You're a young child. A very weird child according to everyone else. Socializing? Communicating with people you don't know well on the regular? What's that?
Your parents invite family or friends over to play with you. You're upstairs playing your favorite computer game, not leaving that spot even when the guests arrive. You get yelled at and are told you're being rude.
But why? All you wanted was for them to come up and watch you play. You want other people to be just as passionate about your special interests as you are. Is that too much to ask?
Eventually your peers start telling you straight up that they don't care about the things you love. Those things are stupid. Please for the love of all things good STOP TALKING ABOUT IT.
Years go by and you find that everyone else has friends except for you. It's a lonely experience, but one that feels safe. Despite the bullying and misunderstandings at home, of course.
Then something happens. An epiphany, a revelation, a magical moment; something. You start trying to be social, make friends, and act "normal." And it actually works out. You're a completely different person.
Finally you're normal.
You enter your early adult years. All of this practice has you feeling confident in your social capabilities and you are having the time of your life.
Even crazier? You become an extrovert. Popular. You run into 10 friends before you even get to the cafeteria. You're willingly going out of your way to meet new people.
Whatever happened to that quiet, standoffish weirdo who repelled people and preferred being alone? Who's she?
This is it. You made it. You conquered life. No one would ever guess that you used to be that way. You are normal and accepted. You've been freed of that horrible curse from your youth that made people hate you. All is well.
You graduate. You enter the workplace full-time. Life changes and becomes more mundane than ever. And before you know it, you're relapsing into your old habits. You're socially awkward again. Any kind of social event drains and overwhelms you. It almost feels like you've forgotten how to start and hold conversations. You don't want to talk. All you want to do is stay at home and hide. It's safe there and you won't be found out.
Well folks, that is the nutshell of my life before being diagnosed with autism.
It was something I didn't understand.
"What's going on? What's happening to me??? Why can't I go back to how I was before?"
"I suck at life again because I'm a bad person. It's because I'm lazy and stupid. It's because I can't kick these weird habits like daydreaming and obsessing over things that interest me; stuff that everyone would judge me for if they ever found out. It's because I'm not trying hard enough. It's because-"
I felt like a complete failure as a Christian and as a human being. Why couldn't I just do better? Why did it feel like all the life had been permanently sucked out of me? Why couldn't I just pray and magically become a peppy social butterfly again?
The thing is, when autistic people such as myself spend years and years and years masking our traits, forcing ourselves to act certain ways constantly to fit in, pushing ourselves past our limits because that's what you have to do in a judgmental society… eventually, more often than not, we burn out. Lots of things in life that many view as "basic" or "simple" take a lot more out of us than they do with neurotypical people. Our brains become fatigued. We can't keep doing this; we can't keep faking it.
And for someone who has no idea they're autistic, like I didn't, it becomes a big, fat recipe for self-loathing.
The reality is: I wasn't "relapsing." I was autistic all along. I was lying to myself for years when I always knew there was something different about me. And it wasn't bad or my fault.
This type of thing is often referred to as "autistic regression" or "autistic burnout." Do I know all the science behind it? Not in the slightest. But it's a real thing that people experience. It's a real thing that I went through.
I like to be open and talk about these things a lot because I believe it's a conversation that isn't had enough. There isn't enough awareness. There are countless other people like me who have gone through, or are currently going through, this kind of shame and feelings of confusion and failure.
If that's you, I want you to know that it's okay. There's nothing wrong with you. You're overwhelmed by this stimulating world and you're not alone. Some of us are differently brained. Society may not accept people like us in certain ways, but that's on them, not us. We are beautiful masterpieces created by God intentionally. He doesn't intend for people to all be the same. We each have stories, insights and perspectives that are uniquely ours. The church and humanity as a whole would be incomplete without us.