Quirk Monster #15: Revisiting autistic energy levels and the need for recharge time
In the very first Quirk Monster post I talked about my energy levels and my need for recharge time as an autistic person.
I talked about how I run out of energy much faster than many of my non-autistic peers. I explained that Friday afternoon recharge time is essential to my wellbeing and might as well be 2am on a Sunday.
I’ve noticed that people across all areas of my life still aren’t quite understanding what I mean when I say that Friday afternoon is off limits recharge time. I’m still consistently being asked if I’m available on a Friday afternoon. People usually ask me verbally in advance and it’s usually phrased as ‘It will only be 10 minutes’ or ‘It will be fun!’ A lot of people think I’ve got the afternoon ‘off’ and am therefore available to them.
From what I can gather, most people fall into two groups here. There are those who think it’s a time thing and that 10 minutes is a drop in my recharge time bucket and there are others who potentially think it’s a preference thing that I can just forgo if the proposed activity is interesting or fun enough like eating out, shopping or going to the movies (pre COVID-19).
I had hoped that me saying I need something would be enough because I would do the same for them, but I’ve learned there’s a layer of neurotypical culture where just about everything is seen as a negotiation and the word ‘no’ can in some (non-nefarious) contexts be viewed as a mere conversation starter. There are times when this is helpful because it can be how things get done and I’ve always been a firm advocate for people meeting each other halfway, but there are also times when boundaries need to be respected.
I don’t think these people mean any harm at all. They’re just not getting it. Most people have good and positive intentions and are just trying to get things done but don’t fully understand the reasons behind my request or how my brain works.
I thought it might be helpful to go a little bit deeper than I did in my previous post and explain exactly what happens when you ask me for 10 minutes on a Friday afternoon.
Here we go.
Every Friday morning I wake up feeling like I’ve been hit by a car.
I’m exhausted and everything hurts. The weight of the week is grinding my bones and dragging me down. My brain has had enough. Enough sound, enough light and more than enough stress from a week’s worth of confusing and awkward social interactions that leave me replaying them over and over in my head for hours on end wondering what I did wrong. With caffeine, I can hold it together and function at a productive level for around 4-5 hours. At this stage, I am still fit to work.
By 12pm Friday, I’m usually ready for a nap. By 1pm Friday, I am absolutely shattered. Gone beyond the point of gone. My brain turns to mush. I start misspelling words, grammar goes out the window, I struggle to keep my eyes open, everything still hurts and I can’t think straight. It’s absolute torture and without rest, it only gets worse from here.
When you ask me if you can call/video call/text/show up on my doorstep/meet me somewhere ‘around 3pm’ for a 10 minute chat (or more), whether you are aware of it or not, you are asking me to remain in that continually escalating state of exhausting discomfort for an additional 2 hours at least (depending on the activity and context).
You might think that’s ridiculous and that I should be fine because by then I would have had 2 hours to rest, but you’re not really understanding how my brain works. There’s a few different facets of it at play here.
First of all, 2 hours is nowhere near enough time for me to switch my brain off and then recharge it sufficiently. It takes at least 6 hours, but often more.
Secondly, my brain struggles with rapid context switching. It’s really hard for me to jump from one thing to another without losing focus. I get around this during working hours by time-boxing my days, scheduling in flexibility through time slots that I block out in advance and then release as needed (the same way a doctor might do with emergency appointment slots), putting my lunch break in my calendar and always requesting a 2-5 minute break in between meetings to reset myself. My weekly recovery session from life as an autistic person living a neurotypical world needs to be one continuous block of rest time with no interruptions. I can’t rest a little, pull myself out of that deep focussed state, be useful to you and then snap my fingers and go back to resting. That’s mental whiplash and on a Friday afternoon when my energy reserves are that low, it’s not feasible and it's pushing me into meltdown territory.
Thirdly, I have anxiety and the anticipation of a somewhat random phone call or knock at the door makes it very hard for my brain to settle and puts me in a heightened state. My heart is racing, my breathing is rapid, I feel jittery and shaky. I can’t relax or take my mind off it. I quite literally end up sitting by the phone or the door waiting for the time to pass while feeling worse by the minute because I can’t settle or get started on something.
You might be thinking back to the days where I worked a full day on a Friday or made myself available to people outside of work on a Friday afternoon before implementing these arrangements and seemed perfectly fine. I honestly wasn’t.
When I was actively engaging in activities and with other people all day on a Friday, I’d experience a massive meltdown that night and spend the entire weekend in bed unable to do anything. And then I’d spend the next week or two carrying around a massive energy debt. I was constantly exhausted for several years. In multiple previous jobs I went part time, but that had other impacts (e.g., reduced income) that I can’t live with.
About 18 months ago I realised I could frontload my week by working an extra 1-3 hours per day Monday to Thursday and it timed out perfectly with that Friday lunchtime energy drop. I’ve also found that very few things of importance occur on Friday afternoons between 12pm and 6pm. The world is not going to end if I’m not available to it one afternoon at the end of the week.
I hope this extra insight helps you to understand more about why I ask for an unconditional amount of space every Friday afternoon. I do my part by not picking up the phone, not checking emails or messages, muting my notifications and blocking out both my personal and professional calendars. Please meet me halfway by respecting boundaries and thinking about how you can continue to learn how to be a better ally.
This short article is a lived experience example shared from my life to help you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be autistic. I am just one autistic person in a really big world. No two of us are exactly alike. I can only speak for myself and to my own experiences. If you want to know what other autistic people think — and you should — look them up, talk to them and read their work too. We all have our own voices and this is only mine. This article is part of a mini content series I publish to LinkedIn when I can. You can view the other articles in this series via my LinkedIn profile.