I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in my later 30s. While growing up, I knew I was different from my peers but did not know how or why. When I received the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, I was both relieved and upset. I was relieved because knowing I have autism means there are strategies and interventions I can use to help me cope with my autism; I was upset because I had been to four other mental health providers and no one had suggested autism as a diagnosis.
After all of this struggling to appear normal and treat diagnoses that were incorrect, I feel exhausted. Could this be due to sensory issues? Is it possible to be diagnosed later in life even if you have sensory issues? How do I manage my exhaustion?
Relieved But Tired
Dear Relieved But Tired:
The answer to your question is yes, it is possible for an adult to experience sensory issues related to autism spectrum disorder. It's even possible to have experienced these issues throughout life without knowing what it is. Many people diagnosed later in life feel as though the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder explains why they feel tired and run down. This can be very different based on the person: some people may avoid interacting with people and prefer to be home alone in a comfortable environment, while others will go to a place such as the Mall of America and go on the rides. One good place to start is identifying which sensory experiences feel good to you, and which are overwhelming.
When you feel sensory overload or feel as though you need sensory input, it's important you get your need met in a safe way. If you need to be quieter, allow yourself the time you need to relieve the feeling overload. Taking care of ourselves is a good use of time but it can be hard to do when we have a list of things we think “should” be done.
Spoon theory can help a person understand the concept of sensory overload. Say for example you have 10 spoons to start each day. Going to work may require 4 spoons. This leaves 6 spoons for all other tasks of the day. A friend may call you with a problem and you meet for coffee. This unexpected meeting also requires 4 spoons. Now you have used 8 spoons for the day, leaving you with 2. If completing the remaining tasks of the day requires 4 spoons, you have used 12 out of 10 spoons, leaving you at -2. This means to accomplish any tasks likely will require more effort due to the spoon deficit. Thinking of tasks in terms of how may spoons you need to achieve the tasks of the day can give you a framework for structuring your day.
It also can be helpful to talk to a therapist or professional about finding ways to manage exhaustion. Sensory overload often contributes, but many individuals on the spectrum also find that managing social expectations, keeping up their executive functioning, and fighting anxiety can contribute. A therapist can be a great resource.