‘Don’t burn yourself out’ is a phrase that is commonly used in todays society. Within the autistic community, there is a phenomenon known as autistic burnout, an experience that often works in a cyclic manner for us. When we have reached a state of burnout it is usually from a combination of factors that have been built up over time – we’ve pushed past so many barriers and we’ve reached a state of exhaustion.

For myself it feels like a giant Jenga tower of stressors that I’ve masked my way through, eventually the tower starts to become sparse and as I’m trying to work my way through the stressors the tower crumbles. Instead of wanting to rebuild the tower immediately, I need the time and the space to rest and recover. It’s a feeling of not being able to mask at all, or being able to hold on to that mask for very little amounts of time.

It’s important to note that burnout can and does occur in childhood. People often associate burn out as something that adults deal with, because of heightened responsibilities. However, burnout is a result of stress and transitions through life and it is one of our human responses to stress. Autistic people often feel burnt out due to prolonged sensory overstimulation with no time to recover, change and big transitions.

How autistic burnout presents is entirely individual to each persons needs. The way in which burnout presents may look very different but they are still valid responses for that persons situation. A person may appear to ‘function’ but underneath they are facing continuous physical and emotional exhaustion. On the other hand, it can feel like a complete breakdown. Like a car runs out of gas and needs a recovery service to get it back on the road again, only our brain is the engine and our nervous system needs that recovery time to get us back to feeling ourselves.

Signs of autistic burnout include:

  • Challenging behaviour may be heightened
  • Withdrawal – A person who is verbal and expressive may become quiet or silent, they may want to shut themselves in their safe space.
  • Shut off – May disconnect from responsibilities and social life.
  • Interoception difficulties heightened
  • Managing the sensory environment – A person may need to hide under something, use blankets or a person may need sensory impact.
  • Physical and emotional exhaustion, that does not feel better with rest.
  • Loss of skills – this is a broad subject because we all have different skills and abilities. A person may find that they are unable to communicate in a way they would usually. Difficulties a person already has may feel heightened and unmanageable.
  • Depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide.
  • Sensory input may become too overwhelming.

Factors that contribute to autistic burnout:

  • Emotional – Due to misdiagnoses, the stress of the diagnosis process or not receiving diagnosis, battling stigma and prejudices, having difficulty with emotional regulation we can hit burnout from an effort of masking our emotions, plus not having our emotions validated for our experiences. The way in which we deal with emotions is individual, our responses to emotional stress will vary. We may release these feelings through meltdowns, we may shutdown. Burnout happens when a person has experienced repeated emotional stress and it gradually becomes too much. 
  • Empathy – Despite the myths, autistic people do have empathy. We just express that empathy differently. Autistic individuals can be justice driven and have a strong desire to help others. When we don’t put in place boundaries or we just want to help so much because we’ve felt a sense of injustice we can become burnt out. 
  • Sensory Overload – Prolonged exposure to sensory triggers without adequate recovery time and sensory aids can often lead to burnout. 
  • Camouflaging – Masking, suppressing our authentic autistic selves, suppressing self stimulating behaviours and mimicking neurotypical behaviours to pass as neurotypical in order to keep up with the world around us can have detrimental effects to our wellbeing and I believe that is one of the main factors contributing to burnout.

What I mean by ‘blooming’ after burnout is that flowers don’t automatically bloom after a harsh winter. When we have reached a state of burnout it can take days, months, years to recover from. When an autistic individual is in burnout it can feel like we’re shut away in a tiny bud, and that’s what we need. The next step in the process is to bloom, to begin to open back up. Blooming after burnout will take each individual the amount of time that they need to recover. It’s also recognising that because burnout occurs due to big transitions and stress, it is likely we will reach burnout state several times throughout our lives. The reason I think of burnout in this way is because reaching that level of exhaustion can make us really feel out of control, by linking it to something natural it helps to process those feelings and accept that this is a part of my human experience as an autistic individual. It prevents me from feeling like my experience of the world is defective.

Can we prevent burnout?

Through reading posts written in the autistic community the consensus is that it can’t always be prevented, but knowing what contributes to it can be helpful. Sometimes it is hard for us to recognise that we are burnt out, and sometimes even if we do realise we are burnt out we may keep pushing ourselves until we reach a level that we can’t tolerate anymore. Finding the reason as to why we’re feeling burnt out can also be extremely difficult.

In terms of recovering from burnout, and ‘blooming’ again I think the key thing is it takes time. Recovering from burnout is a healing process. We may feel we need A LOT of rest when we are burnt out and it can take a lot of acceptance for us to allow ourselves to rest. I know for many of us it can be tricky to take the time we need to rest due to life circumstances. However, for our wellbeing taking the time to rest in a way that works for us is vital. You may find that you really can’t talk to people when you are feeling this way. It’s okay to take a break, it may be helpful to let people know you won’t be interacting as much at the moment. I find it helpful to have one or two contacts to let them know I’m okay. This helps me because that way I don’t completely withdraw from communicating as I know that the anxiety of reaching out again can feel overwhelming.

Due to the ongoing pandemic, I think we are all feeling burnt out from the sheer amount of stress and change. I know I have reached burn out and the hardest thing to do is to speak out about it, because when I feel burnt out I completely withdraw. My chameleon self becomes more like a hermit. What I do know is that I’ve been burnt out before, I will probably reach burn out again, and the strategies used now may differ the next time. Coping with the feelings and the effects of burnout are as individual as we are.

Thank you for reading!

Cerys the Chameleon