The Autistic Nomad

Oops, I missed a post last week! That's okay... I'm choosing to be kind to myself, and not being hard on myself for missing a post. That defeats the purpose of doing this, doesn't it? I'm writing here to share my thoughts and experiences, but also because I enjoy it. And if I'm being hard on myself, that really drains the enjoyment. What's the point of being hard on myself then?

That's a whole other topic to write about...

After almost three weeks alone over the holidays, having my wife back home was both lovely and challenging. I spent a lot of time over the holidays figuring out what I need and how to recover from burnout, and having my wife back meant I had to find a new balance. Initially, I kinda felt like I lost a lot of the gains I made over the holidays. But now I'm starting to find that new balance, and I'm back on the right trajectory.

What went well?

  • Well, especially towards the end of last week, I felt like I was trending up again
  • I spent some time building new friendships! This is something I've always struggled with, but that I'm trying to be more mindful and intentional of doing this year
  • I gave myself time each day to recharge and rest – I find that even just 20 minutes a day helps

What did I learn?

  • This week really reinforced that I need daily rest time in order to feel well
  • I also learned that I need to incorporate more play into my daily life
  • Surrounding myself with positive and uplifting people is also something I need more of!

What am I excited about?

  • Starting a game of Orbital next week!
  • Playing and doing creative things more consistently, like drawing and music production
  • Establishing a balance that lets me spend more time on hobbies and interests without burning myself out

What am I thinking about?

I've always strongly believed that I can do anything I put my mind to. That I have the skills to learn new things quickly, and I can apply that to almost anything. But this week, I really started to ponder: what if that's actually not true? What if there's things – many things – that I can't do? Maybe that I'll never be able to do?

What if I'm never able to do anything with the consistency that I have with special interests like programming?

That's a challenging thought that I don't feel like I've fully processed. There's definitely a discrepancy between what I think I'm capable of, and what I've been able to accomplish in my life. It might be worth spending a bit of time exploring that, but it's also pretty uncomfortable...

I'm also thinking about ways I can contribute to the Autistic community. This is something I feel strongly about... discovering I'm Autistic was so life changing, and has given me the tools to finally understand myself and my needs better. I've found connection in the community that I've never found anywhere else. So I feel very strongly about contributing... but I don't know how, or even where to start. It's another thing I'd like to spend more time exploring.

What needs work?

  • Timeboxing work: I went over my scheduled work time a bunch of times in the last couple of weeks, and I did that on my own, not because work was demanding. My well-being suffers if I'm working too much, so this is something I need to actively work on
  • Continuing to ensure that I spend a bit of time every day – even just 20 minutes – in my sensory sanctuary1

What's up for next week?

1: My “sensory sanctuary” is my main tool for resting. It involves laying in bed, listening to rhythmic EDM music at a moderate volume, and watching colourful lights, such as a galaxy projector or some visual stim videos from YouTube.

This week, my HRV1 was over 30ms 5 out of 7 days, and actually broke 40ms on three of those days.

I haven't seen 40ms since the beginning of December, and I haven't averaged this high since the beginning of September.

More importantly, I feel balanced and well. I just hope I can maintain this.

What went well?

  • Chores: I got a couple of maintenance chores completed that had been sitting on my to-do list for months.
  • Balance: I made a point to schedule a bit of rest every day, whether I felt like I needed it or not. My hope is that if I manage my energy and rest before I need it, I might be able to ward off burnout.
  • Hobbies: This quarter, I'm focusing on drawing and music. I started reproducing my favourite Rage Against the Machine song in a DAW2 with the intention of producing a remix.

What am I thinking about?

Lots of thoughts about Autistic burnout. How I used to spend so much time and energy trying to figure out why I was so chronically exhausted and tired, and all of the random reasons I suspected. When really, I just needed rest and to be alone and away from sensory things.

What's up for next week?

My wife's been away visiting family for the last couple of weeks, and next week she's back! I'm mostly planning to take it easy, hang with my wife, and spend some time working on my remix.

1: Heart rate variability, which is a possible indicator of the physical signs of stress. 2: Digital Audio Workstation — basically, music production software.

After reviewing 2023, I did a quick high-level review of the previous years I have on record in my journal. 2022 is the year I started my journal in its current format, but I have spotty records going back to 2018 at least.

For every year I have on record, my annual intentions are mostly the same. I clearly struggled to actually make any progress on them.

They all really boil down to one underlying theme: find balance. Be more intentional. Be less reactive. Be structured.

This manifested in various aspects of my life as intentions to:

  • Be consistent with my self-care habits
  • Get a handle on finances and financial planning
  • Make new friends and build a social support system
  • Spend more time being creative and learning new things
  • Find ways to earn passive income, eg. starting a business, writing, etc.

Every year, inevitably, I wouldn't make any meaningful progress on any of these things. As far back as my journal goes, and as far back as I can remember, I've been stuck in a cycle of hyperfixation and burnout.

I suspect I've been in chronic low-level burnout for a long time, with the actual level of burnout rising and falling like a roller coaster, depending on the circumstances of my life. Especially after a period of hyperfixation – where I would obsess over a new interest, lose sleep, but also feel incredibly lit up, engaged and excited – I would deepen my burnout to the point where I had zero motivation to do anything. I stopped enjoying things I usually enjoy. I woke up tired, and went to sleep tired. My focus was a shitshow, and it was “like I have ADHD” (I actually wrote this in a journal a few years ago, and somehow it took until 2023 for me to actually seek a diagnosis)

In 2023 – in fact, in the last two months of 2023 – this changed completely. What, exactly, changed?

Mid-way through the year, I discovered that I am Autistic.

This alone was a pretty fundamental shift in how I viewed and understood myself: finally everything in my life made sense. Why I felt so different from everybody else.

As I learned more about what being Autistic means, I learned about my needs (and that I even have needs!) and the necessity and impact of proper rest.

Going into 2024, I am confident, in a way I never have been before, in my ability to be more consistent by managing my energy and stressors and keeping myself out of burnout.

Let's take a deeper look at 2023, and what I've got planned for 2024.

Notable Events of 2023

2023 might go down as the year I had the longest hyperfixation episode. In March, we hired a bunch of new folks at work, which took a huge load off of me. As a result, I hyperfixated on work for four and a half months, from March to mid-July. It was so bad that I have very few journal entries for April and May, and literally none for June, because my journaling habits are often one of the first things to fall apart when I'm fixated.

I began to suspect I might be Autistic in August, and started doing a ton of reading and psychometric tests. For the most part, my lifestyle satisfies my needs, so I found it difficult to really feel confident in the idea of being Autistic. I waffled a lot. Maybe I am.... maybe I'm not.

In October, however, I had the opportunity to really explore being Autistic in an environment that very much did not satisfy my needs. We had to drop off the RV for service, and while that was happening, I stayed at my son's apartment where he lives with his fiancee.

This is a high rise apartment building, in a very dense neighbourhood, in Toronto. It is sensory overload, all the time. Being in that environment made it painfully obvious to me that, yes, I am Autistic.

I experienced my first post-discovery meltdown. I tried to cram too much stuff into one day – stressful things, too – and all of a sudden, dogs barking tipped me over the edge. My nervous system felt like it was on fire.

On top of all of that, there was a ton of uncertainty around when the RV service would be complete. The RV is our full-time home: this is akin to being evacuated from your house, with no communication or timeline on when you'll be able to return.

The sense of calm and peace I felt once we finally got the RV back was powerful. That whole experience only continued to validate for me that I am Autistic.

Throughout November and December, I learned more about burnout, my needs, and the importance of rest, and I prioritized burnout recovery by lowering my expectations of myself and resting as much as possible. Truly shutting off my brain and resting.

Accomplishments and Experiences of 2023

We drove up the Pacific coast, from Los Angeles to Vancouver, from February to April. We drove through the Canadian Rockies and across Canada back to Ontario from April to July. We got to see a ton of cool stuff!

We also did a road trip out to Nova Scotia, and parked on my best friend's property.

We spent five weeks living off-grid in a remote area of northern Ontario, and definitely plan to continue doing more of that in the future. We're even considering going off-grid for a couple of months in 2024.

I built a “schedule of interests” for myself, that I use to guide how I spend my time, to ensure that I am making progress on all the things I want to do. I also re-established some financial systems I had created a long time ago, and have been following them consistently for a couple of months.

Lessons of 2023

  • The biggest one: I am Autistic, and that I need my space, my home, and ample alone time, in order to feel well and healthy.
  • I need to find activities which are truly restful, which allow me to shut off my brain, and incorporate them into my daily/weekly life, in order to manage burnout.
  • My fixations are actually a coping mechanism. If I start fixating, I need to ask myself: why?
  • My comfort media – familiar TV shows and movies from my youth – actually help me relax, rest, and recharge
  • Everything affects my physical body – emotions, feelings, stressors and triggers, sensory input. There's a physical impact to stress, and I am stressed even if I don't feel it, because I have poor interoception.
  • I need to adjust my expectations of myself, and be kind to myself, when I'm in burnout, or can't focus.
  • There's a difference between physically tired, eg. from lack of sleep, and burnout exhaustion! Who knew! It's possible to be physically tired while also being in a good mood and feeling motivated!

My intentions for 2024

For the first time ever, I feel like I've actually got a handle on most of the common themes that appear in my annual intentions:

✅ Self-care routines, especially understanding and advocating for my needs ✅ Financial systems with a detailed plan to get out of debt ✅ Building social connections – especially with the Autistic community, who I've been able to connect with more easily than any other community before ✅ Being more consistent with creative endeavours and learning new things

The only one missing is building passive income, and that's going to be a major priority for me in 2024.

My intentions for 2024 are to:

  • Prioritize self-care above everything else, and be intentional about trade-offs
  • Work towards building passive income streams (TBD what that looks like in practice)
  • Maintain a schedule that satisfies all of my intentions: being more creative, learning new things, connecting with people, and building passive income

I realize these are vague... but a year is a really long time. My annual intentions are usually vague, and it's up to the shorter timeframes in my journal – quarters, months, and weeks – to interpret those and transform them into more concrete objectives.

I'm excited for 2024. I feel like I finally understand myself and what I need, and I'm hopeful and confident that everything I've learned about my needs will help me build a life that is sustainable, and in which I'm consistent in pursuing my goals and dreams.

Happy new year, y'all. I wish you the absolute best. Take care of yourself ❤️