The most difficult part of having autism for me, is not so much the social side (although I like a bit of human company, I can spend hours alone quite happily), but the chronic stress that navigating this noisy, unpredictable world inflicts upon me. Take noise, for example. Noise is everywhere, it strikes without warning, and my brain is constantly in a state of fight or flight. Unpredictable noise is the worst. If I expect noise and/or the noise occurs within a structured framework (for example, when I am volunteering at Age UK), it is easier to manage; everything else remains constant, and this acts as a safety buffer that helps me to function. I have never quite understood this anomaly (being able to tolerate reasonably well construction work while I am behind the till at work, while the same noise would trigger extreme stress in any other situation), but I think the fact I am protected by routine must help. Perhaps it means that my brain has more resources to deal with the noise. However, when I am walking down the street the noise from cars, honking horns, construction noise, and perennial movement all conspire to make me feel chronically tense and on edge. Back home I expect peace and quiet, but this seldom materialises. Distant music, people chatting, footsteps, lawnmowers, all prevent me from ever being able to completely relax. Even when it is quiet I can’t switch off, because noise could strike at any time. And all this tension gets even worse when I am trying to read or concentrate. The smallest noise will send a surge of electricity through my body, and it feels as though I have received an electric shock. To compensate, I wear head-phones and play white noise, a steady whooshing noise that masks the unpredictable cacophony of existence. This brings me on to my next problem, focusing my attention.
It is all or nothing for me. I can focus on one thing for hours (so long as it is not too mentally taxing), but I falter when I need to decide what to focus on. Therefore I can also procrastinate for hours, and this is yet another source of anxiety. I am also highly distractible because of the aforementioned sensory issues. The harder an activity is, the harder it is for me to concentrate, even though I am interested in the subject. For example, I love reading philosophy books because they satisfy my curiosity about the world, and they help me to make connections and to understand what it means to be alive. However, philosophy is a very difficult subject, particularly if you are trying to understand what Hegel meant by ”world spirit”. The more I try and focus on what something means, the more sensitive I become to noise, and this triggers unbelievable stress. Maybe it would be easier not to bother with my studies, but then I would get bored, and this state also triggers anxiety! Because of stress, I can only focus on my philosophy book for, at most, two hours at any one sitting before I get tired and need a break. Then I idly do nothing much at all because I don’t know what else to do, and this lack of structure makes it even harder for me to deal with noise.
Another related stress is disorganisation. I crave order but I struggle to keep my files tidy, and an extreme amount of effort is required to move between activities or to switch my brain from one gear to another. I try and deal with this problem by rigorously planning my activities as much as possible, but a feeling of disorganisation nevertheless persists. My life feels chaotic and inefficient, and I can only focus on one activity at any one time.
However, on a positive note, my love of order and intense curiosity keeps me motivated and generally interested in the world, even if at times I endure boredom and a sense of disarray.