Saturday, April 15, 2017

Autistic Burnout, A Secret, and Vera

Trigger/Content Warning (TW/CW): the following blog post contains mentions of rape and workplace harassment and assault. Reader discretion is advised.

Not too long ago, a friend, who is also autistic, discussed about an experience in their lives. It was so profound, it immediately triggered memories of my own experience.

It's called "autistic burnout." It is fairly new in topic among autistics, let alone neurotypicals. My definition of autistic burnout is when an autistic person is no longer capable to portray a façade of a neurotypical for basic survival needs, like a job or getting laid. This "burnout," a feeling of that façade "burning" up and away from a neurodivergent's first line of defense (think of a Medieval soldier's armor disintegrating from boric acid or what have you), leaves a person naked and vulnerable. Folks, regardless of neurology, start to see you for who you really are - a person living a double life in order to avoid what people like them had to endure in generations past.

And what's worse, autistic burnout leaves an autistic individual prime for proverbial picking from vultures disguised as bullies and abusers.

I have had my own autistic burnout.

It was March 2010. I was working for my last employer, my nice little cubicle perched in a corner away from all the office noise on the 3rd floor of a 32-story building. I had it made: I had a new apartment in the same vicinity as where My Happy Place is now, I was officially making more money than my father ever did, I had turned in my very last payment for the Madamobile in exchange for the car's title, and I was in (what appeared at the time) a stable long-term relationship with a partner 24-years my senior with two beautiful furbabies. Life was good, I can't lie.

It was when my department's management had decided to consolidate the entire workforce into one floor of the building, instead of being dispersed all throughout 32 floors. It wasn't a big deal at first; I had started on the 14th floor when I was hired back in July 2008, and eventually made my way to the 3rd floor where my team was predominately located in 2009. Here, I was going back up to the 14th floor, except not in the same room where I originally was.

My new cubicle, on the 14th floor, was in the middle of the action in the department.

People were walking up and down the main aisle. The cubicle, outside of our overhead shelves, had walls that were shoulder high when you were sitting in your chair. It was designed so you can see other heads around you and become more transparent in your work instead of goofing off on the Internet. Folks would gather around cubicles surrounding me in, what I call, "cubicle conferences," where they would talk and gossip and G-d knows what else. Phones were ringing from every direction.

I quickly realized that when I sat down and attempted to work for the first time at my new 14th floor cubicle, that I was not able to function, let alone finish assignments. My senses began to get proverbially sucked out of my head into a spatial vortex of intensity. I was hearing cubicle conference discussions from 40 feet away. The fluorescent lights made it difficult to see my computer screen. The sensation of human eyes looking at me from various angles made my skin twitch with anger. I was placed unintentionally in a bad spot.

In one instance, I was picking up a conversation so loud with laughter and irrelevance, I had enough gumption to approach the employee making such the ruckus and asked them to keep their voices down, reciting the conversation that they were just having. I was met with: "well, why don't you go back to where you came from?" Cute, I thought. Right after that encounter, I went up to their supervisor and explain to them what just occurred. A week later, that employee's desk was moved to a different location within the 14th floor.

About two days after the move, I had begun wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses at my cubicle, to block out the access noise and light. People began the whispers: "why is Vera wearing sunglasses indoors? Why is Vera wearing a black hooded sweatshirt? What is Vera's problem?" By the end of the week after the move, I couldn't work in that compounding pressure any longer. I went to my supervisor at that period of time, and she suggested that I get a doctor's note stating of why I needed reasonable accommodations in order to do my job. In other words, for me to move my desk to an area of the office without the pedestrian traffic, I had to have a doctor say that I am autistic and that I have sensory problems because of my assigned cubicle position.

Because I didn't have paperwork discussing about my autism (even though I made a mention on my job application that I was diagnosed at age 3.5), I had to seek a non-diagnostic doctor's note. My primary care physician at the time refused to write a note explaining about my autism, much to my chagrin, saying that I "don't show any signs" of autism (specifically Asperger syndrome at the time I was asking) and that "mostly boys have Asperger syndrome anyway." That was March 2010. Much to my surprise, my partner at the time (now known as the perpetrator/second ex-fiancé, Dingbat) was able to coordinate with his connections for me to see one of their doctors, who was, in fact, willing to write a note for reasonable accommodations, pending his interview of me. Within days, I went to this new doctor's office for a visit to discuss my problems. He agreed to pen the letter and sign it.

When I went back to work the next day, I gave the note to my supervisor, per her suggestion. But until I was able to get relocated to a different part of the office, I had to stay at that central cubicle, black hooded sweatshirt, sunglasses, and all. It was enough for Mr. Army Ranger to take note of my appearance and ask: "Hey, are you running for Miss Oklahoma City this year?" (That was a reference to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1994, where the mastermind serial killer wore similar gear on the day of the domestic terrorist attack.) That comment would start a bitter 3.5 year feud between Mr. Army Ranger and I over assignment supremacy, that included him assaulting me over two years later.

Within several days, I was relocated to the back of the department office, where I would stay for another 1.5 years before switching to a different team, in part because of Mr. Army Ranger's antics.

After that burnout experience, I noticed the following:
  1. My ability to hide my over exuberant feelings and emotions had vanished.
  2. My ability to create a diversion, or just even flat out lie, had been greatly reduced. Most folks would see this as a good thing. Here's a secret: it's a good thing not to lie except when you're trying to live a life you're technically not supposed to live because "that's not what autistic adults can do in the workforce, being able to create a diversion and telling a lie was how I managed to avoid physical violent punishment at home.
  3. I could no longer control my sensory filter; it had been destroyed.
  4. I began "regressing;" I showed more "autistic behaviors," like panicking over small adjustments, twisting my hair and rocking back and forth as ways to self-stimulate, or stim.
  5. My eye contact, or what I had started to become tolerable with since the age of 18, was also gone.
I would later find out in March 2010, from that same visit with the doctor who wrote the reasonable accommodation letter, after having blood work drawn as a new patient protocol, that I had an elevated T4 (thyroxine) count, indicating I had either thyroiditis or Graves's disease. It wasn't until November 2013 when I had a second opinion done from another doctor that the T4 count was caused due to thyroxine coming out of my liver from a previous birth control pill. When I went to go find the previous doctor, his office told me that he "went on a six-month sabbatical" with a local major hospital. How convenient.

If there should be any type of research on how to "treat" autism, it should be focused on the prevention of autistic burnout, not the prevention of autism. If we can help autistic people avoid this burnout by allowing them to be their G-d intended autistic selves, then, just maybe, the United States would not have so many folks on Social Security Disability with posttraumatic stress disorder, among autism spectrum disorder and whatever else given by doctors.

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