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Preventing and Recovering from Autistic Burnout

Burnout is a type of exhaustion brought on by chronic stress. Autistic burnout is specifically the type of burnout Autistic people experience when attempting to cope in a world not made for them without adequate support. I've also written a post for caregivers found here.

Causes of burnout
Autistic people may attempt to hide behaviors that identify them as Autistic--even if they have not yet been identified as Autistic. Usually referred to as masking, attempting to suppress parts of oneself is one source of burnout. This tendency to mask is an adaptation taken on in order to try to be more like non-Autistic people and meet expectations for behaviors, interests, mannerisms, work habits, and more. Masking is a response Autistic people learn when confronted with their non-conformity either from others or from self-realization.

All Autistics are likely to experience masking. Autistics who have less control over their bodies such as those with motor planning conditions and impulse control issues are also very likely trying to prevent themselves from engaging in behaviors they are aware others judge. As a mother of a non-speaking Autistic girl with a communication method, she reports very often trying to control herself in various settings. This often leads to a meltdown later such as in the phenomenon known as after-school restraint collapse.

In addition to masking, there are other types of chronic stress that can lead to Autistic burnout.

Chronic sensory triggers can lead to burnout, especially if coupled with other stressors. Sharing an experience from my own life, living in a city was a source of chronic sensory triggers for me. Constant noise, even at night, upstairs neighbors always moving around on creaking floors, constant activity, frequent encounters with people invading personal space, smells from pleasant and unpleasant sources, and a vague discomfort from a lack of sensory peace made relaxation impossible for me. Adding to that working a full-time job and going to college full-time led me to my first experience with burnout.

Big life transitions can also lead to burnout in some cases. An unwanted change like losing a job or ending a relationship can give an Autistic person a substantial blow that can be more difficult to recover from. No one likes these events, but for an Autistic person, a sudden negative change can lead to feelings of having one's world disintegrate around them. It can lead to an existential crisis of purpose and meaning.

Burnout can also be triggered by having negative and invalidating relationships. Autistic people tend to be intensely connected to their environments and everything in them. If an Autistic person has relationships with people in their lives who routinely invalidate their experiences, criticize them, gaslight them, or abuse them, they may be more likely to experience burnout.

Related to relationships, poor boundaries can also lead to burnout. Examples of boundary permeability that may lead to burnout are: being coerced into activities the Autistic person doesn't want to do especially if these activities are ethically questionable for the Autistic person; taking on emotional labor that becomes too much to manage; being unable to say no to others' requests for other types of labor; not getting sufficient down time from work, caregiving, or other roles. Experiencing chronic invalidation in relationships is damaging to the self and the relationships. Invalidating environments in childhood can be a factor in other issues as well such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). BPD is a condition with some clinical symptom overlap with Autism. It can co-occur with Autism or be a misdiagnosis as well as other conditions that are commonly given in place of Autism, especially in women and girls.

Preventing Autistic Burnout
Awareness around masking
Whether you were early or late identified as Autistic, you may have learned to mask when you were able to in order to fit in. Take an inventory of your behavior. How often are you supressing parts of yourself and your behaviors or faking for other peoples' benefit? Once you are aware of these times, make decisions about how often this is needed.

Some Autistics recommend dropping the mask altogether. If you feel safe doing that and you have social support, this can be very beneficial. I don't want to be prescriptive because everyone's situations are different. If you feel there are setting and situations you need to mask, that's ok. Continue to consider the costs and benefits to you of masking. But in no uncertain terms, you can not mask all (or even most) of the time without consequences to your long-term health. Total masking takes a toll, and it also interfere with other people liking you for your authentic self.

Find your people
It's my personal experience that neurodivergent people often find each other naturally and make meaningful connections. There are studies that show that neurotypical individuals can identify an Autistic person within seconds of watching them speak without knowing they are "Autistic" just that they were viewed less favorably.

I would argue that Autistics can also identify other Autistics but judge them more favorably. Autistic people communicate well with each other. Communication barriers become evident when non-Autistic people and Autistic people communicate. It's likely that you already have some connections in your life with people who get you, but you can find communities of Autistics and those who suspect they are Autistic along with individuals with other diagnoses that may be a place for fellowship. Online spaces are a great place for this. Start searching for Autistic content creators on your favorite platforms, interact with posts and let the algorhythms do the rest for you. Autistics are represented on all platforms. This can also lead to self-discovery and self-knowledge, which are tools to gain self- love and compassion, which help keep burnout at bay.

In your everyday life, try to lean into relationships with other neurodivergent people--even if they don't know they are. Acceptance is key to quality relationships and mental health. Supportive relationships can help fight burnout.

Stimming and special interests
Under the DSM, stims and special interests fall under the category of repetitive and restrictive behaviors or interests. For Autistics, this is where you find joy.

Allow yourself to engage in physical stims that feel good to you. Some stims are socially acceptable like bouncing a knee, clicking a pen, or slightly swaying. Some stims don't fly under the radar as easily, but what matters most is that stimming is a regulating tool. Stims are a place to process stress, impatience and boredom. Stims can also be akin to meditation bringing total awareness to the body in the present moment. Stims are often about pleasant sensory experiences. Stims can stimulate any of the senses. Engaging in stims is a healthy way to manage unpleasantness and to increase calm.

Special interests are your "things." Those areas where you find your attention rapt, where you might find yourself a subject matter expert, those subjects where if you hear a person speaking on the topic from across the room, you are either compelled or sorely tempted to walk on over and and drop some knowledge. Indulge yourself in your things. They may come and go and change. Let them. When a new one comes along, go with it. I have had special interests that we all encompassing and then faded to the background like my total obsession with the Titanic from an early age. Other special interests have been with me forever like my interest in infectious diseases or interior design. Find venues to share your passion with others who appreciate the same things. Stimming and engaging in your special interests will give you joy, and joy goes a long way.

Completing the stress cycle
Excellent advice from burnout experts Amelia and Emily Nagaski should not be missed. In their book, Burnout: The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle, they discuss the importance of giving our stress an outlet. Stimmimg is a way to reduce stress. The Nagoskis recommend physical activities, getting oxytocin from hugging people you care for (if you enjoy hugging) and quality sleep.

Protecting your spoons
Spoon theory is a metaphor for quantifying mental, emotional, physical energy to accomplish tasks. It's used by people with chronic conditions including Autism to explain their levels of "task currency" available to spare. If you begin to consider your "spoons" or energy, you will be more likely to consider your ability to meet the energetic demands of certain tasks. Spoon theory can help you set boundaries in your personal and professional life. It can help you determine if your current job is sustainable as work can be one of the largest drains on one's energy (or cost the most spoons). Protecting your spoons for things you want to use them on can help you determine where you want to cut from when you find yourself at a deficit.

Formal supports
Formal supports are those that come from professionals or people paid for their time. Examples include therapy, government paid supports like Medicaid, your instacart delivery person, a housecleaner, etc. Obviously formal supports are not accessible to everyone at all times, but if you have an opportunity to use any tools that provide you with help, take it. If you are able to access talk therapy and find a good match, it can be a wonderful way to heal from past traumas, process current needs, problem solve, and make plans for your future. If you qualify for any government assistance, this is also a support that you should use because it's designed to increase positive outcomes for you.

If it's an option for you to pay people to do tasks like cleaning or delivering groceries, those are spoons in the bank--even if it's only occasionally.

Preventing burnout should be on every Autistic person's mind, but evenso, it's not always possible to prevent it.

Signs of burnout
Autistic burnout can vary from person to person and can include:
  • symptoms of depression

  • irritability

  • intolerance to sensory stimuli

  • an increasing inability to mask

  • a loss of functions or skills

  • The true trademark of burnout is pervasive exhaustion

Burnout sets up house and spreads throughout all aspects of an Autistic person's life. Burnout can happen at points of milestones in an Autistic person's life or at the confluence of multiple stressors, or even just one. Burnout isn't an identical experience because, thinking of spoon theory, not all Autistics have the same resources.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between depression and burnout, the differentiation may be difficult to test as well. It's that in depression, removing sources of stress does not impact symptoms. In burnout, there should be some improvement when the stressors are relieved. However, the process of recovering from burnout will take time.

Recovering from burnout
Burnout is a major life event, and recovery should be treated as a process that requires care and kindness from yourself and others. My advice for other Autistics and for professionals and family members supporting Autistics on how to cultivate recovery from burnout is to use the prevention tools plus two others.

I'll start with a very quick review of the topics covered above. A recovery plan from burnout should include:
  • Focusing on being your authentic self, dropping your mask, or only using it sparingly.

  • Surround yourself with supportive and understanding people in real life and in online spaces. Other Autistics will hype you up like no one else and support you like no neurotypical person could.

  • Use your innate tools of self-soothing--your stims--and your beloved special interests to bolster and comfort you. I'll also add here to focus on your sensory needs as well.

  • Giving your stress and appropriate outlet

  • Shield your energy (hoard your spoons).

  • Seek formal supports to fill in the spaces where you need more support (wherever possible).

Here's my plus 2
  • Rest. Do less. Rest in all aspects of your life. Quiet quit at work, lean on family, friends and partners, meditate and Netflix your way to feeling fully rested. Rest is related to hoarding your spoons. You need them right now: conserve. Bow out of obligations until you're really ready to do more. Self-care, self-care, self-care.

  • Change something. This is my own secret sauce to burnout recovery. Look straight at the thing that is the biggest soul suck in your life and "yeet" it. If it's truly something you can not change, change something else. Change your hair--but think very seriously about cutting bangs--find a new job, dump the bad partner, paint your walls, move your furniture, move to a new state, a new country!, if you are able to provide care, get a pet, start writing, start a business, get a new special interest--give yourself a spark.

Recovering from burnout is possible. Give yourself the best chances for avoiding burnout and recovering by being your authentic self, surrounding yourself with accepting people, and resting.

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