“I am tired”
It’s a phrase we say and hear a lot. It could be a valid reason, or used as an excuse, to avoid doing something or to explain our behaviour. I feel like we assume “I am tired” means I need sleep, or I need rest. When I use the phrase “I am tired” it is not quite that simple, and I suspect this is the case for many neurodivergent people. When I say “I am tired” I am using a social script that I believe is more acceptable to others than trying to communicate the real challenges I am having at the time. As I’ve thought about what I use “I am tired” as shorthand for, I’ve realised that my “tired” means so many different things. In this article I’m going to try to explain them.
Sensory processing challenges
My most common sensory processing challenges are:
- too much noise
- too much or the wrong kind of light
- too much unwanted touch or pressure
- too much movement
- too much visual input
- not enough wanted touch or pressure
- not enough movement
- curating sensory input and ignoring what needs ignoring
There are levels of sensory discomfort. I identify 4 in my life. I imagine that other people experience this differently.
1. My usual sensory experience baseline is something like- I am aware of all the information that is swirling into my brain and around in it, but it’s not a huge problem, and I can still focus on what I need to without too much effort. This is difficult to explain unless you are in the same room as me and I can point out situation specific sensory inputs. When I do this exercise at workshops I teach, people usually comment that things I identify in the environment that I have to make a conscious decision to ignore, they are only aware of if the input is pointed out to them and they concentrate to notice it.
2. The next level is when particular noises or sensations become a problem, in that I have trouble tolerating them and they are distracting and more difficult than usual to ignore and I will have trouble continuing what I am doing. If I can replace the annoying noise or sensation with another I’ll be okay to carry on doing what I’m doing. Some examples are: the sound of plastic rustling and the sound of cutlery (I often use music in noise cancelling headphones to help with household noise input reduction), light touch on my skin from clothes or another person (I wear firm fitting clothes to help with this), blinker noise in the car and tyre noise when driving (which is why I usually have loud music on when driving), and the sound of wind outside (at home I have wind chimes that act as a distraction to that).
3. Next is when most sound, touch and light are irritating. I will need to remove myself from places that are too much at this stage, or use noise cancelling headphones, sunglasses, weighted blanket, wheat bag, change into different clothes, or something to deal with it or I’ll end up overloaded and unable to think how to look after my needs or communicate that to someone else. If those options aren’t available I will try to focus on breathing while averting my face or turning my body to limit sensory input. I may resort to tracing patterns on my fingers or using some sort of fidget toy to try to put my attention somewhere else, or to pushing a thumb nail into my hand quite hard. I could cry for what seems like no reason. I will definitely be having trouble with language at this point.
4. The highest level of challenge for me is when I am overwhelmed to the point that I can’t think about anything other than what is causing the sensory discomfort. I will feel panicked and stressed. If I can’t get rid of the problem somehow I will either experience significant language processing problems (unable to speak and difficulty processing words spoken by others), need to shut down (get somewhere dark and quiet where receiving some pressure input is an option and where I can be alone or with someone I trust who won’t try to get me to speak or do anything), or I will have a meltdown (meltdowns are embarrassing, scary and exhausting).
There are points between these 4 levels. It’s not a sudden jump between, but more a sliding and dynamic changing continuum. I see some patterns in how discomfort progresses, but it can also be unpredictable. Which makes things difficult at times because it means as much as I try I can’t always anticipate and prevent when I need to change something to avoid overwhelm. Being unable to predict how my body will react at times has been known to have me quite pedantic about my environment (i.e. called fussy or demanding) as a way to try to reduce the chance of overload.
For more on sensory processing challenges, you can read Sensory Overload.
Sensory processing challenges are a cause of tiredness. When I have increased difficulty with sensory processing this is also a symptom of my tiredness.
Executive function problems
By far the best resource I know of to explain executive function difficulties is here:
Please have a look at it (the article will open in a new window so you can easily come back to the same place here when you are finished). I’m not going to try to explain better! Once you’ve read the information you’ll follow what I say in this section much more easily.
Key areas of executive function difficulty for me are:
- stuck because there’s too much to do
- working memory not working
- inhibition out of whack
- lack of cognitive flexibility
That isn’t an exhaustive list by any means. I used to think I didn’t have problems with executive function, but on reading Cynthia’s explanation I realised that I have difficulty in all areas she mentions! Executive function problems usually look like I’m being lazy, disorganised, forgetful or inattentive. But they are different. I know the difference, but it might be hard to observe. I am sometimes lazy, disorganised, forgetful or inattentive, and I’ll own it when I am. When it is an executive function issue I simply can’t do the thing in that moment. I can know the thing needs doing, I can want to do it, but be unable. Or I may not notice the thing that needs doing. It’s really frustrating. I am more likely to have executive function problems if I am using a lot of brain energy for a big task like learning something, writing something (developing a new course), preparing for something, if I am emotionally distracted, or if I am very sensory sensitive.
Executive function challenges are a cause of tiredness. When I have increased difficulty with tasks requiring executive function this is also a symptom of my tiredness.
I am working on an article on language processing as it is something I am aware I refer to fairly often, but have not addressed in any detail to date. I will add a link to that article here when it is published.
For now I will just list the 4 areas I mostly have difficulty in. These can happen in any combination and for a variety of reasons.
- having trouble reading
- having trouble writing
- having trouble speaking
- having trouble listening
Some difficulty in language processing is a result of sensory processing challenges (particularly auditory processing). Language processing challenges are a cause of tiredness. When I have increased difficulty with language processing this is also a symptom of my tiredness.
Imbalance between brain use and body use
This is most typically too much brain use and not enough body use, ending up with a restless body that needs to move but feels “tired”. A friend once told me she feels like she is a brain with a body, and she needs to look after her body only because it houses her brain. This isn’t a constant state for me, but I do relate to it sometimes. If I have missed karate training a couple of times in a row, or if I have spent a work day driving for hours and then teaching for hours and have not done much physical activity, I will feel “tired” but the solution is to expend energy.
Less often, but it does happen, I will be so busy with physical tasks that I do not spend much time allowing myself to think and work through things mentally. This also creates an imbalance that needs rectifying by sitting down to do some thinking and writing in order to clear my brain of what feels like a soggy backlog of information.
Imbalance between brain and body use is a cause of tiredness. The imbalance can happen as a symptom of other kinds of tiredness.
This is sometimes as a result of imbalance between brain and body use, but sometimes it happens even if I am careful to get enough movement into my week.
Feeling brain worn is a symptom of tiredness.
Key things I have noticed cause me to feel brain worn are:
- thinking too much
- my work
- subconsciously processing something
- consciously processing something
- in the process of learning something new
This cause of being “tired” has a lot to do with emotional labour, and is often tied up with executive function challenges, but is not always linked.
Feeling emotionally worn is a symptom of tiredness.
Things I notice that can leave me feeling emotionally worn are:
- my work educating others and mentoring
- caring for my children
- a feeling of lack of connection with people who are important to me
- curating my big feelings to decide what to pay attention to
- feeling other peoples feelings and curating those
“Masking” or “camouflaging”
Masking or camouflaging refers to performing behaviours that help people hide their true self. We all use masking sometimes. When an autistic person uses masking it is to blend in and appear less autistic to those around them. It includes keeping control of your body to use socially acceptable posture and gestures, suppressing stims, making eye contact or at least making it look like you are making eye contact, using scripts that include known socially acceptable statements and responses, and many other strategies that are often complex and exhausting to maintain. Another word used to describe making is being a chameleon.
If I have been masking a lot, or for too long, I will feel tired and need to be able to relax and not comply with social standards of normal for a while. There are very few people in my life that I can do this around, so often to resolve this kind of tiredness requires me to be alone.
Masking is a cause of tiredness. Reduced ability to mask is also a symptom of tiredness.
Adjusting to a change
I rely heavily on things happening as familiar or expected as a way to short cut the demands of processing information in my environment and social interactions. Familiarity allows me to engage with situations and people confidently and with a sense that I appear competent. A change that causes tiredness can be as simple as someone not reacting in the way I expected, or a small change to a familiar physical environment, or can be something most people would find tiring like a move of house or new job. Processing an unexpected change in sensory input or needing to find a new script for immediate use, although considered small things by many, are a significant drain on my resources and energy. If I have more than one or two such changes in a day I will find it difficult to continue masking, will become more sensory sensitive, and will have increased executive function disruption. Going to a new place, meeting new people, a sudden unexpected change in plan, or an injury or illness all present significant challenges that greatly impact my feeling of tiredness.
This is simply when I’ve had enough of trying so hard to balance all of the above and not let it wear me down. When I feel weary I need time alone, in a sensory friendly space, to do things that help me with self regulation and give an opportunity to properly relax.
Actual lack of sleep
…. which I usually call sleepy.