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Discovering autism

Autistic burnout

This article is an illustration of how autistic burnout can escalate to chronic burnout if we don't have right perspective of what we are doing that is contributing to this happening.

I was diagnosed with autism last year in November at the age of 64, and now realise I have been in autistic burnout my whole life. The only way I can manage the damage this has done to my mental, and physical health is to lead a reclusive life away from people and society most of the time. I am retired now and don’t choose to have friends or a social life either.

I don’t believe an autistic person will ever fully recover from burnout as there are too many contributing factors that lead to burnout in autistic people that a non-autistic person doesn’t face. I don’t think many are also aware that their emotions can and do lead to sensory overload and also contribute to autistic burnout.

An autistic person must also have very good self-awareness, thus they understand their patterns very well and what led to them to reaching full blown burnout stage. They also must be willing to accept their limitations, and not to repeat these patterns otherwise they will find themselves in the same place again. Many do find themselves back their again because they are in denial that won’t happen again and give in to the pressures of a neurotypical world and expectations.

Travelling or a holiday would be a sensory nightmare for me and would only make burnout worse even if I wanted to do it which I don’t. Many will also not have the financial support or privilege of taking 4 months off work or whatever they need. Of course, what works for one person to find some recovery from burnout will not work for another and sadly many don’t have the support to really recover enough from autistic burnout.

Many autistic people will experience burnout in their lives. Some never really recover properly from burnout as the issues that cause autistic burnout accumulate again. Of course, changing lifestyle, and acceptance of what we are really capable of will go a long way to lessening the chance of burnout. Will at least in theory because constantly living in a neurotypical world dictates expectations, and demands most autistic people cannot sustain if at all. The constant masking it requires is very damaging to mental and physical wellbeing and takes a long time to come back from.

Many things can contribute to autistic burnout, like sensory overload, overwhelm, masking, and doing things beyond our real capabilities. Many autism people will use their anxiety to propel themselves. Those who have done this for a long period of time know the consequences this has had on their mental health, and it takes a long time to recover from this.

Its also not uncommon for very late diagnosis to experience autistic regression and become unable to succeed in life, as before. The realisation of what they have been experiencing for years was chronic masking to obtain this, and due to the lack of awareness they were in a constant state of overload seems to trigger a shutdown.

We can also experience sensory overload by our own emotions which can contribute to burnout. Burnout can be also triggered by many things piling up, transitions in life and navigating a neurotypical world. In this state many things will start to feel like a demand.

Most doctors don't understand what autistic burnout is so often diagnose someone with depression or something else related. I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression but I was not suffering from depression. When I experience overload and overwhelm, I need to withdraw from the world around me to recover, so need as little sensory triggers as possible. Clinicians failed to notice as soon as I recovered, I was no longer presenting to them as depressed. I do have co-occurring GAD, and social anxiety which I have had it all my life, but it now know it is fuelled by being autistic.

Of course, it's possible have both depression and autistic burnout. It's best to see someone who actually works with and understands the difference between autistic burnout and depression, and also recognises when a person has both, thus the depression is often co-occurring to autism. The most important thing is getting to know ourselves so we can advocate better for ourselves, and avoid the autism going under the radar by clinicians.

Autistic burnout displays differently in each of us but there are several stages we all seem to go through which are red flags of burnout ahead, along with all the things we do to rationalise we have a handle on it while it is escalating. Being able to manage it or understand burnout requires good perspective and being more present with what’s going on in the present, thus being aware of what are we doing that is contributing to burnout.

Sometimes we set ourselves up for burnout before we have even started. For instance, when we start to get interested in something new and become fixated on it, and then fool ourselves we can stick to some time-consuming routine that isn’t realistic. During this process we may tell ourselves we've got this, and only need to do a few tweaks here and there to stay on top of it. At this stage we are unaware that we have already told this story to ourselves before but are adamant it will be different this time.

Now that the pattern has established itself and is in full swing of the routine some stresses start to develop but we stay with the routine. We may use self-talk like we can do everything we have planned even though the reality of this is not real. Other regular routines that normally keep us stable then start become harder to follow, and we find ourselves being distracted by a whole of things that take us away from getting anything done.

This is where a lot of rationalising may now start to creep in more. For instance, we may be telling ourselves we can still do it all and will just do more tomorrow to catch up, and then all will be on track again, and I will be more relaxed. By this time, we may be feeling fatigued, are having more trouble staying with it, feeling ungrounded and stims may also start to get more intense to regulate overwhelm and sensory overload.

Now anxiety is making it hard to stay on the ground and the slightest of things make us annoyed and jumpy. We are now overthinking as the anxiety starts to ramp up more as we beat ourselves up for not being able to stick to the plan. We may start to fall asleep during the day, have more difficulty sleeping at might, and our eating routine goes haywire such as skipping meals replacing it with snacking instead.

Our thoughts are now all over the place, our heart rate is thumping, and we may experience more social anxiety, panic attack and melt downs, but still we push ourselves thinking we can work our way out of this if we just get a good night’s rest and become more strict tomorrow. Unfortunately, we wake up the next morning feeling more anxious and fatigued than ever. We start to withdraw from any social engagements or appointments and start making excuses for not wanting to come.

We’re now experiencing chronic burnout and are crippled by exhaustion and anxiety. We can’t seem to make any decisions that support our well-being, yet we don’t ask for help and mask what’s going on. Negative talk now becomes very marked, and we feel we are not good enough and should have done everything differently. We start to take poor care of ourselves and can't keep up with daily activities or interact well with the people in our lives. We react more and argue with loved ones and have more meltdowns. We may distance from everything and become reclusive to shut the world out.

The sooner we start to recognise the patterns that lead to full blown burnout, the sooner we can stop it escalating into dangerous territory of chronic depression and the inability to work our way out of it with more ease. To prevent burnout in the future we need to maintain a better perspective by not putting inflexible plans into place, and letting go of unrealistic expectations of ourselves to perform in life.

We need to look after our sensory issues by giving ourselves the accommodations we need to maintain more peace in our lives. Early signs of sensory overload are a warning to pull back, take rest and avoid the triggers that escalate the stress that contributed to burnout developing. Gaining self-acceptance keeps things real without the need to mask the struggles we are experiencing, thus we will be more likely to ask for help when we need it.

  • Trauma sensitive mindfulness
  • Sensory processing issues
  • Autism and identity
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