, and he too said to not worry about it (see above). The next day, we found out that this parent posted his venomous letter publicly to Facebook. Thankfully, the local authority has a team that can approach Facebook to have such posts removed; however, in my mind, it was out there. My name was out there with libelous information about my professionalism and my dedication to my work. I was floored… I was crushed. I was emotionally numb over the course of the weekend, but come Monday, the start of the next work week, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house. By Tuesday, I couldn’t stop crying. I phoned my GP and was given an urgent appointment, resulting in me being signed off work with stress. My GP even said to me, “I’ve never seen you this low.” When I explained everything that happened, she was very sweet and empathetic and insisted that I be signed off work.

Now, to tie this all in with the title of the blog (that’s why you came here, after all, not to read my long-winded whinge about how a parent was mean to me).

Following my diagnosis nearly one year ago, one could argue that very little in my life changed – I was still me, after all – but I would argue that everything in my life changed. My understanding of myself changed massively. Suddenly, the things I silently suffered with, I had the language to be able to explain them rather than just “deal with it” whilst it was silently causing me agony with an “oh, it’s not a big deal” attitude when it was a massive deal to me. I gained a network of friends – my AsperSisters – who shared my experiences and provided the validation I had craved for so much of my life.

Whilst so many positives came from my diagnosis, there still was a lot of new information flying around my head and I became even more aware of my particular set of needs. Despite identifying these things and the best way to manage them, I kept pushing myself in my usual way… which has led to the burnout.

The burnout where migraines prevent me from getting out of bed, let alone doing anything remotely social and otherwise enjoyable. The burnout where these migraines led to me being physically unwell – a new symptom which I had never experienced before (bearing in mind I’ve suffered from migraines since age 14). The burnout where I am left feeling feeble and useless, not only to myself but to others who rely on me.

The burnout led to the regression. The regression is where things that were once easily completed now take much more cognitive and physical energy. The biggest area in my life where the regression has hit hard is cleaning the house. [Now I will clarify this by saying we don’t live in a filthy house which is on the verge of being condemned, but rather it’s in a perpetual state of “organised chaos”.] I can just about muster the energy to do a superficial clean & tidy if someone is coming round to the house, but doing a full-blown cleaning blitz like I have done in the past requires too much energy. I’m not sure if it’s just because the house is a lot more space to look after than my previous residences and I just can’t mentally break the task down into smaller pieces or what, but there is some sort of disconnect where I just get stuck.

Another area of regression is going shopping at the grocery store or being out in town. It’s not like I particularly enjoy either of these things, but I could certainly just about cope for enough time to get done what I need to and then leave without incident. Now, I will actively wait to go grocery shopping until a guaranteed quiet time (usually around 7pm Friday or Saturday and either 10am or 2pm on a Sunday) and sometimes have had to resort to putting in my earplugs or headphones in order to minimise sensory overload (noisy kids or the rickety stock trolleys staff drag along with squeaking wheels and rattling metal!). The only time we go into town now is when we get haircuts. Whereas before we would wander amongst the shops and look around for a while, our routine now is to go for an early lunch at Jane’s Pantry, maybe nip into Boots first to pick up a few items, then go home.

Going to Pilates once a week has also taken a back seat whilst I’ve been recuperating from this burnout. We are very lucky to have an amazing Pilates instructor local to us and we enjoy her style of teaching, as she looks after every participant individually and advises how to do the exercises in a way that is best for you. Because I’m no longer a member of the gym where we first started going to her classes, we instead go to one of her sessions at a village hall 6.5 miles away from home. However, by the evening on the day of the class, I just don’t have the energy to sit in the traffic that we inevitably hit to get there… trying to get there before the 6pm start to establish ourselves in our preferred place in the hall means leaving ours around 5:20pm… it should not take half an hour to travel 6.5 miles, but it does and it just takes any energy I had out of me. You know The Spoon Theory? Let’s say by 5pm I have about 3 spoons left for the day; 30 minutes of rush hour traffic can easily take away all 3 of those spoons, leaving me susceptible to meltdown.

I also feel bad that I’ve let a new friend down, though she says that she understands. I met Izzie at the Autism Post-Diagnostic Group I attended from March to April through the NHS, and we struck up a friendship quite quickly. She is working on a young adult fantasy novel and I offered to do some reviewing and editing for her whilst she worked on it. I was captivated by her writing and really enjoyed reading it as I was editing, but found that I was only able to do both for a short space of time. It got to the point where she would spend a fair amount of time doing more writing and re-writing that the document that I had to review was no longer current. She had given me the memory stick again and it has just sat in my laptop bag, untouched, for several weeks. I gave it back to her yesterday (after a frantic search because it wasn’t in the part of my laptop bag that I thought I had left it in!) and apologised profusely that I hadn’t done any more reviewing or editing on it. Izzie is so lovely and said it was really okay, but I still felt bad. I told her that before she wants to submit it to give it to me with a deadline, and that whatever I get done prior to that deadline will be however much I actually do. I really think she’s got amazing potential and I hope someone will want to publish it for her.

Hell, even WRITING, something that I thoroughly enjoy, has been hit by this regression cloud. It categorically should not have taken me nearly FOUR MONTHS to write this flippin’ blog, but here we are on the 1st of August and I’m only getting it finished and published now. I’m hoping that this will knock me out of the funk that I’ve been in…

I have always been one to do too much to prove that I’m not lazy and to overcompensate when I feel like I could be misconstrued as such. Now that I understand that there is an explanation behind my reduced energy levels, recognise what autistic burnout is and how it presents in me, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to move forward in a more positive way. I will do my best to do more that makes me happy and less of what drains me and makes me miserable.

Thanks for sticking with me during this whinge and moan. ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐ŸŒธ