Expectations of Normal

“You’re autistic? Oh, you seem to be doing very well. You must be high functioning.”

I’m sure I’m not the only autistic person who has heard these words. I typically just give a simple answer as I rarely have the mental energy to dive into a discussion and it’s highly unlikely the speaker truly wants to hear it. I know they mean well, but underneath these words sparks a feeling of pressure within me that is difficult to put into words.

It isn’t the use of the term “high functioning” that bothers me. It’s the underlying expectation that I should always seem more “normal” or “doing well” that I struggle with. I feel a need to become less of an inconvenience, less of a burden, to not draw attention to myself, or to be perceived as “weird” or “embarrassing”.

The problem is that the more “normal” or “capable” you appear to someone the more they expect of you. Trying to continuously meet these expectations as an autistic person is a sure way to find yourself plunged into the deep dark pit of burnout.

What do I need?

Discovering that I am autistic opened the door for me to finally allow myself to acknowledge my needs. For years I would forfeit my own needs in order to make someone else more comfortable. I suppose part of it was because I felt it was expected of me, but also because I didn’t understand what I truly did need.

Through a year long process of therapy, I began to learn what my limits are and what I need in order to properly function. I learned I need silence and reduced work and social load to avoid overstimulation. I learned it’s okay to admit I’m not able to do something.

I’m learning more every day. It’s a process. As life changes, so do my needs.

How do I express these needs?

I wish I had an easy answer to this question. As an autistic person, it can be extremely difficult to verbalize an emotion or need. I often find myself fighting tears because of the frustration of not knowing how to express it all.

It feels a lot like a balloon slowly being filled with air and being stretched beyond it’s limits and one tiny prick from a needle can cause everything to rupture.

When I can’t adequately communicate my needs, those needs often get overlooked and I end up right back to square one.

I can do this, so why can’t you?

If I do somehow manage to express my needs in some fashion, I am often met with the statement of “I can do this, so why can’t you?” Or “Everyone has to deal with it. It’s part of being an adult.”

The problem with this statement is that I’m not everyone. I’m autistic and just because I may “seem” okay or appear to be “high functioning” doesn’t mean that it’s easy.

“But it’s difficult for everyone.”

This statement might be true, but what is missing from the context is that while it may be difficult for a neurotypical, the level of difficulty for an autistic person can be 4x that amount. Our struggles are constantly minimized to justify holding us to unrealistic expectations. Unmet needs combined with the inability to express those needs while being held to too high of expectations for an extended period of time is the perfect equation for an autistic burnout.

Doesn’t everyone get burnt out?

Yes, anyone can experience a burnout. However, neurodivergents experience burnout at a different intensity. For example, I had been in a burnout for years and just kept pushing through. It has taken me two years after hitting rock bottom to get to a point of finally starting to feel like myself again. Going back to a state of autistic burnout is terrifying to me and I actively seek ways to avoid anything that would send me there again.

There are days where I can get through everything on my to-do list, work three jobs, and seem incredibly productive. Then there are other days when I can’t even take care of myself. I can’t clean the house, I can’t do the dishes, I can’t do all the work, I can’t hold a conversation, and I can’t meet the expectations of normal. I don’t get to pick which days I function and what days I don’t. I don’t have control over when I have energy to seem like an adult and when I’m a mess and my disability becomes visible. While I know this is frustrating to those around me, I wonder if they know how much more frustrating it is to me?

The pressure of expectations of normal can be a crushing weight for “high functioning” autistics to bear. Are you autistic and have been pressured with these expectations? What has your experience been like?

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  1. The most common response I get from new people I’m meeting is, “Oh, I would never have guessed that.” Sometimes it makes me feel like an imposter, but then I remember that masking is so second-nature to me that I do it without realizing I am in most social situations. And I sort of awkwardly lead into a discussion about autism with that. Lol So far, people that have known me a while either just say “Okay” or “not surprising.” Hah.

    On another note, I’ve been dealing with burnout for some time but I’ve been starting to feel better. I also have to get back to work. So, I’ve been trying to find a job that suits me best (one that won’t send me straight back into burnout preferably). I thought I’d gotten one but then learned I misunderstood the position. I tried so hard to push past my issues with it but kept having anxiety attacks and meltdowns. Finally, I had to quit. But overall I will say this time was a very different experience. I openly expressed my needs and asked for accommodations and, even though it couldn’t be worked out, I felt such relief being able to be honest, to stand up for myself, and to feel at peace with my decision to leave.