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Complex Mental Arithmetic, Anyone?

Imagine sitting in a fast food place trying to have a conversation with someone across a table whilst also doing complex mental arithmetic at speed with no let up as a challenge that is non-negotiable. Stressful? Yes. And then some. Why am I raising this? Buckle up. I'm about to give you an insight into what an every day occurrence of going to get a burger and some fries can look and feel like for me as an autistic and ADHD individual...

I was with my partner recently eating one of my favourite safe foods (burger and chips, and yes, you can judge me) in a fast food place. We would usually takeaway but we were out in between shopping tasks. My partner noticed me wincing after we’d sat down. “It’s too bright. Let’s move,” he said. He was right. I’d forgotten my sunnies and I was struggling with light from outside plus the garish fast food restaurant lighting. I was also struggling to listen to him over all the noises I could hear (machines beeping, people chatting, coughing, plates and trays clattering). My attention kept being jarred. It hurt. Trying to maintain my focus and manage my environment was painful.

My senses were all impacted negatively - too noisy, too bright, too hot… This is standard for me when out in shops or food places. I don’t talk about it, I hide it. My partner knew what was happening though and tried to limit the damage. Despite this, what was my initial reaction? “Oh no, it’s okay. We don’t need to move. It's fine.”

He ignored me and we moved tables. My immediate response to him was to maintain the mask, not make a fuss. That comes at a personal cost though. A big one, actually. One I’ve spent a lifetime paying out on and I’m still learning how to tackle. An every day occurrence like sitting in a food place can be overstimulating, stressful, even painful for me as an autistic and ADHD individual.

The mental arithmetic analogy comes in here because it offers one small example of just how hard it can be for me to be in that kind of setting. It goes some way to demonstrate the additional effort my mind (and body) is making just to be sat there.

I didn’t come up with this analogy, my partner did. He relayed it to me as we sat there. He posited to me - Imagine asking a neurotypical person to sit here and do not just simple maths, like basic addition, but complex arithmetic. Not just once, but over and over, at a pace, with high stake consequences if they don't get it right. Maybe even catastrophic consequences, so the pressure is high and constant. Imagine asking a neurotypical person to do that, whilst sitting there trying to engage in a conversation actively, act like everything is fine, and to further still, enjoy that burger at the same time as all that relentless pressure is going on for them to do the sums with no let up. That neurotypical person might then have a tiny window, a glimpse, into the pressure, stress and chaos that an autistic and / or ADHD individual might be dealing with when simply trying to enjoy their burger and have a conversation at a fast food place. He offered me that analogy and I felt seen. And understood. It was such an empathetic insight. He knew that even if I wanted to be there (and I did, I wanted my burger, thanks) it meant me using up valuable energy resources in order to be present. Energy resources that wouldn't be spent out by a neurotypical person in the same situation, unless they were perhaps in the aforementioned scenario. Energy resources that I would then have to calculate the loss of for me in my day, and find a way to recoup.

So there's the maths analogy. It really hit home for me. Which brings me back to personal resources.

How do I do that energy resource calculation? Well, it's not maths (thank goodness, though it's just as hard for me to do). When I recognise that I’m diminishing my needs (which is often my first response) I look to self compassion to activate my motivation for wellbeing and better care. This takes a heap of work behind the scenes. Self compassion is my personal and professional jam though. I have spent, and continue to spend, a whole lot of time reading and researching it as a personal tool to develop. Why? Because I believe it to be a core component in neurodivergent wellbeing. Kindness to self can look all kinds of ways. It can be hard, tough, to activate and the actions we take as a result can feel super hard too.

Acceptance (of myself) can feel like giving up sometimes but when coupled with self compassion I can learn more about how to accept myself for who I am, and keep moving towards thriving instead of just surviving… Acceptance and self compassion in that moment at the fast food place for me were layered. It wasn't a case of just moving seats. Accepting my partner’s acceptance of me and his understanding of my needs, allowing him to nurture me in that moment with some compassion, and then turning inwards to accept my needs, acknowledge them, and consider them in practical terms. That takes energy, a lot of energy, but it’s energy better spent than masking my needs.

Self knowledge is my compassionate friend as a neurodivergent person. It doesn’t let me off the hook. It often makes me work harder, actually; but it makes me work harder to thrive… #SelfCompassion #Autism #ADHD #AuDHD

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