The Intensive Pattern Dance of Meatspace Relationships: Patterns, Sensory Overwhelm, and Solo Polyamory

I feel your patterns with every sense. The ones you’re completely unaware of. All of them. You are drowning me with your patterns and crowding out my own.

Pattern clash.

Pattern suppression.

Pattern overwhelm.

Meatspace relationships of any sort are intensive pattern dances done at the terrifying tempo of synchronous, full-sensory real-time. I need daily doses of solitude and regular hibernation intervals to sustainably withstand any other human being. Only in solitude do I have the space to unfurl my patterns, un-beset by the outside, and recline into their regulated peace.

Like many other people who aren’t neurotypical, I become exhausted and irritable from too much outside stimuli, like having people around me or trying to make conversation with music on. I’m also not great at picking up on social cues or understanding when someone’s being sarcastic - I use facial expressions to sometimes determine jokes and pretend that I understand them. However, being on the spectrum makes me dive into what I love, and for this reason, even though I’m terrible at school, I’m pretty good at writing and communications. This allows me to work around my social anxiety, leading some people to believe I’m an extrovert.

Because I had trouble making friends when I was growing up, I threw myself into learning how relationships work by analyzing and writing about them - and by now I’ve dated my fair share of people and have a number of friends. However, lately I’ve begun to realize that even though I can hide things like exhaustion and irritability by staying out for shorter periods of time, the closer I get to people the more I have to be upfront about what I need. For example, I love my partner and enjoy being around him as much as possible - but as a person with sensory sensitivities, my body says otherwise. If I don’t have enough time to myself without outside stimuli, I start to become burnt out and snap at him. If you’re like me, you’ve tried to avoid getting close to others because you felt it was necessary for you to keep them in your life - but actually, the only way to have fulfilling relationships is to let others in.

It wasn’t until looking into solo polyamory I realized I don’t have to feel guilty for having separate needs from my partner. Solo polyamory is the idea that people are autonomous beings who have different needs and wants, and alongside good communication and mutual respect between all partners, no one puts rules on each other because no one owns one another. There’s this expectation in mainstream society that if you’re a couple you should want to be together most of the time - but with solo polyamory, partners respect how much time you can set aside to see them based on work, hobbies and other people who are important to you. There’s no pressure to converge lives the longer you’re dating because with solo polyamory commitment and time together aren’t seen as mutually exclusive. In a solo polyamory group I recently joined on Facebook, I found a thread where a number of people on the spectrum talked about how finding solo polyamory has helped them work through their sensory sensitivities without feeling like there’s something wrong with them. If they need to leave a date because they’ve had too much stimuli for the day, their partners understand because they’ve had those essential conversations on what each other needs as an individual.

Source: How Polyamory Helped Me Advocate For My Needs As A Disabled Person | Thought Catalog

Pattern discovery.

Pattern sharing.

Pattern meld.

When not taken exclusively or in excess, another’s patterns are satisfying and necessary.

Previously,

Type Integrity: Falsification of Type, Prolonged Adaptation Stress Syndrome, Minority Stress, Masking, and Burnout

Prolonged Adaptation Stress Syndrome is what happens when someone pretends to be something they’re not on an everyday basis. It is exhausting and soul-eating. This greatly contributes to the high level of mental illness in the trans community or autistic burnout in the neurodiverse community.

Source: ysabetwordsmith | Poem: “Type Integrity”

Well said, and with interesting links I’ll quote from below.


For purposes of sharing her observations in a more formal manner, Taylor arrived at the acronym PASS, Prolonged Adaptive Stress Syndrome, to describe the eight commonly observed symptoms that may be present in varying degrees in individuals who have spent years living an energy-exhausting lifestyle.

  1. Fatigue
  2. Hypervigilance
  3. Immune System Suppression
  4. Reduced Function of the Frontal Lobes
  5. Altered Neurochemistry
  6. Memory Problems
  7. Discouragement or Depression
  8. Self-Esteem Problems

Source: Prolonged Adaptive Stress Syndrome (PASS) – Arlene R Taylor PhD, Realizations Inc

That wasn’t written specifically about autistic masking and burnout, but it sure does resonate.

Related:


we call “falsification of type” the development of some typological attitudes that allow the creation of an adaptive functional persona, through the repression of our “natural” gifts. This adaptive persona is developed for the sake of acceptance and adaptation to different environmental contexts.

Sometimes it is difficult to realize one’s natural gifts, due to an over-identification with an adaptive persona. And a person might be extremely good and skilled with “false gifts” since they were trained and developed over a long time.

The way to encountering the deeper Self and ones natural gifts is not necessarily thinking about what one is good at, but rather noticing what brings enjoyment, meaningfulness, abiding pleasure, ease and peace. Each of us knows, at a deep level, what brings those qualities, independent of how much space and time they have in our lives. They are qualities of being, not qualities born from living falsely.

Source: Falsification and the Un-lived Life – Giftcompass

Again, that wasn’t written specifically about autistic masking, but “over-identification with an adaptive persona” sounds like my life before learning about masking and burnout from other autistic people.


As we come to understand depression in the transgender community more accurately, it’s become clear that the major cause is what’s referred to as “minority stress;” that is, “stressors induced by a hostile, homophobic culture, which often results in a lifetime of harassment, maltreatment, discrimination and victimization.” The good news, then, is that as social relations and culture change over time, negative attitudes toward transgender people may be reduced, which will then reduce the stressors which trigger anxiety and depression.

Source: When Worlds Collide – Mental Illness Within the Trans Community — Lionheart

Related:

Why are there greater mental health stresses on autistic people from gender-minority groups? To quote from the research paper,

“The increased rates of mental health problems in these minority populations are often a consequence of the stigma and marginalisation attached to living outside mainstream sociocultural norms (Meyer 2003). This stigma can lead to what Meyer (2003) refers to as ‘minority stress’. This stress could come from external adverse events, which among other forms of victimization could include verbal abuse, acts of violence, sexual assault by a known or unknown person, reduced opportunities for employment and medical care, and harassment from persons in positions of authority (Sandfort et al. 2007).”

Source: Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism, Transgender and Avoiding Tragedy


I’ve experienced several moments of burnout in my life and career. Being something that I neurologically am not is exhausting. Wearing the mask of neurotypicality drains my batteries and melts my spoons. For a long time, for decades, I didn’t fully understand what was going on with me. I didn’t understand the root causes of my cycles of burnout. Finding the Actually Autistic community online woke me to the concept of autistic burnout. When I found the community writing excerpted below, I finally understood an important part of myself. Looking back on my life, I recognized those periods when coping mechanisms had stopped working and crumbled. I recognized my phases and changes as continuous fluid adaptation.

Source: Autistic Burnout: The Cost of Masking and Passing – Ryan Boren

Oh, hey, that’s me. 🙂

This sparks a future blog post idea: “Continuous fluid adaptation” and “over-identification with an adaptive persona”


Let’s conclude with a snippet from the poem that started this post and gave it its title.

So many others were encouraged

to throw off a false role and free

themselves from expectations,

empowering themselves

to find their own path.

Source: ysabetwordsmith | Poem: “Type Integrity”

Throwing off the false roles of adaptive personas “developed for the sake of acceptance” sure does feel good. I work toward a future where everyone is safe to do so.

Titrating the Whelm: Perceptual Capacity and Autistic Burnout

This piece on “Doing More by Doing Less: Reducing Autistic Burnout” in Psychology Today has several relatable paragraphs. I particularly like this on perceptual capacity and titrating our “whelm” levels:

The divergent ways in which we process the world around us can also leave us fatigued and sapped of energy, as autistic people have “higher perceptual capacity” than our neurotypical counterparts, meaning that we process greater volumes of information from our environment. Autistic people commonly use the concept of ‘spoon theory‘ to conceptualize this experience of having limited energy resources. Initially theorized in the context of chronic illness, spoon theory can be explained as every task and activity (enjoyable or otherwise) requiring a certain number of ‘spoons’. Most people start their day with such an abundance of spoons that they can do whatever they choose, and rarely run low. We autistic folk start with a limited number of spoons, and when those spoons run dangerously low, we need to step back, rest, engage in self-care, and wait for our spoons to replenish.

Before our diagnoses of autism, we focused intently on trying to do more: to match the pace of our non-autistic peers; to fulfill our professional and personal obligations to the highest standard; to emulate the busy, full life that seemed so effortless for others around us. We ignored the signs of autistic burnout and continued to push ourselves because we lacked the framework to understand our experiences and to realize why seemingly simple tasks like attending a social gathering could leave us exhausted, unable to complete even basic tasks of daily living for days afterward. Post-diagnosis, and following a deep and thorough reframing of our life narratives, we now actively focus on doing less, which has helped titrate our “whelm” levels and reduce the frequency and intensity of autistic burnout, thus allowing us to do more.


I’m still recovering from my last and biggest burnout. Forty sevens years of existence in an intense world mainlined through a terrifying perceptual capacity has thoroughly burnt me out. I’ve spent my life feeling like a raw and vulnerable sensory attack surface. For forty of those forty seven years of existence, I had no tools for titrating the whelm. I had no vocabulary for the most important things about myself. I ignored the signs and continued to push because I lacked the framework to understand my experiences.

I pushed. I camouflaged. I burnt out.

We have developed skills and strategies to withstand the sensory, social, and executive functioning demands of working in non-autistic spaces at non-autistic paces. We have taught ourselves this neurotypical syllabus of behaviors to get through the day appearing “just like everyone else”. However, the hidden flip side of this well-crafted camouflage is that we regularly fall in a heap, utterly exhausted, once we are safely behind closed doors. The extra cognitive load and personal resources it takes to camouflage should not be underestimated or dismissed; the cost of camouflaging is immense. Just because we have developed skills to appear non-autistic doesn’t mean it is in our best interests to do so.

A recent study found that women with higher scores on a measure of camouflaging also experienced greater mental health challenges, suicidal thoughts, and-perhaps paradoxically-challenges with daily functioning. More strikingly, autistic traits were not positively correlated with psychological distress, but efforts to camouflage these traits were. This indicates that it is not the experience of being autistic that creates distress, but the pressure to conform, keep pace with our neurotypical peers, and hide our true selves that causes psychological distress. There are countless narratives of autistic adults that describe the act of camouflaging leading to periods of autistic burnout, which often incorporate extreme exhaustion, anxiety, depressive symptoms, and suicidal ideation, and are characterized by a drastic decline in capacity to function for days, months, or even years.

My drastic decline in capacity has lasted years. I went too long in ignorance. I now have the vocabulary and the framework to better titrate the whelm, thanks to other autistic people.

Related: