Autism and “Energy”

I used to think of myself as an energetic person. I even prided myself on the idea (possibly a fact) that I did more in a day than most three other people could do. I was always “on,” always going, always planning, always finding ways to multi-task, to do things faster (I used to calculate number of steps and time things down to the minute like my shower routine). Talking to other autistic women, I’ve begun to wonder how much of my “energy” should properly be called “stimming.”

I started knitting when I was a teenager, but stopped for a decade until I found myself falling asleep at church meetings. Knitting was something I could do to keep my hands and brain busy enough that I could pay better attention. I was strongly reminded of my younger sister’s constant drawing in elementary school, which got her into constant trouble because teachers accused her of “not paying attention,” when really it helped her to calm her anxious brain to give her hands something easy and relatively mindless to do. I sometimes have a similar problem, especially if men are in charge of meetings. With Zoom, I’m able to keep my hands out of sight of the camera, so mostly people don’t notice that the only way I can pay attention to work meetings is if I’ve got yarn in my hands and am doing a repetitious motion.

I struggle to just sit and watch television. Or to do any other activity that other people might call “relaxing.” I’ve been accused of being a workaholic or of being afraid of thoughts coming to my mind that I don’t want to think about. Maybe there is something to that, but it’s also true that I need to stim.

When I was a kid, I used to think that the worst torture in the world was what I called “being bored.” I’m not sure that is what I would call what I hated then, at least not anymore. I think that what I hated was being forced to sit in a room at attention, maintaining eye contact with a teacher, and not being allowed to do anything that I was actually interested in, not even read a book if the teacher decided that this indicated I was showing disrespect by not listening to a lesson that I’d already read from the book (because it was assigned reading) and understood. (Later I learned not to read lessons in the book because it just made class harder).

I suspect that my new walking habit is part of this need for body motion. Triathlon probably fits in the same category. I like training precisely because of the ways other people think it is boring. It requires the same motion over and over again for hours on end. That kind of repetition soothes me. It also does a weird thing of making me feel less anxious during the rest of the day. If I’ve spent six hours on the treadmill, I’m less “itchy,” feel less need to knit or pace or multi-task and end up being able to actually relax.

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