Autistic burnout seems to be a common problem that is not openly addressed very often. So I thought I would talk about it today. Burnout is something I have gone through more than once already, and I’m only 35.
In psychology, burnout is described as “long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in work. The symptoms of burnout are similar to those of clinical depression” (according to U.S. National Library of Medicine).
I’ve heard about burnout a lot as it refers to people being burned out as a result of stress on the job. In fact, the first time I experienced burnout, I attributed it to work-related stress rather than aspergers since I had not yet been diagnosed. I had no idea at that time that autism burnout was a thing or that I was experiencing anything to do with autism.
At the time, I was 23. I had been working in a stressful job, working 12-hour days, often working on weekends without much if any time off. I had been doing this work for a few years and had been keeping up this intense schedule for over a year. Then my father died. At the time I thought I was having some kind of nervous breakdown. In retrospect, it was like going through an intense shutdown mode.
I took a few weeks off work to deal with the death of my dad, and after that I just couldn’t seem to regain functioning. Just the thought of going back to work overwhelmed me. The thought of getting on the train to get to my job overwhelmed me. Just the thought of getting out of bed overwhelmed me.
I went to a psychologist who told me I was suffering from depression and anxiety. She suggested that maybe I was working too hard and needed to find another job. She gave me a prescription for an antidepressant, and I left her office feeling like she didn’t get it.
Without having another job lined up, I gave my notice. I just couldn’t force myself to go back. As I said, at the time I attributed this burnout to work-related stress. I’m sure the stress didn’t help. But I think it was more than that.
I was overstimulated constantly, with little reprieve except for the five or six hours I slept at night. I was surrounded by people, florescent lights, computers, a cell phone, loud noise, and a variety of other things I didn’t realize were triggering me as I hadn’t been diagnosed with aspergers yet. For twelve or more hours per day, for years, I had been trying to pass for neurotypical without realizing I had been doing so. I had exhausted myself in the process. I never thought much of it at the time. Until it happened again.
About four years ago, I was enjoying a fairly leisurely life of working part time from home. I had been working from home doing freelance work for a few years. I didn’t have a spouse or children. My life wasn’t particularly stressful compared to most peoples’.
I just didn’t feel like doing anything. I had no ambition at all, almost all of a sudden. I didn’t feel like talking to the few friends I usually kept in touch with. I didn’t feel like going to the places I used to like to go. I wasn’t sad or anxious. I just felt like I had shut down. It lasted for a while, and people became concerned about me.
For seven months, I didn’t leave the house. I had started ordering my groceries online. I didn’t have any reason to go anywhere. I wasn’t agoraphobic or afraid to leave my apartment. I just didn’t feel like it. My mother became concerned that I was severely depressed, but I didn’t feel depressed. I had been depressed in the past, and this didn’t feel the same. I couldn’t articulate why this was different than depression, but I knew in my heart that it was. This was something else.
It felt exactly like the burnout I felt when I was 23, when I thought it was a result of having a stressful job. I began to understand that maybe burnout can result from just existing. Existing can be exhausting for autistic people who have to work so hard to survive in a neurotypical world. By this point, I had been diagnosed with aspergers but hadn’t totally come to terms with what that meant. I thought I functioned well, most of the time. I didn’t know how stressful it could be to function so well until I simply couldn’t do it anymore.
I still have no idea what triggered my last episode of burnout, or if there was any particular thing that did trigger it. I think it was probably a combination of things that I hadn’t been paying attention to at the time. I don’t know exactly what happened to snap me out of it. I remember watching a movie one day that made me think I should go back to college. I decided to start taking classes online, and in doing so I regained my ambition to do other things.
I have friends who are curious about why I take so many inventories to the point where it seems obsessive to them. I take inventories of the things I do each day and how those things affect me. It dawned on me the other day that the main reason I do this is because I don’t want to experience burnout again. As much as I try to avoid meltdowns, because my meltdowns can be scary, I also try to avoid longterm shutdowns that might cause me to lose my job (which I can’t afford to lose). I have to be able to function, and I try to maintain my functioning by not wasting too much energy on things that can be let go. Whenever I slip back into focusing too much of my energy on the wrong things, I start to feel burnt out again.
I recently read an excellent post on aspie burnout at Planet Autism Blog, which says, “Basically, the higher functioning you are, the more others expect of you and also, the more you push yourself.” I think it’s important not to push myself too hard, because doing so will always cause a result that won’t benefit me.
If you’ve experienced burnout, I would be interested in hearing what it was like for you as well as any suggestions you have about the subject.