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7 Ways to Prevent Autistic Burnout

“Autistic burnouts for me feel like the puzzle pieces in Tetris falling so fast you don’t have enough time to line them up before they reach the top and the videogame is over, burnouts leave me feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.” –Ron Sandison

I’ve experienced many autistic burnouts with relationships, academics, employment, and stressors of life. I’ve learned to recognize the triggers of my burnouts. Some common triggers for my burnouts include over-commitment, anxiety, change in routine, lack of sleep, and sensory overload. When I have an autistic burnout, my brain goes blank, making it difficult for me to communicate ideas or make decisions, and I experience both physical and emotional exhaustion. Autistic burnouts cause us to be less productive and lack motivation for achieving our goals and taking care of ourselves.

Amelia Blackwater, an autistic Super Contributor here on The Mighty, describes some causes of burnout, explaining, “Autistic burnout is usually attributed to prolonged masking or mimicking neurotypical behavior. However, burnout can also be caused by not getting enough time to oneself, stress, sleep deprivation, illness, and sensory or emotional overstimulation.”

At the beginning of August, I experienced an autistic burnout when the hospital I’ve been employed for 14 years switched from 8-hour to 12-hour shifts. This change in routine caused me to feel overwhelmed and emotionally drained. I began to dread this change in routine and its impact on my life. I had a few catastrophe thoughts like: “What if my body cannot take 12-hour shifts and I get a leg injury from all those hours on my feet?” and “What if emotionally I am not able to adjust to the new routine?”

I quickly discovered that 12-hour shifts provide me with extra days to take my daughter Makayla to the park and pool and speaking events. Before I was working 5 days a week; now it’s only 3 days. The hospital gave us a four-month notice to prepare for the schedule change, so I took a week’s vacation to relax and avoid burnout. This change in routine taught me seven ways to prevent burnout.

1. Prevent autistic burnout by taking a vacation and enjoying life.

Often, I over-commit to speaking events and work. I am a professor of theology, write books and articles, speak at 70 events a year, and work full-time at a hospital. All this makes life super busy. A fun vacation takes my mind off the anxiety of life and helps me slow down. In June, I went to Pictured Rocks in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. My family took the scenic boat tour and we enjoyed seeing the majestic waterfalls. We even got to meet Bigfoot. Next summer, I am planning a weeklong vacation to Minnesota and taking a ride on SpongeBob SquarePants Rock Bottom Plunge at the Mall of America.

Ron and his daughter with a Bigfoot statue.

2. Prevent autistic burnout by avoiding social media like the bubonic plague.

I limit my time reading social media articles and watching the news because I feel my anxiety level increase and blood pressure rise. Especially articles on government policy or videos of natural disasters or injustice. Instead, I read books on subjects that interest me and relax watching comedy movies while eating popcorn with my dog Rudy. Limiting social media will cause your anxiety level to reduce and laughter is good for the soul.

3. Prevent burnout by not stressing over things outside your control.

Don’t feel like you have to change the world — remember you’re not God. Too many people with autism are unhappy because they do not accept the things or circumstances they cannot change. This leads to unnecessary frustration, disappointment, and mental health issues. As my dad warns me, “Use your energy on things you have the power to change. Stressing out over things you have no control over will only lead to disappointment and an early grave.”

Some things we have little ability to change are: work policies, traffic, other people’s ideas and happiness, the past, and the weather. If we desire to reduce anxiety, we should focus on the things we can change like: our mindset, education, health, and work ethic. A positive attitude, eating healthy, and a good work ethic will cause us to feel better about ourselves and our employment situation and less anxiety over the uncertainty of the future.

4. Prevent burnout by connecting with God or your spirituality.

Spiritual disciplines of prayer and meditation cause my anxiety to lessen and me to feel peace knowing that God is in control. After reading the Bible, I feel refreshed and motivated to help others. I love energizing verses like Isaiah 58:10-11, “If you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and strengthen your bones; you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.”

5. Prevent burnout by hanging out with Mother Nature.

I love walking the nature trails and listening to the birds and the sound of the water flowing through the creek. In the morning, when I drop Makayla off at my parents’ house, I love watching the red fox who made his den in their yard. This fox has a reputation for peeking in the windows and stealing hamburgers from my daughter’s picnics. Nature brings a therapeutic healing to the soul and mind.

6. Prevent autistic burnout by unmasking and stimming.

We use a ton of energy masking by camouflaging our autistic quarks, filtering our thoughts, and mimicking neurotypical behaviors. Masking leads to exhaustion. Stimming can refresh our depleted energy. I am refreshed by doing my Bible memory work in my Saturn Ion before work. After speaking, Temple Grandin regains her strength by stimming in front of a mirror for thirty minutes. One of my favorite stimming is a young adult who after work jumps on her trampoline.

7. Prevent autistic burnout by pursuing your passions and interests.

Speaking and writing make me feel refreshed. After speaking on autism and selling my books, my motivation level increases tenfold and I become an Energizer Bunny. Set aside 30 minutes each day for your passions and interests. During your recuperation time, turn off your electronics and focus your attention on the moment. This will release anxiety and create fresh ideas and motivation.

Make a list of triggers that lead to your burnouts and write down coping skills you can incorporate when you feel overwhelmed.

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