Understanding & Patience are key in helping
Burnout is defined as exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration. Burnout is part of the average human experience but is fairly common in neurodivergent people. However, for autistic people, it can be extreme, intense and even dangerous.
We as humans aren’t made to be put through the grind of society 24/7, we need time to rest, recharge and find calm. It seems like a simple enough process for the average person. Find time to do nothing, schedule a vacation, go to bed earlier, etc. However, autistic brains just aren’t hard wired the same. I like to say that autistic minds are just another operating system. Let’s say the average neurotypical person is a windows PC, then the autistic person is an apple computer running MacOS. Sure, they can run similar programs, but they also have programs that just aren’t compatible. Compatibility requires extra work, and isn’t always guaranteed. For an autistic person, trying to run programs from a different operating system all day becomes exhausting. When an autistic person hides autistic traits in order to seem normal or fit in, it is known as masking. Masking is incredibly tiresome and is why many autistic who mask well are met with “you don’t seem autistic.” However, when the autistic person does finally unmask and start to allow themselves to be unapologetically autistic, they are seen as faking. I’m personally diagnosed autistic level 2, which means I need substantial support and have more difficulty in social situations but also more rigid thinking. I spent most of my 20’s heavily masking and it caused a plethora of problems for me. I was able to hold a few jobs here and there, but it was a struggle. Because I have held jobs in the past, but cannot now, it’s been difficult for me to be approved for SSI and other programs because they see my previous work experience and assume my ability is the same. They don’t see the person often running off to hide in the bathroom or quiet empty areas to avoid socializing and overwhelming tasks. Today it is incredibly difficult for me to mask without going into burnout, and for many other autistic adults it’s the same case.
I have found many metaphors for being in autistic burnout and all of them seem to fit. From feeling like Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, as if your body is being taken over by a rabid monster, unafraid of tearing down anyone around them in panic. You lose control, and then often don’t remember any of it. You’re like Regan from the Exorcist, sharing your body with an entirely different entity, or perhaps….more than one? So many demons growling in a rage you cannot even witness within yourself. You’re blinded by your own monstrosities and have to pick up the disaster that was left behind in the chaos. I’ve hurt people with words I didn’t even think to say, my brain short circuited and in the smoke and fire formed damaging words spit like gasoline. It’s awkward to move on afterwards, what can you even say when you don’t even fully remember what happened? You’re trying to put together a puzzle of something you have never seen. You don’t know where the pieces go because you don’t even know for sure what you are looking at. Your mind is a blank canvas so it seems, but it’s just painted white over layer and layer of darkness. Your mind isn’t the only thing in chaos mode, your body itself can lose function, from urinary incontinence to vomiting to outbursts of sobs that shake you to your core. I’ve passed out from having severe meltdowns in burnout, and my whole body feels as if it were rolled violently over jagged stones. I never feel as if I can get enough sleep, and can’t get myself to wake up sometimes because I’m so desperate to cure the exhaustion, but even sleep won’t fix it. It’s like my body is moving three paces behind my mind, like the tortoise against the hare in one solitary being.
Unmasking helps with the burnout because we aren’t adding another layer of paint to our portrait. We are working with who we are, not who people want us to be for fear of making THEM look odd or strange. Allowing autistic people to stim, to vocalize, to take breaks from socializing, these are all small examples to help us unmask and take some weight off of our shoulders. Sometimes we need someone to be there for us without being TOO there. What I mean by this is existing in the same space with us quietly, calmly and without extra stimulation. My partner and I often sit together writing, working on tarot, art or other hobbies just sitting together without speaking. It’s allowed us to calm our minds but still connect, especially in a world of constant stimulation. Sometimes after a lot of stimuation, low light, low noises and limited sensory input can help us soothe ourselves. Autistic people have difficulty self soothing so it is important to find routines that work for us when we are overwhelmed and prone to melting down. Burnout can be helped by not adding to an already heavy plate, if you can see an autistic person you know is doing too much already, you can discuss rescheduling plans for another day or letting them know it’s okay to cancel for however long they need. Sometimes we may say yes to something but then realize it’s not the right environment for us at the time. It’s crucial not to take it personally when we need to change plans, as we’re trying not to have a terrible time or cause anyone else to have a bad time. For those who are just learning to let themselves unmask, it can be very hard to open up and ask to change plans or even be open about why. Patience can help tremendously, as well as understanding. We may need help with simple seeming tasks like doing the dishes or even personal hygiene needs. Things we seemed adept in may suddenly become frustrating.
For the autistic person, it is important to set boundaries for yourself if you are on the verge of or experiencing burnout. It’s also crucial to helping lessen burnouts. Surround yourself with special interests, from a beloved film or a hobby that you can do to help ground yourself. Even just going through a collection of treasured items and handling them can be a positive distraction from a busy mind. Stimming freely is also important, should you need to rock, flap, spin or jump. If you have the battery power to, it’s a good idea to identify and write down your triggers somewhere. Noises, textures, flavors or even certain tones that people speak in, find what is a sensory no no for yourself. Knowing what triggers you and knowing when to remove yourself is another way to help with autistic burnout. If you’re working and experiencing burnout, try and find time to take breaks so you can recharge. The average working human often faces unrealistic demands in the workforce and living up to some pretty hefty expectations, being autistic only intensifies that. It’s good to stop and reflect on our own internalized ableism but also in our daily life. No one should have to work themselves to exhaustion and not being able to is no sign of weakness. A supportive environment is important for anyone to survive, but autistic people are faced with regular obstacles and lack of understanding that makes us feel downright alien. An empathetic support system for autistic folks can make a world of difference and make us feel safer in situations like meltdowns and sensory overload.