Social Exhaustion


An adult autistic wrote to an online group asking why it was that attending a social event was so exhausting. I responded:

I don't have the final answer on that, but for me a large part of what makes it exhausting is a combination of sensory overload and not knowing what to do. Each of those has several aspects, and the two sets of aspects intersect and re-enforce (worsen) each other.

Being in an unfamiliar place with a group of unfamiliar people (i.e., worst case scenario), my brain is skittering around trying to keep track of the billions of separate sensory "inputs." NTs, I understand, perceive more en masse. They "see the big picture" and don't bother with details. My brain isn't capable of that. Either it takes in everything (exhausting!) or it shuts down. That's one reason why I (and many other auties) prefer to spend a lot of time at home. Here at home, I have almost all the "inputs" catalogued already, so they don't overwhelm me.

Simultaneous with the exhausting brain overload described above, a social situation requires that we participate at least to the degree of holding our bodies in a certain way and moving from place to place as the situation dictates. We have to keep alert for clues (hidden from us but clear to NTs) about what is expected (trying to analyze invisible data is exhausting in itself), and then we have to try to "program" our bodies and faces to comply (in a very short time span). Usually there's also some "attention signaling" required, e.g., looking at other people who are talking, making it look as if we are following the flow of conversation (even though we may not be able to hear/ understand it all). The body mechanics that we may be unconscious of at home on our own suddenly have to be consciously initiated and performed and controlled. Exhausting!

Plus, there is the anxiety of not knowing what anyone is going to do/say, whether we will be able to comprehend what is said, whether we will know how to react "appropriately," etc. I always feel "surrounded" in social situations, even when I manage to get my back against a wall.

That's some of what I understand about what makes social situations hard for me, anyway.



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