When I turned nineteen, I was weeks into my second term in college, and, as in the first term, was back to working in the library until the sun came up multiple times a week. My workload was unmanageable, and trying to keep up was affecting my health. I felt more and more like my effort was in vain, and that my life direction was misguided.
To top it off, I was now half the age my mother was when she died, and I was the same age as she was when she conceived my oldest biological sibling. At my very age she was embarking on the confusing, messy business of parenthood, unaware that her life was half over.
I knew this though – that her life had been half over – and it highlighted how little I knew of the future, and the unsustainability of the present. It was a mid-life crisis, and I had recognized it as such, there in the library as the morning neared. I decided to drop the advanced elective that had held me to the fire for weeks. It did lighten the work load, but it didn’t save me much sleep in the long run.
Since then, I have changed homes, schools, lost 70 pounds even. And I also now know that I’m on the autism spectrum. Where I had understood Asperger’s Syndrome to mean being “socially awkward and intelligent”, I now understand that the sensory processing challenges, executive functioning deficits, and mind-blindness that have affected me all fall within the autism heading as well, and being aware of these as problems has allowed me to work with tools to address them, much to my own sense of well-being. My ability to kick over my head, limber stretching, and the excessive degree to which I lean on my surroundings for support I now know to be a result of ‘low tone’, a common trait in autism. Neuroscience research in autism mouse models have further connected impaired motor coordination to an altered synaptic baseline of activation, making it initially more challenging to encode new motor programs in the cerebellum; while I had not heard of low tone yet when I read this research article, I was able to think of the results with respect to my own experiences.
It has now been year since I became publicly open about being on the autism spectrum, and in this past year autism research has uncovered more and more about the long-term outcome for the lives of autistics, from co-morbid health conditions to the job and housing crisis developing for my own age cohort – the autistics diagnosed and given support as children, who are now aging out of those support programs as adults. And in this same year, autistics have been harassed in schools, abused or murdered by parents, and others killed by police during high-stress induced meltdowns. I have meltdowns, and it is scary to think of the danger that armed officers might be to me, lacking training to recognize and act in this context. I have an app now in case I find myself unable to speak in an emergency situation, given the willingness of the other person.
Knowing I am autistic does not protect me from these realities, but I would rather know that I am autistic, and be aware of these things, and try my best to do a little good for someone else that felt like an outsider growing up, impassioned yet disconnected. As I read about the experiences shared by other autistics online, in journals, books and more, about various stages of growth, coping with stress, and burning out, and much else, I am able to feel a sense of camaraderie with total strangers who bear more in common with me than blood relatives or anyone I ever was in class with.
In a world where the pressures of performing, interacting, and doing ‘normal’ things drive some to the absolute edge, it is unsurprising that other autistics are experiencing this by the early 20s, whether on their own for the first time, trying to find work and maintain employment, to feed themselves, or while dealing with significant sensory challenges and executive function impairments.
While it may have been absurd to be experiencing what felt like a mid-life crisis at 19 because of the age at which my mother died, the life expectancy of autistics has recently been found to be 54 years old, compared to the US average of 78.7. I guess that makes the burnout of autistics in their 20s a lot more like mid-life crises.