a beginner's guide to autistic burnout

Most of us know what “burnout” feels like. But what about autistic burnout?

There’s a reason why, when doing a quick Google search, it suggests the phrase “autistic burnout vs. depression.” So, if you have or currently manage depression, you’ll likely understand this better than the occasional day of exhaustion.

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Prior to realizing I was on the autism spectrum, I’m sure I experienced autistic burnout without knowing the terminology. It probably felt like a period of aggravated depression to slug through. But having greater knowledge really illuminates this all-too frequent occurrence.

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I wish I had all the answers and could tell you I have the magic formula to avoid autistic burnout. Alas, as with most things, it’s a work in progress. Simply having greater awareness of autistic burnout, neurodiverse or neurotypical, is a logical step forward.

For something so debilitating, we all need more compassion, understanding, and proactive coping strategies. Maybe we cannot avoid autistic burnout entirely, but we can certainly do more than ignoring.

a working definition.

The most obvious elephant in the room: what the heck is autistic burnout? Everyone gets burnt out. Our capitalist, hyper-productive society is conducive to regular stress and burnout. Unless we’re superhuman, it’s unavoidable to a certain degree. We need time to rest.

Autistic burnout is that feeling of fatigue, but up a few hundred notches. Rather than the typical professional burnout, this exhaustion pertains to all areas of life. It’s scary and, at times, deadly.

Autistic burnout is sometimes characterized as “autistic regression.” Simply put, autistic adults report times that they can no longer mask as neurotypical, losing abilities to cope and function. The traits we tend to hide away in public become prominent, such as stimming and sensitivity overload. 

Since it corresponds more closely with depression, autistic burnout virtually always lasts longer than a day or two. This burnout could potentially last weeks, months, even years. In the process, autistic adults too often lose jobs, relationships, and a semblance of balanced physical and mental health.

Worst case scenario, burnout can become a permanent disability or suicidal behavior. So, yeah, this is serious. And it’s worth talking about.

why don’t we know about this?!

Why is there such a lack of research and knowledge surrounding autistic burnout? Great question. Most information about this topic is about caregiver and family burnout from taking care of an autistic person. Not to minimize that separate problem, but it’s not helpful if you’re the person at the center of it all. Little empirical research discusses burnout in autistic people themselves.

You would sure think there’d be more support and recognition. Especially when you consider that 35 percent of autistics have planned to or have tried committing suicide. All because we’re made to mask ourselves to simply eke out a life. To be taken seriously as capable adults. To avoid extra discrimination in settings where we deserve to belong.

my own autistic burnout.

You probably already assumed why I’m writing this. Besides identifying as autistic, I’ve also felt autistic burnout. It’s honestly quite similar to looming depression you see lurking in the background, ready to strike at your weakest moment. When I have seminary modules that involve 3-5 straight days of 8-or-more hours of class, you bet I’m going to burn out. 

Even the other day when I had a 6-hour shift at one job and one hour in between to go teach an hour-long yoga class, the following day left me completely incapacitated. I truly couldn’t do anything. Zero motivation or willpower. I couldn’t think straight, remember basic tasks, or even consider talking aloud. 

Another lower day, toward the end of a long seminary module, everything was foggy. I couldn’t help but continually rock myself and stim. That day, I definitely had an anxious meltdown where I had to go into the bathroom to cry and panic over, I’m sure, something extremely insignificant.

Truly, it’s a sense of depression, but on the severe end of the spectrum. A chronic exhaustion that makes everything heavy and suffocating. As hard as you may work on building skills and improving yourself, it could all crumble beneath you in autistic burnout. 

Knowing that, at any point, I could dip down into that sphere of autistic burnout, is frightening. The problem is, if I want to lead a seemingly “normal” life, it seems unavoidable. If autistics are constantly asked to repress their autism and then asked to meet external expectations that consistently go beyond their abilities, they will burn out. This vicious cycle may have no end. Not unless we do things differently.

coping with autistic burnout.

Enough about how problematic autistic burnout is. Hopefully I’ve illustrated that enough. Now let’s dig into some strategies to cope with and, potentially, avoid frequent autistic burnout.

I like to see autism like other chronic illnesses. You’re essentially managing symptoms and balancing out your life in a way that alleviates excess regression and pain. We cannot undermine the immense stress and difficulty for someone to pretend to be of the same neurological framework as the majority. If we keep trying to fit a square peg into a round container, there will be resistance, and it will cause damage.

I highly recommend the spoon theory. If you already know you have limited spoons to deal out every day, then you’re disciplining yourself to not push past your limits. Put those spoons toward what really matters: your health, relationships, and key tasks that support your well-being. Don’t overbook yourself without taking breaks long enough for you to actually recharge. 

Before you lose the ability entirely, communicate with your support system. Be transparent with the people you care about and may work with. Once you know your skill set and your weak points, don’t be afraid to openly admit when something may be out of your scope. Only push yourself in small doses, when you feel it’s worth the extra effort. Don’t make it a habit. If it is, then it’s time to reconsider how you’re living life. 

Despite the constant pressure to pretend we’re “high-functioning” and not autistic, it’s about time for the world to acknowledge that the neurotypical approach isn’t the only way to integrate into the world. There comes a point where you need to accept your autism. Embrace your ways to stim. Devote time to your special interests. Find the people who empathize and/or understand your ways of communicating. Invest in the little things that may tone down the outside stimuli, such as noise-canceling headphones, comfy clothes (screw tags), sunglasses, and whatever else you need.

a message for autistics and neurotypicals.

Autistic burnout still seems to be a vast unknown. The only ones really talking about it are autistics who feel tethered to the point of no/difficult return. Those who may occasionally interact with an autistic may have no idea, thusly shaming us for “falling short,” or “not doing enough,” or downright failing.

Let me give you permission, if you feel guilt for even considering it: you can take a break, even if it’s a full-on leave of absence from school or work. You can have strict boundaries and say “no” to unnecessary triggers. It’s okay to drop the mask and seek out how to live your best life, not the best life of neurotypical standards.

And for the neurotypicals supporting autistic people: educate yourself. Be aware of when autistic burnout may be looming, such as when we lose certain functions. Show us empathy and patience. Teach young people and adults alike that it’s okay to have a routine and say no to things.

Please don’t reduce expectations of what we’re capable of achieving; instead, reduce expectations that we’ll achieve our goals in the same way you would.

You’re doing your best. I’m so proud of you. Please be kind to yourself. Your existence alone is a testament of resilience and strength. And if you burn out, it’s okay. You’re worthy of all the love and support.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

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