Long read: 8 minutes
Trigger warning: brief mention of suicidality Want to support this blog?: Read to the end to find out how!
What is autistic burnout?
If you’re reading this post, you might already know what autistic burnout is. Don’t worry, the 4 recovery steps are coming soon!
However, you might not be sure whether or not you’re burnt out. You might be reading to help someone else. For this reason, we’re starting with what autistic burnout is and how it can be experienced. So we need to begin with WORK burnout.
Work burnout is when working people:
- Have a feeling of energy depletion/exhaustion
- Experience increased mental distances from job/feelings of cynicism
- Experience reduced professional efficacy (World Health Organisation, 2o13)
But that’s only for people in WORK.
Actually, I think the World Health Organisation’s view of burnout should be expanded. It should reflect any human who is battling to cope with an environment that isn’t right for their needs.
Burnout is the result of trying to stay afloat in life circumstances that take away from you instead of helping you flourish.
Very many adults work so this is the reason why we think work is where burnout happens. Sometimes it does happen at work.
But burnout happens in other places too, and for other reasons. It happens A LOT for autistic people who are trying to fit in, cope, be normal, and get on with a career…
…Especially if they’re undiagnosed and don’t know that they need to specifically engineer their life to suit them.
Autistic burnout overlaps with work-related burnout. However, autistic burnout is intense, debilitating and might not be about work (just life demands/expectations). It can result in severe loss of function.
In many cases, depression and persistent suicidal feelings are sadly very common. (Please watch this talk from researcher Dora Raymaker on her excellent work on autistic burnout to learn more.)
My own autistic burnout
My first major autistic burnout ruined my life. It’s no exaggeration to say that.
I gained weight. I couldn’t sleep. I cried all the time. I was irritable and snappy and impossible to live with. My relationship ended. I wanted to die. It was a very bad time in my life. It took months to begin to recover.
I knew I wanted to live and get better, though. And, being a researcher and an optimist, I knew I could find out how to do it. All I had to do was research a bit.
I found four steps for dealing with autistic burnout which seem to help. I have used these steps many times now to stave off or recover from episodes of autistic burnout.
Let me tell you what you need to do if you think you are experiencing an episode of autistic burnout or feel close…
What are the four steps to combatting autistic burnout?
1 Stop immediately
If you realise you are approaching burnout, you have to stop as much as you can as quickly as you can. This is essential for your health and the amount you will be able to recover.
Burnout is related to massive drains on our energy and brain resources.
If you are in burnout, you are in deficit. You cannot handle any more energy withdrawals from the bank. If you keep pushing yourself, you could find yourself without the ability to sleep, eat, wash, move properly.
It’s not worth it. You need to relax and re-energise as a priority.
If you struggle with this or need support, ask friends, family, doctors, coaches – anyone you can draw on – to help you decide what to do. Make a plan with your support network about how you will help yourself.
2 Remove obligations and stressors
A promise is a promise and an obligation is an obligation. Right?
Ordinarily, yes. If you’re like me, if you’ve said you’ll do something, you will want to keep your word. Especially if you like to please people (we’ll do a blog post on that another time…).
However, you should never put work obligations and social obligations above your own health needs.
If you can’t stop crying and can’t look after yourself, it really does not matter that you need to cancel a family meal or that you need to ring in sick. Health comes first.
Remove as many commitments, appointments and potentially taxing events from your diary as you can.
You also need to deal with anything that could cause you stress from a sensory perspective.
Your burnout can be made worse by any disruption and discomfort occurring through your senses. Audit your home and remove any bad smells, noises, mess etc. that could immediately impact on your ability to settle and relax.
Get help to do this if doing it alone is too tiring.
If you can, create just the tiniest cocoon of calm and safety for you to rest and recover in. Then you can…
3 Relax through your senses
Positive sensory experiences are calming and restorative.
What’s your favourite music? Play it. On repeat.
What do you like to eat? Get some.
Do you like baths? Have two a day.
How do you stim? Do loads of it! (Get some infinity cubes or pop-its or something.)
What are your favourite smells? I love rose incense and tobacco scented candles.
What do you like to look at? For me, blue neon lights are delightful…as are the colours of flowers in summer.
Want to feel your body? Get a massive crushing hug. Snuggle a pet. Do some yoga. Get under a weighted blanket. Scratch yourself gently with a loofah. Spin around if you like doing that. Who cares? Embody yourself!
Use your body and your senses to calm down. Relaxing through your senses is the easiest way to recover AND prepare to put energy back into your reserves.
4 Dive into your special interests
I’ve written before about how friends and family sometimes shake their head in consternation because I choose to spend my free time learning.
It’s relaxing to me to watch TEDtalks about positive psychology and about well-being.
It’s relaxing to me to text my study buddy about my latest idea for a research paper.
Then I go for a walk in nature with my dog and think about what I’ve learned, turning over theories in my mind as I walk through the trees and look at the birds.
Many autistic people have very strong passions and large amounts of knowledge about some quite niche topics…these are our special interests.
Plunging headfirst into your special interests is invigorating and absorbing and takes you out of your worries and troubles into a state of flow and engagement.
Your levels of zest increase with increased time following your interests.
When you have sufficient energy, do what makes you feel good. You need to follow your interests to build up your well-being after an episode of severe burnout.
What are your special interests? What do you get lost in that causes you to forget that time is passing? What brings you great joy to know about or make or collect? Whatever your answers here are…that’s what you should do.
How long does recovery take? How much will I recover?
I wanted to end this post by being honest about recovery and autistic burnout.
The lived experience and some recent research around autistic burnout suggests that recovery can take months or even years to happen.
Some people – myself included – report a sense in which you never recover back to how you were before.
For me, I tire quicker and I have less energy overall. This has been a learning curve for me. Friends have found it confusing, not understanding that I can’t do what I used to. Honest conversations with loved ones are important here.
However, it isn’t all doom and gloom by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve been reading about post-traumatic growth…the kind of positive change that happens to some people who experience a traumatic event like a severe burnout.
With this kind of growth, it’s not about recovering to where you were that counts. You got burnt out for a reason. So why do you want to go back? What matters is finding new ways to be. Find your new limits, horizons, challenges, highs and lows.
Engineer your life to suit you and you could grow in ways you never expected…even if you do have some new challenges to contend with.
I became a “real” coach after (and because of) my burnout!
Quitting teaching meant I became a coach!
In any case, to keep your recovery (whatever that means for you) on track, get doctors, friends, family, peer support groups and any relevant pets on board for the journey.
I wish you healing and good luck – let me know if the four steps help!
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Special interests keep me smiling