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What does autism feel like? I'm still figuring that out.

Updated: Apr 23

If you're curious what autism feels like, I wish I could tell you! Thanks to alexithymia, or difficulty identifying and describing one's own feelings, autism often feels like not knowing how I feel in the first place. I've had a lot of practice at solving the puzzle, though, and it's made a huge impact on my emotional well-being. If the following mix-ups between feelings seem familiar, you might benefit from working with an autism life coach who can help you learn to sort it all out.

Depressed vs. Exhausted

Growing up, I thought my chronic napping and self-isolation were due to depression. It was the first explanation that seemed good enough for the people who called me "lazy." So I spent many years taking antidepressants, going to therapy, and doing all the other things that can help. I learned a lot, but nothing ever "fixed" the way that everyday demands wiped me out. Every few months or so, I'd become so burned out that I couldn't even go to school.

Now I know that exhaustion is my brain and body's normal response to being hugely overloaded. Sometimes, I really do need to lie around on the couch all day. After a good rest, I'm usually full of the energy I couldn't muster the day before. It turns out that I need to rest and replenish much more often than other people.

How I tell the difference: Does resting feel good (exhausted) or flat and empty (depressed)?

Depressed vs. Bored

Often while I'm doing something fun, I'm overcome by a sudden feeling of deflation. One moment I'm engaged, the next I'm fighting the urge to lie down on the floor and stare into space. This seemed to fit the "loss of interest" part of depression, so that's what I called it in my head.

When I took stimulant medications for the first time, I realized I had been mis-identifying this deflated feeling. It wasn't part of depression after all, it was understimulation, AKA boredom!

How I tell the difference: Have I felt uninterested for weeks (depressed) or for the last half hour (bored)?

Sad vs. Dysregulated

Stimulant medications have been life-changing, but they definitely don't mean my mood is perfect 24/7. I recently noticed that I was still asking myself "Why am I sad?" at least once a day, but never knew why. Then a commenter on a TikTok inspired me to start an experiment. What if every time I thought I was sad I re-labeled that feeling as dysregulated?

I gave this mental swap a try and, to my amazement, I haven't felt sad since. I have still felt the same low mood, but a new label for that feeling has shifted what it means. Instead of feeling trapped in the vague quicksand of sadness, I'm empowered to seek out regulating activities.

How I tell the difference: What am I sad about? If I can't identify anything, dysregulation is more likely to be the issue.

Afraid vs. Overwhelmed

After all that therapy, I became very aware that avoiding what you're scared of will only make it scarier. But for many scary things in my life, facing my fears only made them worse. Talking on the phone, grocery shopping, driving in the rain... No matter how many times I tried to desensitize myself, it never got easier to do certain things.

Then I realized a pattern. Facing my fears works when I'm imagining a bad outcome ("If I wear this shirt, someone might laugh at me!"). But when I drive in the rain, I'm not imagining bad things, they're actually happening! Droplets are blocking my vision, I can't make out the road lines, and my wiper blade screeches every time it moves. I am overwhelmed by all the sensory input and extra mental processing demands, not afraid of them.

How I tell the difference: Am I imagining a bad outcome (afraid) or trapped in a tornado of confusion (overwhelmed)?

Calm vs. Dissociated

When I learned the term dissociation, I thought, "Isn't that just what 'being calm' means? Spacing out so I can ignore my overwhelm and behave as expected?" It was unbelievable to me that other people could feel relaxed, engaged, and present at places like the grocery store. I assumed that everyone left their bodies and floated through the aisles like a ghost, pretending to be calm.

If I pretend to be calm when unbearable stimuli are forcing me to dissociate, I deny my own basic needs. And in a situation like driving in the rain, dissociation is dangerous. The bottom line: don't pretend I'm calm when I'm not, even to myself.

How I tell the difference: Am I engaging with the world around me (calm) or floating past it (dissociated)?

Are you trying to solve puzzles like these inside your own head? An Autism Personal Coach can help you learn to decipher your feelings and find solutions that actually help. Contact us to get started!

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