April 6, 2021

Autism and everyday overload

By rosieweldon

A lot of people can understand and sympathise with an autistic person’s struggle in a crowd. Or difficulty with a sudden change. They are the more commonly understood aspects of autistic life. But I struggle to get people to understand why an every day task is difficult for me, and why I can’t do it.

Most of the time in situations like that I am literally capable of doing it. So, I’m met with, ‘but you could if you wanted to?’ or, ‘but you can do it though, you are able to?’ And it is so hard to be able to explain that while I am physically capable of doing something, I am equally completely unable to do that thing.

I recently filled out a PIP form and found it incredibly difficult to put into words why I can’t cook a meal. A meal being classed as a balanced meal, e.g., potatoes veg and meat. I tried to explain that I only cook meals with one component or two that are independent and don’t conflict. Once I start to have various things fighting for space in my mind it gets overcrowded and quickly overwhelmed.

My partner usually cooks, and I will take on individual tasks to assist her. For example, making the gravy, draining the veg, or laying the table. One task at a time that doesn’t affect anything else. But last night I put food in the oven and my partner was tidying up. I decided it would be fine, that I could do the remaining two items that needed doing and let her carry-on tidying. At that point I had food in the oven, and had written down what time it went in, and then beans and carrots that needed doing on the hob, for two separate meals.

My partner has this way of cooking tea while also remaining completely chill and even doing other tasks while the food is cooking (madness!). But no, not me. I stood and focused on the time and the three sets of food items. They started spinning around and around my head. Carrots, not soft yet, beans, stir, food in the oven, went in at 6:05, carrots, beans, food in the oven, stir beans, check carrots, food in the oven. Somehow my mind went around and around while I stirred and checked and then managed to forget that food was in the oven and overcook it. How I can be hyperfocused on the three things to the extent of overload and simultaneously forget the food is in the oven is completely beyond me. It’s like it all swirls to the point it becomes white noise. I’m stirring beans on autopilot and becoming increasingly overwhelmed by the whole situation.

When I realised the food was overcooked (almost burnt but saveable luckily) I got it out and the full force of autism overload hit me. The experience of trying to balance my mind on the three tasks hit me like a brick wall and I felt instantly mentally exhausted. Autistic brains like to focus on one thing at a time. It is only now writing this that I realise it was forcing my brain to try and equally prioritise the three things that created the overload. I like a first, second and third. An order. A sequence. A plan. Not a balancing act of mental space spread across three tasks, my mind is not capable. I could not prioritise them like I do in day-to-day life. They were all happening and felt like they needed actioning at once.

My partner came back into the kitchen and I said that I had burnt the food and when she said it was fine the food was fine, I started crying. Overload is a horrible experience. It feels like your mind has ran a mental sprint and drained you of your energy. It leaves us susceptible to meltdowns, sensory overloads and shutdowns.

It was just a simple meal of 3 basic components, but it brought me to tears because of the pressure it put my mind through. That is why I don’t cook. It is not worth what it puts me through. Being assistant to a chief chef, absolutely, but managing cooking a meal by myself – no thanks.  

Another example of day to day overload happened last week when the door went for a supermarket delivery. My partner handles these and I, yet again, assist. But she was in the toilet and hadn’t heard the door. I didn’t want us to miss the delivery of our weekly shop so opened the door. I didn’t acknowledge the person because I just wanted to focus on engaging with the delivery until my partner came and took over.

The driver started stacking boxes and my mind kicked into overdrive over what I needed to do. The bags were behind me, the driver in front with boxes. I became overwhelmed and everything started to spin and go out of focus. I reached for a bag and swung back around, my focus being on quickly getting some stuff into a bag, so I was doing what I was supposed to, getting stuff into bags. Get stuff into bags and then my partner will take over. I then smashed my head full force into an outward pointing corner of the wall.

Then my head really was physically spinning! I somehow carried on throwing stuff into bags and then my partner appeared and saved me. I didn’t tell her what had happened until after the delivery was done because I didn’t have the words or capability to express what had just happened. After the delivery was done, I went to the toilet and tried to process what had happened to tell my partner. When I reappeared, she asked me if I was okay, and I broke down saying I hit my head. I had a cut across the front of my head, and it hurt, a lot. (It was sore for a few days but I’m completely fine now).

The point of this blog is that autistic life doesn’t just pose challenges of overcrowded events and changed trains. I hit overload trying to cook a basic meal and cut my head through overloaded confusion at a food delivery. Even seemingly basic tasks can throw us unexpected hurdles. Day to day I am pretty comfortable assisting my partner with these tasks, but when I have to process them alone, I struggle greatly.

I am lucky to have someone in my life who is incredibly understanding of the challenges I face that others don’t. She didn’t think me silly for headbutting a wall during a delivery or crying because cooking 3 parts of a meal was too much. She is always happy for me to take the back seat, knowing it is far from laziness but a wellbeing necessity.

Please have patience and understanding for the autistic people in your life. Listen to us when we say we can’t do something. We may not have the words to express why, but just know it will be too much for us. And if something is too much for us, it can likely become unsafe.

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