Sensory travels – formulating a personal guide book of sensory word tools

(In this new addition to our series of guest posts by social scientists studying autism, it’s great to have Hanna Bertilsdotter Rosqvist. Hanna is an Associate Professor in Sociology, and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Social Work, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden)

I love word tools.

While I am writing this I am two weeks away from going home to Umeå, situated at the east coast in the northern part of Sweden. I’ve been travelling since 21st May, visiting research colleagues in Toowoomba, Australia and now in Auckland, New Zealand. Except from meeting up with inspiring work mates, I have also been thinking and experiencing some personal emotional stuff closely connected to my research about autism and things I’ve learned from autistic people.

This blog post is going to centre around useful words I have encountered the last half year. Some of the words I have found on blogs written by autistic people in Sweden, some of them may be my own interventions, though inspired by encounters with autistic self-advocates in Sweden and similar minded introverts. I need, sometimes new, words to make sense of myself. While being me is sometimes a bit confusing. And I think it is confusing because my experiences often don’t match with what I think of as an extrovert normativity surrounding me. Being extrovert means to get energy from being social. Whether for me as an introvert whom also is quite sensitive to noise and light, being social may be a pleasure, but it is draining energy.

So I start. In the end of last year I was sensing I couldn’t really understand why I get so tired of social interaction. I tend to get very intense when I am socializing. I suppose I focus very hard on all emotional and social communication in order not to miss anything. There is not dwindling of the mind back and forth but an intense absorbing of everything in the social interaction. So after some intense socializing I turn speeded. My brain is on a higher gear. And suddenly I start to get very tired. Feels overly filled, overwhelmed, with emotional and social input.

Social hangover. The day after the day of intense social interaction I mostly sleep, and when awake I feel slightly low and slow. After some time alone I start to get more energized. But I started to think of it as similar to a friend of mine having a hangover after a party night with heavy drinking. After some surfing on the web I happily found that my problems weren’t that original. There was an autistic female blogger writing on the phenomena she called (in Swedish, social baksmälla) social hangover. This helpful word let me think about the cost of social interaction, whether I want to choose ‘heavy social interaction’ (which in the right environment and with the right people is very enjoyable) including the social hangover the day after, or if I want to do some lighter social interaction (not that long, perhaps only with people I like and already know well), or perhaps I need to be completely alone.

Recharging. I think the social hangover is something I need to accept, as part of my life. I have started to think of my energy level as something I need to count upon; what is low/moderate/demanding energy wise. I know all social things take energy. Like if I was driving a car, and if I drive too long without refueling the engine will stop. I need to be aware of what is taking more or less energy. Perhaps not always in order to preserve, but in order to understand why my energy level suddenly is lower than I thought it should be. Or the amount of energy recharging needed. And what I need to do to recharge. What is recharging for me.

Emo crashes. I try to avoid the “emo crashes”. I got one during a coffee break in Toowoomba. Professional socializing with strangers in a noisy environment, low energy level to begin with after some intense social work days with my research colleagues. Although I didn’t realize how low it was until I suddenly started to feel like crying and didn’t feel I had the energy to listen to and participate in small talk any longer. And I suddenly realized I really needed some acute alone time Now. I went to a toilet nearby and sat there for a while at the floor of the toilet and cried, waited for the energy level to get back at least to the level where I would be able to tell my co-researchers I needed some alone time and then move to a better place to keep on recharging there. The first time I started to think about these emotional crash landings (when the energy is suddenly just too low, when I need an acute asocial alone time, probably including some sleeping, at least some laying on my back with my earplugs in a safe and calm environment) I was just very scared I had come across the “burn out”. I thought I had been working too hard for too long, possibly with some scary scars on my brain. Later, now, I start to think of it as just an acute end of a (rechargeable) battery. Just need to recharge. Like Now! No time for explanation; ‘Sorry, just leave me alone. Or..? I just cry’.

Strategic energy recharging. I was working a lot with strategic energy recharging in Toowoomba. In order to be able to be as social as possible with my work mates, I just needed to do strategic energy recharging now and then. Especially after the emo-crash I did a daily routine of afternoon alone time in my bed in my hotel room, sleeping, reading novels, listening to relaxing music and electronic chatting with friends. Because sometimes it is not a completely asocial time that I need. I just need less sensory inputs. Which is why I love e-chatting. This strategic energy recharging made it possible to work and socialize with my research colleagues for the most part of the day as well as rejoining them after my afternoon alone time for dinner. In a way this was a way for me to postpone the social hangover I got from being this overly social. Which I got and endured during my first week in Auckland. When I got the opportunity for being more on my own again.

Extrovert normativity. During several of those chats with a similarly introvert friend of mine, we started to talk about “extrovert normativity” including our own sense of internalized extrovert normativity. We’ve been talking earlier about our sense of shame and guilt when preferring to say no to social gatherings. Like there is a normal life, including certain social obligations, ‘everybody’ just have to do in order not to hurt anybody or being unpleasant and rude. And often these social obligations are along the degree of being boring but just something you do to be pleasant. While I prefer socializing with one friend in a calm environment, most group socializing is tiring. In the right group it may be tiring but pleasant, but in the wrong group it is only tiring (and boring).

Doing fun the extrovert way. When I travelled further to Auckland I happened to live as a lodger in an older lady’s home. She is an extrovert. Telling me almost immediately when we met – and while I was unpacking my things in her guest room which I was renting for five weeks – that a reason for her to rent out the room was her social interest (I suppose: fulfilling her social needs as an extrovert) in meeting interesting, successful professionals such as myself. Meeting her I started to think about the more cruel, but often unconscious, expressions of extrovert normativity. She finds it weird and keeps telling me so (not explicitly that she finds it weird, she says she worries about me), that I keep a lot to myself, focus on my writing, rather than being out and exploring. She gets satisfied or perhaps relieved when I report to her when coming home after a day of work that I have met up with research colleagues, or when I have done some kind of sightseeing. Like there is something I am missing, when I don’t do ‘fun’ in a particular, extrovert way. Perhaps not really doing what she thinks is part of being an interesting and successful professional.

Recharging the extrovert way (or ‘vacation’). Friends of mine have also expressed similar worries, stressing that I should take the opportunity during my travel to have ‘some fun’. But they also stress the importance of ‘taking some vacations’, in order not work too hard. Although these comments are well-meaning and loving, they are based on assumptions of what it is to have fun or what you need to do to recharge which aren’t compatible with me; my body and my mind.

It takes time for me to see this. And get to know what fun is for me. And what takes energy and what I need to do to recharge. Part of this process is to be aware of the workings of extrovert normativity in my life. Which tends to cloud my vision.


If you are interested in knowing more about my research, see

Don’t hesitate to email me if you want me to send you an electronic full-length version of a paper I’ve written that you take interest in.

A group of autistic self-advocates in Sweden which have inspired my thinking about autism a lot:

(website in Swedish but it is possible to google translate it to English if you look at it in Google chrome)


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