A Guide To Autistic Burnout:
The world can be a stressful and confusing place for many Autistic people. We are expected to meet the demands of everyday life with a brain that doesn't function in the same way and other people's brains. We are sometimes expected to mask or hide our Autistic traits to fit in, which can be detrimental to our own wellbeing. We cannot just learn to 'normalize' ourselves or 'keep up with everyone else', and we shouldn't have to. An Autistic brain is unique and functions in a different way than most people's brains. If we keep trying to go against our natural neurological capability to socialise, deal with stress, and function in this world - we may end up in burnout.
The signs of Autistic Burnout are as follows:
☆ An increased amount of meltdowns
☆ More sensory processing issues
☆ Complete exhaustion & Intense fatigue
☆ Lack of motivation
☆ Appearing to become 'more Autistic'; Autistic traits become more noticeable.
☆ A decline in the person's physical and mental health.
☆ Increased shutdowns.
☆ No longer being able to keep up with daily obligations and chores.
☆ Increased issues with executive functioning.
☆ Loss of social skills.
☆ Increased anxiety.
☆ Sleep problems.
☆ Memory issues.
Let's use an analogy: Imagine a lighter filled with lighter fluid (the fluid resembles energy). For most people, daily tasks and social situations would only take a little bit of that lighter fluid. For an Autistic person, it takes a lot more. As well as this, most people can recuperate their lighter fluid relatively quickly, but an Autistic person cannot. An Autistic person often needs more downtime than a non-Autistic person. 3 hours of socializing may require a few days of downtime - a few days of resting and being in solitude. This is how difficult and energy draining socialising can be for an Autistic person.
Once too much of our lighter fluid (energy) has gone, as we have not done the equation to balance it and conserve our energy, we lose our spark. It would be as if the lighter doesn't create any spark anymore, the same as how we may feel as if we have 'lost our spark' in burnout. People may not feel like themselves anymore when they are experiencing Autistic burnout.
Factors that can contribute to Autistic burnout include:
☆ Masking - Suppressing your Autistic traits and trying to appear neurotypical. If we go against how our brain is naturally functioning, we are likely to experience burnout at some point.
☆ Taking on too much - Autistic people often struggle to cope with stress, as we already have so much going on. If we take on too many responsibilities, don't set boundaries, or try to live out a neurotypical life - we can be led into burnout.
☆ Socialising too much - If some Autistic people cannot bear to socialise for more than 3 hours at a time, how do you think they may function in school or in the workplace, where they are surrounded by people and have the expectation put on them to socialize?
☆ Experiencing a major transition in life - Autistic burnout often occurs at transition points in someone's life. This could include getting into a new relationship, experiencing a huge revelation, starting a new job, moving schools, getting a new diagnosis, moving out of the family home, etc.
A person can experience Autistic burnout and any age. Children who are struggling to cope in the school environment may experience burnout. Adults who are struggling to meet the demands of adult life may experience burnout.
The Duration of Autistic Burnout:
Autistic burnout is usually a long term issue. Once it happens, it can affect someone for months, years, or even decades. A person often struggles to get back to how they were before the burnout, so although it can reduce and things can get better, a burnout may lead to a long-term change in an individual.
Meltdowns and shutdowns are short spurts, but a burnout is a long term change. However, there is increasing recognition of acute Autistic burnout, where people may experience severe burnout symptoms for a few days or weeks.
Strategies To Help You Manage During Autistic Burnout:
Let yourself stim - Autistic people often experience stimming. Stimming stands for self-stimulatory behaviour. Stimming can include hand flapping, rocking backwards and forwards, spinning around and around, swaying, jumping up and down, hair twirling, leg jiggling, making vocal sounds, and more. When we stim, it helps us regulate emotions, regulate sensory input, and feel good. Stimming is an ingrained tool we have which releases beta-endorphins and improves our wellbeing. If we have this amazing tool and coping strategy within us, why don't we use it for our own benefit? It doesn't matter what other people think. Our wellbeing is important and we shouldn't have to harmfully suppress our stims.
Decrease your workload as much as you can - During an Autistic burnout, a person may need to be signed off of work or may need to have reduced hours at school. This is vital for a person's wellbeing as resting and reducing stress and demands is vital for reducing Autistic burnout.
Say no to social situations when you feel too tired or unable to socialise - When we already have limited energy, socialising can send us over the edge. Socialising can be one of the most difficult tasks for an Autistic person, as Autism is primarily a condition which affects social interaction and social communication. It is important to set boundaries when you need to do so. You could tell friends that you will not take any phone calls for a while, but you will reply to texts. You could take some days which are specifically for 'alone time', so that you don't end up using up every tiny bit of energy you have on socialising. You may also need to end friendships which are too taxing for you. If there are friendships which take too much energy from you, or which bring you no joy and expect too much from you, you can end them. Your peace is important.
Be easy on yourself and nurture yourself back to health - Treat yourself as if you are ill, as Autistic burnout can have a huge impact on both your mental and physical health. Be gentle with yourself.
Do activities which aren't too taxing for your brain - Trying to be productive when in the peak of Autistic burnout usually doesn't end well. Do fun and relaxing activities, rather than serious work activities.
Stop judging yourself for resting - Resting is necessary when experiencing Autistic burnout. If you need to have naps, have them. If you need to sleep for longer than most people, that's okay. Just do what you can to make things easier for yourself.
Adjust the way you do things - If you find that speaking takes too much effort or is too difficult for you, write things down and show it to people. You are allowed to use other forms of communication when needed. If you struggle to have the energy to wash, use dry shampoo, wet wipes and deodorant.
Focus on your special interests - Special interests are passions which bring us immense joy. Autistic people often know A LOT about their special interest topic. Focusing on our special interests can help us feel better.
Talk about how you are feeling to people who won't judge. This could be a supportive partner, friend, or others in the Autism community. This can give a sense of validation and comfort as someone understands what you are going through and is there to support you.
Get the correct diagnosis:
Remember to rule out other causes of the change in a person rather than automatically assuming that it is Autistic burnout. Other issues can resemble Autistic burnout, but require different intervention. For example, PANS and PANDAS are conditions which can cause behavioral and developmental regression, eating problems, depression, anxiety, communication issues, memory problems, sleep problems and more, so it can look like Autistic burnout. However PANS and PANDAS are diseases which require medical intervention. If Autistic burnout traits co-occur with infections, or one of the following symptoms - motor and / or vocal tics, OCD, or food restriction, or if the burnout starts suddenly and is associated with complex neurological symptoms such as coordination changes or loss of sensation, consider PANS / PANDAS. PANS / PANDAS can be misdiagnosed as Autism or Autistic burnout.
Autistic burnout may sometimes be confused with depression, but they are different things. Although there is a huge overlap, those with depression are often encouraged to be social, regardless of how much they feel like they want to withdraw from others. However, for a person in Autistic burnout, this can just make things worse, as socialising is difficult for us and it can take away too much of our energy. If Autistic burnout is caused by socialising too much and going beyond our natural limits, socialising more isn't going to solve the issue.
Preventing Autistic Burnout:
To prevent Autistic burnout, it helps if someone receives an Autism diagnosis early in life. Some people do not receive an Autism diagnosis until their late teenage years, or adulthood. There are plenty of Autistic people who were diagnosed in their 40's. This is great that people eventually get an explanation as to why they struggle with things so much, but it is sad that a person had to wait so long for that explanation.
Getting diagnosed with Autism early on in life means that other people are slightly less likely to expect the person to act neurotypical. This means that an Autistic person would likely feel more comfortable expressing their Autistic traits, as they have an explanation for them and others are aware that the person is not neurotypical. If a child is experiencing Autistic traits such as social interaction difficulties, sensory processing issues, literal thinking, a need for lots of down time, anxiety, and issues with school - please consider an Autism assessment. Having an accurate explanation as to why they struggle with certain things and function in a different way to their peers can allow the child to become more self-compassionate and know that there is nothing wrong with their character or them as a person - they are Autistic! Knowing this early on can reduce someone's need to mask and can allow someone to get the appropriate support and accommodations, it can also allow someone to learn about Autism and advocate for themselves. This can prevent a burnout in the future.
To prevent Autistic burnout, stop holding yourself to neurotypical standards. Your brain is functioning differently to most people's, therefore you need to do things in a different way. This does not mean to expect less of yourself, as in thinking that you have less potential, but it means to pace things, do things in a way that works for you, and listen to your body. Holding yourself to neurotypical standards and trying to act neurotypical when you are not can be detrimental to your mental health. Take things at your own pace, as you need it.
Take care of yourself.
Disclaimer: I am NOT a medical professional, this is NOT to be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment from a qualified physician, this is to be used for educational purposes only. For medical advice, please see a medical practitioner. I do NOT claim to treat, cure or mitigate any condition.