Updated: May 30, 2021
Believe it or not. Autistic burnout tends to be a thing discussed mainly by other autistic adults and not really much is known about it by actual medical professionals.
However it is a thing. A horrible thing I wouldn't wish on anyone and it tends to mainly be caused by masking and disruption to a routine.
This year I have been through 4 autistic burnouts and I suffer with imposter syndrome often. One autistic burnout back in March was particularly bad and led to lots of meltdowns, tears and an inability to function executively.
March was a bad month. It was month 3 of a lockdown, a lockdown just about to end with a routine about to change with having to go back into the office and also I was out of sync with my training due to the Covid Jab causing a very high heart rate and cellulitis from a blister on the foot.
A culmination of these things led to a very bad burnout which led to lots of tears and managers having to provide extra support and a partner just having to leave me be and let me heal.
Autistic burnout for me is where my brain goes into survival mode. It is very similar to windows safe mode. Where a computer that tends to have a few glitches (come on it is Windows) and then you over work it by clicking too many buttons at once and it crashes. You switch it off and it restarts in safe mode.
That right there is autistic burnout. It is trying so hard to meet everyone's expectations and as soon as something in your routine is about to change or does change it just tips you over the edge and you break.
Burnout is horrible. The effort you have to put in to make conversation, make eye contact, be generally polite and perform to the expectation you have set just becomes impossible. Literally it is impossible. My brain shuts off and burnout for me is actually pretty dangerous. I tend not really care about my personal well being and will often do stupid things just to feel alive. I don't mean things like cutting myself but things like finding a big hill to ride down with my hands away from the break. Doing something silly and out of character just to feel something.
I sleep a lot, I turn my phone off, I will avoid conversations and be quiet in group huddles. I will not contribute. Even the tone in my voice will be deadpan. I cry for no reason (and I never cry) my ability to engage is zero. I will not participate in sports with people and opt for solo sports such as going out for a run or swim. I will not entertain shopping that will be left to my partner and if I do go it will be with my headphones on.
The worst part of burnout is you don't know how long it will last. I am lucky as mine tend to only last for a week or so. I know some autistic people who have had it for years.
Working full time is really stressful for me when burnout happens. It is a massive conflict of interest. I do not take time off sick when burnouts happen as I know my job well enough to get by in safe mode. However, it is stressful because people are used to masking Lucy. When burnout happens the mask is gone. I am at my most vulnerable. This is where being open with my managers has been the game changer. They appreciate the effort and hard work I put into masking and therefore in these moments there are things very much in place to help me do my job. They are not things that cost the company money. They are things such as time outs, I can leave the office whenever I need to. I can ask for 5 minutes to vent off the floor. I have strategies and options and feel very much in control and supported. Managers are quick to notice a change in my tone and reach out and remind me to have lunch and take a break. I do not find being sat next to my managers intimidating. I find it comforting. It also means others are less likely to distract me.
It may sound stupid that at 32 I have to be reminded it is OK to take a break or eat something but when you are autistic you tend to hyper focus on the task in hand. Therefore it is easy to forget to eat. An example of this was at University and also during A Levels I would often stay up at 3-4am to perfect an essay or piece of coursework. I would lose weight because I would sit for 5 - 7 hours revising or doing coursework. It takes a tremendous amount of effort but once the work is done the brain will also be done.
People will often comment about how hard working or determined/disciplined I am. However, I don't fail. I will do anything to achieve what is expected of me and that is what makes me a great employee and what made me a great student.
The danger is that to many people autistic burnout is perceived as being uncharacteristic for me. However, I am lucky I have people around me who make the time to understand me and know exactly how to support me in these moments because I recognise what I need in these moments and have had conversations with my managers about the things they need to spot and also how they can help and they do. This makes all the difference to autistic people. It gives us confidence and helps us to recover from burnout quicker and also makes them less likely to happen in the first instance.
You may be thinking "if autistic burnout is so bad why let it get that far"
The thing is being autistic I really struggle to understand how I am feeling. Most people know when they are feeling happy or sad but I do not. I just kind of get through the day and the times I feel something are conveyed in a physical way. If I am really happy I will show it in my body by jumping or punching the air. I will not be able to contain the emotion. Likewise if I am really sad it will also be equally as hard to control and will present as anger through frustration at being sad. If I am worried I will be physically sick.
So when burnout comes it is not through lack of trying to not let it happen. It tends to be when things are going well. I will push myself a little bit harder and take advantage of the extra energy I have and be super productive and then comes the crash. I do not think this will ever change. From the wave follows the crash.
Pre Diagnosis this was diagnosed as depression. All the records in my 20s will show a history of depression, suicidal thoughts and medication (that didn't work) for these things. When all along it was a series of burnouts after University through trying to get by in a world not designed for me...
I have worked for some truly amazing people pre diagnosis who took the time to get to know me and understand me and thus it enabled me to get by, however I have also worked for some truly awful people and companies who said some very damaging things to me that have left me with a massive lack of confidence in my ability and prospective career opportunities. My new company is healing this at present and restoring my faith in employers that they are not all bad. I go to companies where I will feel comfortable and be able to be myself with my gif comms on teams and geeky interests.
I am back in the office 3-4 times a week at present. There is flexibility around this and I can do more or less depending how I feel. Last week I worked 4 days and was only meant to work for 3 days. I actually asked to come in on Friday rather than work from home as I was enjoying the company and also the support I was getting from my managers. I like talking and socialising. It is just sometimes the environment is overwhelming and that's when I need my time.