The Mighty Logo

How Burnout Impacts My Autism

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

I’ve gone through many autistic burnouts in my life. I often didn’t even realize what they were till I was in the middle of one. Many late-diagnosed autistics don’t get diagnosed until they go through a severe autistic burnout. According to AWN Network, autistic burnout is an intense physical, mental, or emotional exhaustion that can sometimes result in a loss of a skill or can cause regression. This type of burnout can happen after an accumulation of years of trying to appear “normal” and navigate a world designed for neurotypical people. Autistic burnout is usually attributed to prolonged masking or mimicking neurotypical behavior. However, burnout can also be caused by other things such as not getting enough time to oneself, masking, stress, sleep deprivation, illness, and sensory or emotional overstimulation.

I’ve always had trouble understanding my burnouts and when I’m in one. Burnouts sneak up on me when I’m faced with a lot of burnout triggers. These burnouts can last for weeks to months. When I’m in the midst of a burnout, it’s often easier for me to have meltdowns and overloads. A lot of meltdowns tend to be more of a sign that I am close to, if not in a burnout. Little things such as the pressure of small responsibilities of having to converse with people, going to work or appointments, and tasks such as cleaning can make me feel overwhelmed and cause a meltdown. I also will have a harder time processing information. Since I’m constantly processing pictures to words, I have a harder time speaking and understanding what people say to me. I will stutter and stumble over simple replies and can even become selectively mute. People who see me mask every day don’t always understand why it’s harder for me to converse.

It’s harder for me to mask during a burnout. I have more of a flat affect when I talk and I don’t respond the way a neurotypical person would to conversation. I will also stim more, which causes people to notice me than usual. I am often seen as being “more autistic” during a burnout. My sensory issues are in overdrive. A small piece of a tag that was left in a sweater I cut out will upset me. I will have a harder time than usual being touched as it can feel as if all my nerves are responding to anything that touches my skin. During a burnout, my executive functioning and self-care aren’t the best. I have a hard time showering as I’m more sensitive than usual to the water and the temperature. I will forget to do things such as brush my teeth or hair. My house is a mess when it usually is very clean.

There are strategies that I use to help prevent burnouts as well as help me deal with them. What helps me is making sure I have a recovery day or two after social events. Social events can cause stress, overstimulation, and sometimes cause me to lose sleep. I can easily fall into a burnout after events like these. Recovery days can last for one or even a couple of days where I put no stress on myself to socialize or do anything. I make sure I’m in a comfortable place where I can unmask and stim freely.

When I’m in a burnout, it can sometimes be hard for me to even enjoy my special interests. But I find something that doesn’t require any pressure or demands that is special interest-related and I focus on that. For example, I will watch all of the Star Wars movies or reread my favorite book series. Sometimes I will try to create something but if I feel any pressure that can continue the stress I stop and find something more relaxing. I try to let people know when I’m going through a burnout. Setting boundaries and asking for accommodations are some of the most helpful things I can do when it comes to social obligations. When I’m at work it can be a bit harder. I usually find quiet times during the day and during my lunch, I will sit by myself and listen to music while I eat, instead of trying to socialize.

Autistic burnouts can be hard, but know that you will eventually get through them. I try not to be hard on myself as I know that it will pass.

As an autistic, have you ever experienced burnout? What are some triggers for a burnout, and how do you cope?

Getty image by Levani Kalmaxelidze / EyeEm.

Originally published: December 12, 2021
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home