Autistic burnout is when you’ve pushed yourself too hard for too long, and your brain and body just can’t take it anymore. It’s like trying to move through quicksand, where every step forward is a struggle and eventually, you’re too exhausted to go on. It’s not just from being Autistic – it can happen to anyone who’s overworked and overstressed. However, as an Autistic person, you might be more susceptible to burnout because of the constant demands on your energy and focus, and everyone’s burnout is different.
In Autistic Nottingham, we talk about “Spoon Theory“. This is a theory created by a woman called Christine Miserandino, who has lupus (a long-term health condition). She created the theory to explain to a friend how fatiguing everyday tasks can become when you are chronically ill. She did this by handing her friend a set of spoons and playing a game. Her friend had to talk her through her normal daily routine and for each action she mentions, Christine took one spoon away from the friend. When the friend was out of spoons, she was (in the game) out of energy. (You can read the full story here)
The “Spoon Theory” is now used by many people with chronic/long-term conditions across the world, and gives a great explanation as to why it’s important to take breaks and practice self-care. It also really stresses the difficulty of those everyday tasks and how things like getting up, dressed, and fed can be exhausting in themselves. Many of us have internalised ableism and push ourselves with negative thoughts like “everyone else can do this” and “it’s only a shower, just get on with it”.
It’s important to remember:
Only you know what is challenging and draining
You need to recharge your batteries and give yourself permission to slow down when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
It’s not easy, and unfortunately, it’s not always possible to avoid burnout completely. Many of us will take all the right steps and could still end up with burnout, but with the right tools and support, we can recover and get back on track.
When you have prolonged exposure to stressors such as social demands, sensory overload, and masking. Autistic burnout can manifest as a loss of skills, motivation, and the ability to cope with daily tasks. It can also lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
Recognising these emotions can be hard for some, and that’s understandable. You’re not alone.
As an Autistic person, I’ve experienced burnout firsthand.
There have been times when I’ve pushed myself too hard to keep up with the demands of daily life, and eventually, my body and mind just couldn’t take it anymore. I would lose my ability to focus, my motivation to complete tasks, and my desire to interact with others. It was a very difficult time for me, and I knew I needed to find ways to cope with my burnout and avoid it in the future.
One of the most important things I’ve learned is to prioritise self-care.
This means taking the time to do things that make me feel happy and relaxed, such as knitting/ crochet, spending time with my cats, or just taking part in my crafts.
Self-care also means being mindful of my sensory needs and taking breaks when I feel overstimulated.
For example, I might take a break from social interactions if I feel overwhelmed, or wear noise-canceling headphones in a noisy environment. If I feel under-stimulated, I will keep myself busy with many many tasks until I meet those needs. It’s about finding what your needs are and how to manage them, and I believe me, I know that is the hardest part.
Another strategy that has helped me manage my burnout is setting realistic goals and boundaries.
As an Autistic person with ADHD, I tend to take on too much at once and try to do everything perfectly. However, this often leads to burnout because it’s simply not sustainable. Instead, I try to set smaller, achievable goals for myself and prioritise my tasks based on what’s most important. I also try to communicate my needs and limitations to others so that they can better understand how to support me, despite this being so difficult. Having a support system where no one judges you – is extremely beneficial.
In addition to self-care strategies and setting realistic goals and boundaries, seeking therapy has also been helpful for me in managing my burnout. Personally, I have found a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and person-centered therapy to be effective. However, it’s important to note that everyone is different and what works for me may not work for someone else. It’s essential to work with a therapist to find the right therapy that suits your individual needs.
If you are not ready to take the step to talk to a professional, there is still a lot you can do at home by yourself. There are many places you can download free mental health workbooks on a variety of conditions and stressors:
Finally, I’ve found it helpful to connect with other Autistic individuals and neurodivergent communities. Being able to share my experiences with others who understand what I’m going through has been incredibly validating and empowering. It has also given me the opportunity to learn new strategies for coping with burnout and other challenges.
In conclusion, avoiding and recovering from autistic burnout is not always easy, but it’s important to prioritize self-care, set realistic goals and boundaries, seek therapy, and connect with supportive communities. By taking care of ourselves and seeking the support we need, we can build coping skills and prevent burnout from taking over our lives. Just remember to take it one spoon at a time!