Meet My Brain - A Field Guide to Autism

How to Manage Energy

September 19, 2022 The Autistic Woman
Meet My Brain - A Field Guide to Autism
How to Manage Energy
Show Notes Transcript

Autistic energy is rarely consistent from day to day. We can’t predict if we’ll wake up energized or dragging. The fluctuating levels can interfere with our lives. Is there a way to manage it? 

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How to Manage Energy

How did you wake up today? Full of energy and purpose, dragging yourself out of bed or something in between?

When you wake up autistic you don’t know if you can access the energy you want. Much of the time it’s unpredictable and out of your control.

This episode is about how autistic energy levels fluctuate and how you can measure and handle them.

The human body is made up of energy. All you have to do is feel the warmth of your skin to recognize it. 

The brain is the energy center. It’s designed to send it to where it’s needed in the body. For autistics something in the brain doesn’t work right.

Many autistic brains don’t properly regulate how energy is available to our bodies. 

One of the most frustrating things about autism is not knowing what my energy level will be that day when I wake up.

It can range from happy and positive to exhausted and down. My life is controlled by the energy ups and downs I experience.

Sometimes I feel tired as a result of stressful social situations and masking. Other times social interaction can energize me.

It’s typical for autistics to have sleep issues. We often have trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep.

When I wake up exhausted I don’t have much interest and it’s hard to concentrate.

Sometimes my energy is low for most of the day and then by evening when other people are winding down I finally feel awake. When that happens I often will stay up late enjoying the feeling because I know there’s no certainty I’ll feel that good the next day.

Autistic people deal with the pressures of everyday life, having to navigate social situations, masking, coping and sensory overload. 

We have executive function challenges. We develop coping mechanisms that use our energy. We are constantly trying to stay organized with calendars, lists and systems and it’s taxing.

I think there’s something else at play as well that goes beyond our autistic traits, something science may not even understand. If our autistic lives are depleting our energy then what is giving us energy and why is it so seemingly random?

My energy levels don’t seem to have a pattern. My mood is stable and good regardless of how much or little energy I have. Time alone can be energizing, a time to recharge. Isolation can be energy draining.

I think it’s necessary for human beings to have some social contact. There’s feedback and exchanges of energy both ways in a relationship.

The easiest way is to have a companion or partner, someone who knows and accepts you, so that you can have daily contact. Not all autistics have that option.

Now when I go to lunch with a friend I can feel good for days. Going to the grocery store tires me. 

Later in this episode I’ll talk about a system I use to help me identify, measure and manage my energy.

How do autistics cope with fluctuating energy levels?

Not easily in my opinion. We may turn to sugar, caffeine, relaxing, sleeping, escaping, hiding, avoiding things.

Healthier alternatives might help but not eliminate energy issues: yoga, massage, exercise, healthy diet, relaxation, meditation, stress management.

Things we know that can affect our energy but not explain the fluctuating levels are: depression, grief, sensory things, not eating, poor sleep or health, anxiety, poor diet, isolation, pain, chronic pain, PTSD.

Something that’s frustrating is when, on a good energy day, I start a new project and feel very motivated and then a few days later my energy drops and the project sits there unfinished or delayed. 

This is a pattern that can lead to negative thoughts. I become reluctant to start new projects when I feel good because I “know” what will happen. 

Energy is not always available to us. We often don’t have a choice about it. Even good days don’t happen on schedule.

Low energy affects our ability to move forward. It affects us at home and at work. 

Feeling unproductive can make things worse. Accomplishing something that aligns with my available energy can make me feel better. I work with that knowledge to control what I can.

Here’s a system I use which you would have to adapt to your life, your work, your responsibilities. The lists I refer to are examples in the simplest terms and don’t necessarily reflect what goes on in my life.

First, it’s important to be aware of your energy level. It’s pretty hard to ignore. It affects us greatly. 

Second, you need a way to measure it. As the saying goes, you can’t manage what you can’t measure.

Third, you manage it.

Start with the list. What do you feel like doing the next day? Nothing? Things you don’t have to think about? Things you can focus deeply on? Everything you’ve put off?

Based on the answer I pick three things. For some people getting out of bed, changing out of pajamas and brushing teeth might be huge.

I get dressed every day to keep from giving my brain the message that it’s okay for me to lay around  That’s just how I do it. Not everyone needs to.

I’ve defined my energy in 5 separate levels. How you define yours will be different. Here’s what it might look like:

Level 5 - Completely unproductive. 

This is the lowest energy level. There’s exhaustion and lethargy. Major brain fog.  Can’t move off the couch, might take one or more naps, feel like I want to sleep, can’t do anything, getting out a bag of chips to have for a meal takes effort, after all that required me to walk to the kitchen. 

Can’t concentrate on anything. No computer. Watching tv, videos or a film  takes too much effort. If an emergency call came in or voicemail or text I wouldn’t even look at it let alone answer or reply.

Level 4 - Low energy. 

I can do something just not much. Can watch tv, make a sandwich. I can answer texts. I take a nap. Still feel tired but not completely exhausted. 

Hearing good news will be like “oh, that’s great” and it is, I just don’t feel overjoyed by it.

Productivity could mean that the three things I do might be 1. Check email 2. Give the cats fresh water 3. Look at the mail before I put it in a pile.

Level 3 - Medium energy. 

I can push myself to do a limited number of things but it’s takes a great deal of effort. 

I’m not really accomplishing much but I’m keeping myself from sliding into neglect.

My energy is limited. My three things might be: 1 take the trash out, 2 answer a few emails, 3 water the plants. Good news will have an effect, less with feeling and more with thought.

Level 2 - Good energy

Better energy but not all the way there. Feel good. 

I can do some housework like laundry and vacuuming when I have a spurt of energy to do it or to push myself to do it. 

I can do research, make or take phone calls. 

I can do work on the computer. I might cautiously make plans or an appointment for a future date somewhat fearful that I won’t have energy when the time comes. 

I still need down time.  

I might actually convince myself to exercise. 

My list might be 1. Make or return a call  2. Meet with a client 3. Research for an episode. 

Sometimes if I do a fourth thing I might add it to my list afterwards. Eat better. Good news will help my attitude. I am more appreciative. Have the ability to push myself to do more.

Level 1 - High energy. 

This is the best. I’m very productive and fulfilled. I feel happy and satisfied. 

I have energy to do things that matter to me. Can do multiple things in a day. 

No interest in a nap even tho I may have gotten up early. 

Make complex meals. Run errands. 

I won’t even need a list because I will have energy to do so much and I don’t need a reminder. Feel satisfied that I accomplished something that day. 

This is not comprehensive. Gives you an idea how to make your own. 

To me it seems like non-autistics are nearly always at a 1 or 2. Either that or they know how to act like they are.

I have times when everything in my life is going well yet I’ll wake up at a 3 or 4 or even a 5. 

The amount of energy I have affects my mood. When I repeatedly ask myself “what’s wrong with me?” it’s a clue that it might be an energy-related issue.

Why are these levels important? They are a tool to measure the energy. They serve another purpose as well - managing energy. Finally, they give you a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Even when it’s small, it’s something. It has the potential to keep negative thoughts from weighing you down further.

The goal in energy management isn’t that you go from a Level 5 to a Level 1 although wouldn’t that be nice!

Let’s be realistic. What we want is more energy. You only need to go up one step. 

Sometimes you can’t and you’ll have to ride it out. See a doctor if it’s a health-related issue. Talk to someone if you aren’t progressing on your own. 

One way that has the potential to raise your energy is to recognize what you did accomplish, be okay with the things you didn’t knowing that you would if you could have, listen to the episode on Rumination or another of your favorites, play up-beat music, watch a comedy or fast-paced movie.

Remind yourself that you didn’t do something wrong, this is autism. Think of every low-energy day as feedback. Your body’s communication. Respect it.

Choose things appropriate to your energy level. 

When I’m  at a 5, getting off the couch might be my exercise. When I’m at a 2, I ride my bike. Eat something resembling food when you’re at a 4. Eat healthier when you’re at a 2 or 1. 

There are things that limit us in life that have no relation to the person we are inside. We may be misunderstood. We aren’t bad, unmotivated, unworthy, lazy.

We’re autistic and we manage our energy levels as we are able to. I wish there was a way to plug in my brain to get a recharge.

It’s amazing to me how many days we struggle with energy and don’t give up. We continue to want it to be different and are convinced that the possibility exists.

When we close our eyes and fall asleep at night we know the thought we’ll have when they open. 

How did I wake up today?

Don’t hesitate to contact me. I’m on Twitter at @anautisticwoman or you can email me at

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This has been MMB - AFGTA, I’m the Autistic Woman. Slava Ukraine!