My name is Alisa and I’m passionate about raising awareness of autism, as well as improving the lives of fellow autistic people by sharing information, resources and my own experiences on my page @autieadvice. In this blog post, I will be talking about autistic burnout.
What is autistic burnout?
Autistic burnout is the result of long periods of masking, sensory overstimulation, too many executive function demands and stress.
Depending on the individual, autistic burnout may present itself as a constant feeling of physical exhaustion, intense anxiety, overwhelming sadness and angry outbursts. It may increase autistic traits such as stimming, repetitive movements, difficulty adjusting to change and sensory sensitivity. Autistic burnout looks very similar to depression. In many cases, autistic people suffer from depression as a result of burnout.
Leading up to a burnout, an autistic person will often experience shutdowns or meltdowns. These are both reactions to being overstimulated, being forced to mask and experiencing stress. The difference is how they present themselves. Think of a shutdown as an implosion, and a meltdown as an explosion. A person experiencing a shutdown will freeze and keep their distress inside. They may be non-verbal, unable to stim and experience a feeling of numbness. A person experiencing a meltdown will show their distress outwardly. They will be verbally loud, cry, scream and show aggression. They may stim and move repetitively. Some people experience both, some people experience just one or the other. They can happen at any age and at any place on the spectrum.
Can burnout be prevented?
The short answer is yes, it’s possible. There is no simple cure-all. It takes self-knowledge and self-awareness to know your triggers and warning signs to prevent it from happening in the first place, and solutions may differ from person to person. Some common early warning signs of burnout are frequent shutdowns/meltdowns, a feeling of physical exhaustion, and decreased interest in hobbies and special interests.
The most important thing is to know yourself. Think back to the times when you had a shutdown/meltdown and try to figure out what triggered it. Was it caused by bright lights and loud music? Or sensory issues from uncomfortable clothing? Was your schedule too full? Were you sleep-deprived? It’s important to know which situations trigger you, so that you can come up with a plan for the next time you encounter it.
Preparation is your best tool. You can carry sunglasses and earbuds/ear defenders with you, or take along a pouch of fidgets and things that are sensory-pleasing. Perhaps it would help you to learn information about an event before it takes place, such as how many people will be attending and what time it will be over.
If you can, ask for accommodations at your school or workplace. Some accommodations could include leaving class 5 minutes early to avoid crowded hallways, being allowed to use ear defenders, fidget tools or other things that would normally be considered a distraction. At work, you could ask to work from home, have a separate office space or a calming space to go to when you’re overstimulated.
Plan to take recovery days after big events, trips, family gatherings, etc. Give yourself time to mentally prepare for it, and time to recover when it’s over. Take breaks throughout your day to stim in a place where you feel comfortable.
During a burnout, it is crucial to avoid things that will further overstimulate you or drain your energy. Many people overcome burnout by simply resting and waiting it out. For me personally, it meant taking a semester-long break from school. For others, it may mean changing jobs or giving up certain responsibilities.
If you are experiencing burnout right now, please ask for help from a medical professional and the people who care about you. You do not have to endure it alone. In addition to getting professional help, you can try to make small changes to improve your mental health. For example, you can try to get some fresh air every day, fill a water bottle every morning to sip throughout the day and try to have a consistent sleep schedule. Find an outlet for your emotions, such as creating art or keeping a journal.
The key to recovery is rest, so take your time.