Passing and Exhaustion

“I identify as tired.” [1] –Emily Ballou

Autistic people who can appear “indistinguishable from their peers” pay a huge price for that achievement.  The cost is exhaustion—exhaustion to the point of incapacity, of burnout, of despair.  In the absence of a “typical” neurology, it takes a tremendous amount of mental and physical energy to maintain the façade of normalcy.  And the energy taken up by that process is not available for work, for play, even for self-care.  In a blog post often cross-posted and referenced by other members of the autism community, Kassiane Sibley offered a particularly rich discussion of this issue.  The passage is very long, but I want to include it in full because the language is so evocative.  It opens with a word often used by the online autistic community: “allistic”—meaning someone who is not autistic.

The Allistic Emulator software we run on our Autistic operating system needs constant attention. Have you ever run an emulator program? Like all of them, mine is slow, it is buggy, and it takes up processor power that’d be better off being devoted to another task. And it constantly needs upgrading to perform anywhere close to spec. . . .  When I gave a shit about my safety & about the people who taught me this–which was everyone in my life in my youth, as that’s how these things tend to work–I was constantly upgrading my emulator. Constantly relearned more in depth performances. It made me tired, anxious, cranky, and it failed frequently. The failures were distinguishable in the worst kind of way.  Failures were marked in tears. In full on meltdowns. In self loathing and self injury. Inability to do anything–eat, sleep, move–because of exhaustion and inertia. Did I mention self loathing? Severe anxiety. Self isolation (if I do it first they can’t!). Intimately detailed, ritualized recitations of all the ways I failed at being a human being. Because keeping up the act of humanity is what is required to be thought of as human. How very Lovaas.  So much energy was put into being a real person that I didn’t have the cognitive capacity to do as well as I could at any of a number of things. Between the day to day facade and flat denial of my visual support needs, all my learning bandwidth was diverted into running my shitty, self defeating emulator.[2]

This desperate effort does not, cannot stop with childhood.  “High-functioning” autistic people’s “emulator software” requires constant maintenance and upgrading throughout adult life, sucking away energy that might be devoted to more productive activities.[3] 

Adult autistics trying to pass have to focus intensely on all kinds of things most of rest of us never even consider.[4]  If they are lucky enough to have a paying job, for example, they must still keep the “allistic emulator” going without respite.  They have to work while dealing with the demands of their autistic neurology, without ever revealing that they are autistic—because “coming out” as autistic is likely to cost them their job.  Simply getting to work can be overwhelming.  For instance, riding a bus, requires not only dealing with unpleasant sounds and smells, but also keeping track of somewhat unpredictable multi-step procedures—a struggle for people with executive functioning issues.  You have to find the right bus stop, get on the right bus, pay the fare, move through the crowd on the bus to look for an available seat, watch for the right stop, move through the crowd again to get off, get from the bus stop to the work site, etc.—all while looking as “normal” as possible.[5]  Once you get to work, you face multiple sensory challenges.  Flashing lights on computer screens, and overly-bright fluorescent lights (which also, by the way, make a low level buzzing noise many autistics find intolerable), cause headaches and dizziness.  The constant noise as people move around the room, talking on the telephone or to each other, is not just “background noise” if you are one of the many autistic people who can’t distinguish between different layers of sound.  The overwhelming office wall of sound makes it difficult to understand what your boss or the person on the phone is trying to tell you, and embarrassing when you make a mistake.[6]  Intense smells in the bathroom and lunch room make you nauseous.  You are constantly aware of the uncomfortable tightness or scratchiness of work clothes.  You may even have to struggle to maintain the correct physical appearance.  Michael Scott Monje (the pen name of Athena Michaels-Dillon) describes what it’s like to “artificially hold” her face, for hours, to hide the fact that her eyes are not symmetrical and that her mouth naturally twists so that one side is open.[7] 

Employment also consists of a multitude of supposedly simple social interactions—involving eye contact, small talk, and constant snap judgments about appropriate responses.  All of this can provoke intense anxiety.  “I am exhausted at the end of a work day,” writes Judy Endow,

because it takes a great deal of effort for me to continually stifle my reactions to sounds, sights, smells and movements that others do not typically notice. I have to particularly pay attention to conventional social mannerisms such as remembering to look at people during conversation, track which words are ‘work words’ and which words are ‘social fluff words’ and respond accordingly. I work at this because I like to be able to fit in and in many respects my continued employment depends on it.[8]

Autistics trying to “pass” as neurotypical at work cannot use their best coping mechanisms—they can’t use stimming to release tension, they can’t hide in a dark, quiet room, or have a complete meltdown on the bus–because this will break through the neurotypical disguise and expose the autistic beneath.  (The meltdown on the bus may also lead to a police call and involuntary hospitalization.)  All you can do is suck it up.  Yet as one autistic blogger puts it: 

What [the people around me] don’t see is my suffering. They don’t know that sometimes I am panicking on the inside or going through sensory overload right in front of them. How could they? . . .  I learned to hide these things years ago. Nobody sees me freaking out, knows when I am having stomach issues, or my head is pounding from the florescent lighting of the office I work in two to three days a week.  I don’t complain. I smile, push forward, pull up my big girl panties and do what I have to do to make sure that I am able to provide the best possible life for myself.[9]  

The coping comes at home, like this: “For every hour that we manage to pass, we spend two or three or five recovering. We pull off a great passing act at work and pay for it by needing the whole weekend to recharge.[10]  Or:  “That me sitting here having a conversation in a way that reads as baseline normal to you is so high-energy that I’m going to start to break down from it in about half the time as you and have to go home and collapse.”

The harder these autistic adults work at passing, the higher the price they pay in exhaustion; the more exhausted they get, the weaker their ability to keep up the act.  Michael Scott Monje is a successful writer and a university lecturer.  But she has trouble keeping her face looking “normal,” and she also has trouble continuing to speak “normally,” as fatigue sets in:

I can talk for extended periods, but the more tired I get, the more my speech impediment slips out. It starts as a stutter, then I go tonally flat, and eventually I lose control over my enunciation and start to sound like the stereotypical autistic. Usually I also get frustrated and have a hard time keeping myself from shouting when this happens, because I stop being able to say the words I intend to say, and instead I insert similar-sounding but incorrect words, like saying “speak” when I mean “steep”. When it gets really bad, I will be able to see the word in my mind’s eye, as if I was silently reading, but I will not know how to say it out loud. [11]

In other words, this intelligent, accomplished person who is sometimes able to be “indistinguishable from her peers,” will eventually collapse into her natural, non-speaking autistic state when she becomes just too tired to keep up the act anymore.


[1] Emily Paige Ballou, “I Identify as Tired,” on The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism website, December 31, 2019:  http://www.thinkingautismguide.com/2019/12/i-identify-as-tired.html.  Ballou is using a phrase taken from a famous routine by autistic comedian Hannah Gadsby.

[2] Kassiane Sibley, “The Tyranny of Indistinguishability:  Performance,” on the Radical Neurodivergence Speaking blog, November 7, 2013, now moved to her Time to Listen blog:

http://timetolisten.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-tyranny-of-indistinguishability.html.  Compare Trogluddite, in the “Is Camouflaging Bad?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, July 9, 2018:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=366036&p=7954962.

[3] Emily Paige Ballou, “I Identify as Tired,” on The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism website, December 31, 2019:  http://www.thinkingautismguide.com/2019/12/i-identify-as-tired.html.

[4] Kate, “Passing,” on The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism website, September 14, 2012:  http://www.thinkingautismguide.com/2012/09/passing.html..

[5] See the “How common are public transport issues in people with ASD?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, November, 2011:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=179933&start=16.

[6] See, for example, youngeezer, in the “Cannot Stand the New Office” discussion on the Wrong Planet website, November 27, 2013:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=245949;  and the “The Negative Impacts of Open Offices” discussion on the same website, October, 2017:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=355333.

[7] Michael Scott Monje (Athena Michaels-Dillon), “Not That Autistic,” originally published on her blog, Shaping Clay (http://www.mmonjejr.com/2013/01/not-that-autistic.html), but updated (among other things, to add the information about her facial muscles) for publication in The Real Experts:  Readings for Parents of Autistic Children, ed. Michelle Sutton (Autonomous Press, 2015).

[8] Judy Endow, “Losing an Autism Diagnosis,” on the Aspects of Autism Translated blog:

http://www.judyendow.com/autistic-behavior/losing-an-autism-diagnosis/.

[9] “Anna,” “Off the Spectrum:  How Autistic Are You?” from the Anonymously Autistic blog, :

https://anonymouslyautistic.net/2016/08/09/off-the-spectrum-how-autistic-are-you/.  On the long-term costs of passing, see also Emily Paige Ballou, “The Unrecovered,” on the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism blog, January 11, 2020:  http://www.thinkingautismguide.com/2020/01/the-unrecovered.html.

[10] Kassiane Sibley, “The Tyranny of Indistinguishability:  Performance,” on the Radical Neurodivergence Speaking blog:

http://timetolisten.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-tyranny-of-indistinguishability.html.

[11] Michael Scott Monje (Athena Michaels-Dillon), “Not That Autistic,” originally published on her blog, Shaping Clay, in 2013, but updated for publication in The Real Experts:  Readings for Parents of Autistic Children, ed. Michelle Sutton (Autonomous Press, 2015).

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