I began to suspect I was neurodivergent in therapy. I had opened a dialogue with a therapist a few months after my wife was diagnosed with brain cancer, which came three months after the birth of our son. To help me survive through this excruciating time, life became increasingly task-oriented, and I was only looking to what was immediately in front of me. Thoughts of the future were put on hold while I continued to try to put one foot in front of the other and attend to the needs of my wife, my son, and when possible, myself.
I knew I could not go through this time unscathed, and so I found a therapist as a means to ensure that despite the difficult time, my behavior was not steadily becoming problematic. The responsibility I felt for my wife and child, and to a lesser extent myself, required me to remain healthy and functional.
While discussing my experiences, I was struck by the ease with which I could put my emotions on hold. Once I realized what needed to happen to keep life moving forward for all three of us, it became easy to prioritize. This also kept me so busy that I did not have time to reflect on the inferno of emotions roaring in the background.
This feeling was not new to me. I had always had delayed emotional processing, as I never seemed to know how to feel in the moment. Often at times, since my teenage years, this made me feel android-like, and the absence of both emotional and sometimes logical responses frustrated people, who often perceived lack of a response as an absence of care.
The irony was, I never stopped thinking and often simmered on thoughts for long periods of time. The real damage from these experiences of not giving people the responses they were looking for, especially when interacting with an adult as a child, was that I started to feel that something was wrong with me.
After the first six years in a British high school, I simply determined that school was nothing more than a period of time that I just needed to get through. I was already strategizing how best to get myself through the months, and I let go of attempting to care about the frequent antagonism and indignant bewilderment towards my behavior from students and faculty alike. I loved to learn but there was always just awkwardness sitting in the way of me getting the most out of it.
Tiredness defines almost every memory I have from the last two years of high school. I now wonder if this was the beginning of burnout, but I reasoned that if I was always going to be tired and school was always going to be awful, then why not pack in things outside of school that I could at least attempt to draw pleasure from. I took up Kung Fu, worked a part-time grocery store job, and stayed up late watching television and playing video games because as soon as I was asleep, I’d be getting up for school again.
I embraced the burnout and the tiredness, because I simply stopped caring. here was something exciting about self-destruction. I gave up on high school and saw it as something to overcome; to take what I could from it, and then get the hell out of there.
Depression manifested heavily during my undergraduate years. It was four years of not recognizing my own emotions and feeling like there were spaces where an emotion should be. I was tormented by feeling like I didn’t know who I was. I could not recognize myself. I could not identify with other students. I had no idea what I really wanted to study. I had no idea what the future held. At times, vacuum-like prickly feelings swirled around inside me, and life felt like it was being sucked out of me by the backdraft from the burnout. I started to need days to feel functional again.
And through all of this time, I was alone. If I felt so awkward around people, the thought of confiding these things to a stranger felt wrong, and I did not want to burden my family with these experiences. I even wanted to be alone, as I felt I had brought all of this on myself, and it was my own vortex to conquer that would make or break me.
The saving grace through my difficult undergraduate years at college was, funnily enough, learning. My penchant for long periods of mulling over thoughts and feelings fitt right in with reading and trying to understand more and more of life’s concepts and content. There is something magical about learning just enough of a new topic, no matter how obscure, to open up a whole new conceptual world where you are immediately deluged by new questions that would have made no sense to you previously.
Learning is a transition; you move from a state of not knowing to knowing.earning helps you to move out of those awful mental states of feeling stuck, festering in indescribable angst and crippling confusion. Reading also introduces you to the lives, thoughts, and feelings of others, helping you to understand how other people survive in the world and how they react under similar circumstances. No longer do you feel like you are swirling in an abyss, because you now have guideposts and pillars to support your own framework of understanding the world, and crucially, surviving through it.
My fascination with the world of the intellectual was a source of amusement to me as I have come to identify as sapiosexual. Sapiosexuality is the sexual attraction to intelligence and seems to be a secondary sexuality to the primary - heterosexuality, in my case. While it is common for a person to desire intelligence in their intimate partners, sapiosexuality is when the intelligence itself leads to sexual arousal. Public intellectuals like Hannah Arendt, Joan Didion, and Susan Sontag became symbols for me of sapiosexuality. Their works produced sudden sparks of pleasure from the brilliance and uniqueness of their thoughts. Coupled with their gorgeous aesthetic, it is enough to make one melt into a warm puddle.
The world of learning and ideas that helped to save me from depression and taught me to function in the world also informed my sexual desire. For an autist, often lost in his own mind and attempting to articulate the madness, being lost in a conceptual world of lascivious intellects made being autistic an absolute delight.
Entering the workplace from graduate school was another eye-opening experience that precipitated my differences. The reaction to blunt and candid comments is often not appreciated, even though new employees might be told that these opinions are welcome. Annual performance reviews that appear to be based on the creative and marketing skills of the employee are in direct contradiction to the value of good work speaking for itself. Should how well you can market yourself to your line manager really be the basis to assess your annual contributions? In college, if you put in the time to research and make an excellent clear and concise argument, you are likely to receive an exceptional grade. This value does not translate over to the capitalist workplace.
There are books on the market that tout the idea that the workplace is all just a game that you need to play well in order to succeed. This idea is likely to be repulsive to the autist because it does not guarantee quality or build upon productivity or output from a foundation of hard fought for truths. Careers are serious as they provide the funding for private lives and needs, and arguably a business has serious goals for its place and existence in the world, and so to be told it is all a game seems like a bad joke.
In addition to the perverted and pervasive game mentality, workplaces are known to be overly meeting-happy. I resented having too many meetings in a week because they were often more hindrance than help. From the standpoint of executive functioning, it was often difficult to process and remain responsive to any issues being discussed if there were numerous voices and noises entering into my thought space.
Spoon theory helps to explain the autistic struggle with meetings because they require many spoons, even to the point of leaving negative spoons. Attempting to be productive after a meeting, especially a busy one, is excruciating for the autist, and I often needed periods of rest with partial sensory deprivation to avoid the ensuing burnout. So often one hears that a meeting could have been an e-mail, and they often seem to bore the neurotypical. The purpose, necessity, and delivery of a meeting need to be thoroughly assessed before they are scheduled. Meetings that are high on chitchat, speculation, looking to fill time, or providing an echo chamber for those to revel in the sound of their own voice do not really succeed in any meaningful goal and can reduce productivity for the rest of the day.
Now, I have reached the milestone in my life where I can understand so much of my struggle. Therapy to help me stay grounded during the trauma of my wife’s diagnosis and the passing of my father has also revealed to me the magic and the difficulty of autism. The ease with which I can slip into deep thinking in the right environment, my penchant for looking for solid and truthful foundations for conversation and productivity, and a better understanding of how I have had to mask in the world have all helped me and made life enjoyable. I still struggle with sensory overload, interruptions to thought, and burnout, but I accept these things as being necessary to my life.
I have found that in the space between sustained deep thought and burnout, there is a lot of creativity to be had, and I have become enamored with this space. I am unapologetically autistic and feel lucky that I have found a way to function in the world and be able to provide for my family. I wish this for all my fellow autists.
Author Bio: Jack Pemment, MA, MS
I work as a medical and science writer, also dabbling in short stories and fiction. I currently have three journal articles focusing on the neurobiology of psychopaths and personality disorders, and I blog for Psychology Today and keep a Substack. I live in Pennsylvania with my wife, son, and three cats.