Interpreting signals

One of the things I’ve observed about myself and other autistic people I know is that we’re not good at listening to our own needs. This is generally recognised as an autistic trait, but whether it’s completely inherent or partially learned is an interesting question.

On the “nature” side of the argument it’s clear that the ability to hyper-focus on a single topic – a talent shared by many on the spectrum – could interfere with the ability to process other signals. Descriptions of this trait are often framed in terms of a deficiency in social skills, manifesting as a resolute unresponsiveness of the autist to other people around them; but those willing to alter their perspective might note that the unresponsiveness is to almost any disturbance, and not just that which would usually prompt a social interaction.

But there are environmental factors too. The trouble with having fundamentally different self-care needs is that throughout our formative years, we, like all children, learn from other people. It’s a rare and incredible individual who can develop an understanding of their own needs and act on them effectively when constantly contradicted – implicitly or explicitly – by the rest of the world.

So it’s possible this lack of self-awareness is an autistic trait, or that it’s psychologically ingrained through years of learning that our needs can’t possibly be what we think. Or probably both. Whatever the reasons, I certainly have difficulty with this. It’s often hard for me to interpret the signals my body gives me to determine what it needs.

The most obvious way this shows itself is in how I respond – or rather, don’t respond – to the onset of fatigue. This wonderful ability to hyper-focus on the best things in life interferes not only with external signals, but with internal. The stereotype of the “mad scientist” who forgets to eat or sleep seems entirely plausible when you regularly “wake up” from deep focus to realise it’s 10 pm, you haven’t eaten yet and you REALLY REALLY REALLY NEED TO PEE.

The difficulty of ignoring or not recognising internal signals manifests in a variety of other contexts. My response to pain, for example. I’ve learned over the years that I’m probably hypersensitive to pain; but knowing this has led me to ignore certain signals that, with hindsight, I should have listened to. It takes me a few times running on a strained muscle before I’ll believe the thing is actually an injury that needs rest, rather than my body just making a fuss about nothing.

Yet another one for me is hunger. I have an enormous amount of trouble distinguishing between hunger and fatigue. When struggling with depression, I’ve curled up exhausted in my armchair of an evening with no energy to move, read or even cry – not realising the crucial point that, having taken no interest in my lunch or afternoon snack, my mood will lift exponentially if I could just get up and cook some food! But even at better times, I can often only tell by experimentation whether I’m actually hungry or if I need to zone out for a while.

A really annoying thing about hunger is when it strikes out of the blue. One minute everything’s fine, the next I’m shaking and weak, my stomach completely hollow. The feeling is absolute, immediate and all-consuming, such that I’ll stop whatever I’m doing as soon as humanly possible to look for food. Chatting with an autistic friend I wondered aloud why more people don’t act so driven when hungry. He postulated that perhaps their bodies are better at giving subtle signals, allowing them more time to act, before the need is urgent. My pragmatic solution these days is always to have a snack in my bag with me, just in case.

Mental fatigue is actually the one that causes me the most difficulty in everyday life. It’s really good to be able to focus intensely on my job, but work life doesn’t leave me much in reserve. Although there are times when I struggle to get focused on a task, in my first couple of years as a scientist I would regularly find myself absorbed until an hour or two later than I should have left the office. It wasn’t until I was completely exhausted that I’d “wake up”, suddenly, to realise I had barely the energy needed to get myself home. Once home and fed, with no down-time to recharge before bed, the next day would be a hazy blur of mental exhaustion. If I overstayed my hours on a Monday, it wasn’t uncommon to lose the rest of the week. In the end the only way I could break the cycle was to set an alarm on my phone, to distract my attention at the end of the working day.

And the flip side of mental fatigue, of course, is self-discipline – or at least, the appearance thereof. Although my focus, once established, is pretty much unbreakable, to achieve that state in an office full of people can be tortuous, and is often impossible. The level of effort needed to sustain these failing efforts is far above that which neurotypical people exert. But unfortunately, it’s often the number of hours spent at the desk rather than the actual work achieved which matters day-to-day.

Of course, these are just surface issues. I could spend many pages on the long term mental and physical health impacts of self-neglect. But that’s not where I am today 🙂

On the whole, I don’t really want to fix this. I’m happy with my hyper-focus. I do my best, most satisfying work when I’m fully absorbed, and not distracted by what my body needs! But it’s important for me to achieve a balance, maintaining my health and wellbeing enough so that I don’t crash and burn, and can continue to focus on doing what I love over the longer term.

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