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Autistic Burnout

We've all heard people talk about 'burnout', though the majority of the time this is in reference to work. Maybe someone's been putting in too much overtime and has too many tight deadlines, or maybe they've taken up a stressful role where they're on-call more. But there's a kind of burnout that the majority of autistic people will have experienced that may not even have anything to do with employment; actually, this type of burnout can occur just from fighting to survive in a world that isn't designed for us. Things that most people wouldn't even think twice about can present challenges, and when these things build up too high, we simply shut down. The demand has exceeded the resources.

So what is autistic burnout, and what are these demands that lead to it? Up until now I've remained relatively private about my own experiences as a neurodivergent person, but the importance of speaking up about the struggles faced by autistic people that lead to complete mental and physical burnout outweighs my desire for privacy. I know that when I share my experiences of autistic burnout, I won't be alone in my experiences, and I certainly won't be the last autistic person to go through such a thing.

I recall vividly my time at secondary school and that feeling of grasping on with both hands as I mentally and physically felt as though I was free falling. The social expectations and pressure we're put under is particularly brutal during adolescence, though continues to be a contributor to burnout in adulthood for most of us. A little while ago I did a post on 'masking' and the terrible side-effects it can have, both in the short-term and the long-term, one being burnout. It's exceptionally challenging to deny who you truly are on a regular basis; it takes conscious energy, and drains us like a battery. This was my experience for my entire adolescence; combined with being in a sensorily intense environment, the pressure to conform left me feeling 'tired but wired'; exhausted, but always 'on edge'.

Whilst masking alone can lead to burnout, often it'll be part of a larger tapestry of things. Whilst adolescence can be a particularly brutal time for many autistic people, adulthood brings with it a sense of responsibility. Living in a society where our worth is largely placed on 'what we do' and whether we're making money, autistic adults can feel overwhelmed with pressure to be in employment, and when that fails, or we find ourselves struggling because we're not in an environment that's in-synch with our needs, we feel as though there's something 'wrong' with us. So we keep pushing ourselves until we can't push ourselves anymore...until we have pushed ourselves over the edge in our attempts to 'keep up'.

This is the problem: we're running to a different neurotype's standard/way of being, and as far as we have come with neurodiversity, we're still finding ourselves pressured to go with the 'norm'. I had an interesting experience last year with an organisation who claimed to be 'disability-friendly' and claimed inclusivity, yet when it came to making a minor adjustment due to selective mutism, I was met with challenge at the first hurdle. Many autistic people, when faced with these hurdles, rather than being able to self-advocate simply push themselves beyond their boundaries, because the constant expectations to 'be' a certain way are so waring. So we're met with two options:

1. Give in and do things the way we're expected to, but feel the consequences (anxiety, high energy expenditure, potential meltdown/shutdown) or:

2. Stand our ground and experience the discomfort of confrontation

Either way, being constantly forced in to this situation time and again is exhausting, and perhaps a contributing factor to why many autistic people, though lonely, feel it best to avoid being around people, rather than face this pressure.

You may be wondering what the answer is as many of us find ourselves in this lose-lose situation. Of course, we need to keep fighting for our rights and for acceptance (or supporting the people/organisations who do) to spread the neurodiversity and inclusion message as far and wide as we can, so we can eventually simply exist as ourselves, but in the mean time we need to (as selfish as it may sound to some) put our wellbeing at the forefront of our priorities. Below are some considerations.

  1. Develop an activity 'traffic light' system. Very taxing commitments are 'red', moderately taxing commitments are 'amber' and less taxing commitments are 'green'. I personally avoid more than one 'red' or 'amber' activity each day if possible, spreading them out over the week to allow for time to 'recoup'.

  2. 'Detox' your life! Have you taken on too many commitments and are feeling the pressure? Sometimes when we have several things going on we can feel like we're spreading ourselves too thin. Write down all of your commitments (e.g. university, employment, projects etc.) and see if you can get even a little leeway with them. For example, can you postpone a project until you finish a university assignment? Can you afford to go part-time? Can you get rid of any unnecessary commitments that you're not passionate about?

  3. Sometimes we find ourselves in an unavoidable situation that we know is going to leave us depleted of mental and physical energy. Maybe you have a day out you're expected to attend but you know it's going to be too long for you, or a birthday party that you know will be sensorily difficult? This is when you need to prepare, in order to lessen the blow in the aftermath. Can you make sure you have a quiet room to escape to? Or can you take your communication cards in case you begin finding it difficult to speak? The aim here is to lessen the pressure you're under in little ways.

If you haven't already, you can read more about autistic burnout on my social media. Search '@coachrobinrees' on instagram, facebook, and TikTok.

We're in this together!

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