This is the internet weblog of Bix Frankonis.

Finding Solitude In The Sensory Onslaught

In the latest newsletter by Anne Helen Petersen, she appears to draw a link between burnout and a lack of “solitude”.

But naming it remains powerful—and so do very small things, like turning my phone on airplane mode before entering the bedroom (and reading instead), and not feeling embarrassed about feeling accomplished when I actually drop off the shoes at the cobbler. I’ve also been thinking a lot about “digital minimalism,” as described by Cal Newport in his upcoming book (I loved this interview with him on Ezra Klein’s podcast).

Newport calls the thing we’re lacking “solitude”—not as in being all alone, but having no other “inputs” (from podcasts, the radio, talking with other people). You can be on the subway, in other words, and still be in mental solitude.

In striving toward what she calls “hanging out with your own mind”, she’s increasingly dropping these external inputs, up to and including deleting a bunch of apps from her phone and putting it in airplane mode before bed.

Unlike my other comments on Petersen’s writings about and around burnout, I’ve no judgment here.

Instead I want again to try to use her observations as a way for people to think about the particular and weird challenges of being autistic, because while neurotypical people (I do not know whether or not Petersen herself is neurotypical) can reduce the chatter of many external inputs pretty easily in exactly the sorts of ways Petersen relates, autistic people also often are subjected to external inputs over which they have no control.

Sensory processing issues can mean being atypically-sensitive to things like bright lights in office buildings. The hot, noonday sun. Everyday sounds and noises that an atypical brain filters out can become not just distracting but distressing.

(I list only a few things here, limited to my own set of sensory issues. The specifics can vary widely across any set of autistic people.)

Imagine, then, having the incessant chatter not just of apps pinging their notifications at you but also of the very world around you.

While most discussion of autistic burnout revolves around the psychic risks of longterm camouflaging, that’s happening within the larger context of other stresses being put upon the autistic brain at the same time. These things can be related, in that some actions an autistic person could take in order to manage or mitigate sensory processing issues might be frowned upon or outright dissuaded in some neurotypical environments, and doing without them itself becomes a kind of demand that we camouflage ourselves. It’s a vicious spiral.

For the autistic brain, then, finding ways to try “hanging out with your own mind” can in many ways become even more challenging.

We, too, could delete apps and make judicious use of airplane mode, although, depending on the sensory environment, we might not be able to go without listening to music while out for a jog. While some neurotypical people “can be on the subway … and still be in mental solitude”, for us it might be dependent upon whether or not people on the subway are comfortable with us wearing ear defenders and noticably stimming.

Solitude can be great. The version of it I managed to get when I moved to a new apartment and discovered the environs to be dramatically more quiet than that of any other places I’ve lived for the past two decades has been a godsend.

Being able to selectively turn off the external inputs that can ratchet up your levels of stress, however, is a privlege of the neurotypical. Fluorescent office lights, a bright sun, traffic noise, people making phone calls in cafes: generally speaking these things can’t be deleted or disabled. Instead, it’s incumbent upon the neurotypical at least not to discourage the atypical to do what they need to do in order to survive the onslaught of external inputs without distress.

If we’re concerned about the stresses that a life full of controllable external inputs can put upon the neurotypical brain, we doubly need to be concerned about the distress that a life full of uncontrollable external inputs can cause the atypical one.