Understanding Autistic Burnout

Burnout is a chronic state of stress which leads to physical and emotional exhaustion. It might manifest as anxiety or depression or both.

The Signs Of Physical and Emotional Exhaustion

  • Fatigue: You lack energy and feel more tired than usual.
  • Insomnia: Starts with the occasional bad night and progresses to the inability to sleep or stay asleep.
  • Concentration: Lack of sleep affects concentration and the ability to complete tasks.
  • Physical Symptoms: Palpitations, chest pain, chills, stomach aches, headaches and hundreds of other physical symptoms that make you worry that you are gravely ill which in turn forces you even further down the wormhole.
  • Illness: Your body becomes more susceptible to immune related illness.
  • Appetite: You may lose your appetite or go the other way and over-eat – especially sugary or high-carb foods.

Alongside the physical signs are emotional signs.

  • Loss: of enjoyment about things you love.
  • Negativity: Massive. Black. Cloud.
  • Isolation: Socialising is hard work for most autistic people but during burnout we don’t have the energy or inclination to socialise at all. This includes social media.
  • Detachment: As an autist, I have always felt detached from everybody else but detachment from burnout can be a detachment from everything including yourself.

When you reach this stage it is illness.

A lot of autistic people will reach burnout stage at some point in their lives. The reason is that trying to exist in an NT world is stressful and exhausting and the human body can only take so much battering from stress hormones before it starts to burnout.

Burnout.

Nervous Breakdown.

Shutdown.

Your body has had enough and no longer whispers words of warning to you.

It SCREAMS at you to do something!

The whispers started for me as a small child when I constantly felt sick or threw up and was living in a constant state of fear.

The whispers got louder as a teenager when I developed an eating disorder as a way of trying to gain control of my own life.

As a twenty-something the whispers told me that it wasn’t normal to be seeing creatures scurrying across the floor that nobody else could see or imaginary spiders in front of my eyes.

At thirty-something I tried to shut the whispers up with alcohol.

At 44 I had my first nocturnal panic attack.

At 46 years of age I had a nervous breakdown.

Physically and mentally, I burned out.

Why do autistic people burn out?

The more ‘highly functioning’ we are, the more is expected of us and the more we push ourselves beyond our comfort zones. People can’t see what’s going on inside of us, they just see somebody who ‘looks’ normal. The effort it takes to be able to pull this off is phenomenal and sooner or later the consequences will be burnout.

A lot of autistic people suffer from anxiety and anxiety means fear. We fear walking out of the front door into a noisy and confusing world. We fear having to socialise. We fear having to make small conversation at work. We fear losing control. We fear people being able to see past our pretence of being neurotypical. We fear rejection. We fear there being no escape route.

We fear.

And fear is a very physical thing.

Our hearts beat faster – our bodies constantly primed to fight or run. The fight or flight response is triggered over and over again and it takes longer for our bodies to recover. Even the fittest of us will eventually succumb to illness – physical, mental or both. And once you’ve broken down you’re never the same. It’s an invisible scar. As if life wasn’t already tough enough? Now there is this fragility about you. The difference is that by now you know you have to take better care of yourself and your needs.

You learn to say no.

You learn to let go of people/situations that drain you.

You accept your limitations.

You will hang up the neurotypical ‘skin suit’ for good.

Skin suit?

If you’ve ever seen the movie Men in Black you’ll be familiar with the ‘bug’ who comes to Earth. The alien nicks farmer Edgar’s skin so he can look less, er, conspicuous. Only it’s not his skin, so it doesn’t fit. He looks weird and it makes him super cranky because it feels shit to be wearing someone else’s skin. A bit like trying to cram yourself into a very small size ten jeans when you are a generous twelve..

Feeling ‘alien’ is a feeling that a lot of autistic people identify with. We feel like we don’t belong here and many of us pretend to be neurotypical in order to not stand out. It’s an act and acting requires effort. When we shut the outside world out, it’s such a relief to finally be us.

My breakdown coincided with my diagnosis and even though recovery from mental illness has been long and laborious, I’m finally free of the constricting neurotypical suit I’ve been inhabiting for the majority of my life.

I feel lighter.

I don’t push myself to be ‘normal’ anymore.

If I can’t go to social functions I don’t beat myself up about it.

If I can’t face shopping in the supermarket, I’ll do it online.

I haven’t given up on life, I just find ways that make living a little easier.

When I get overwhelmed I shut myself away like I have always done. The difference is that I no longer feel guilty about it. People will think what they want to, anyway. It’s no longer about them.

It’s about me.

“Wildflower; pick up your pretty little head,
It will get easier, your dreams are not dead.”
― Nikki Rowe

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