aspified

a blog by an autistic adult

Burnout

aspergers burnout aspie burnout

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.

35 Comments

  1. And the thing is, that when you don’t know or recognise the reasons you are feeling overwhelmed, you tend to think everyone feels like that and wonder why life is so hard. You are incrementally building up bits and piece of triggers without realising, until it all hits you. People with alexithymia (common on the spectrum) struggle to even recognise, let-alone identify what they are feeling, so it’s even harder to identify an impending burnout. The bottle of fizz is just gradually filling up until the lid pops off. It’s either meltdown or shutdown or burnout when the bottle has been shaken up one time too many.

    • Yeah – I have this sense of shame about it. “Other people manage, why can’t you?” Well because I’m different to most other people. Then I start feeling like I’m “making excuses for being lazy.” Life is hard. I think I try an awful lot to find answers, logic, reasons. And I need to accept that I do that. “You think about it too much.” God, I have this cast of judgemental people in my head!

  2. I had that a lot when I was working a full-time job for a lawyer’s office. I was not “out” as Aspie so I was spending a lot of energy pretending to be neurotypical. I had also gone through a period of almost a year of being very sick and still working. I think the tension was building and building until I got called into the office and was told I was being laid off. I was the only person in the group (8 were laid off total) that just smiled and never asked why. It’s been a bit of a struggle ever since finding work, but it was kind of a relief to leave there. There’s no hard feelings (well maybe one or two, but not many) with them.

  3. I have only just realised that I am going through this now. I am almost 40 and have a 4 month old baby. I had got most of my way through my diploma before my son was born. Now I suffer anxiety attacks, can’t seem to get back into my study despite it being an area of interest. I have lost interest in my interests and struggle to want to go out. I’m not depressed or fearful, it’s something different, something I have been able to put a name to, until now, I think it is burnout.

  4. Reading what you wrote, I’m starting to think that I might actually be in the middle of a burnout. I used to go to tafe until I had a bit of a breakdown and decided to take a year off. It’s now three years later and my life has changed drastically, I can’t sleep, I barely eat and I just don’t have the energy I used to. I thought that I was depressed but maybe I’m actually just burnt out?

  5. avigale bischard

    September 4, 2015 at 6:10 pm

    I’ve seen burnout in children and teenagers too. Families confuse burnout with being naughty or rebellious. The only cure seems to take timeout to recouperate but sadly burnout is treated as abnormal and needing drug treatment. Burnout I believe is a safety valve, a warning that you have to stop what you’re doing. Keep on the same path and it will lead to a breakdown. Interesting reading the other comments that there is always ‘the straw that breaks the camel’s back’ eg. birth of a baby, school exams, death in the family. Meditation and yoga are the best recommendations I’ve found for prevention because there’s no cure except rest.

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you. My last year has been hell. Finishing grad school and starting life was supposed to be great, but I just want to quit everything! It’s been like those dreams where you can’t move any faster no matter how hard you try. The weight of not being able to fulfill obligations, for no apparent/explicable reason, has been a heavy one. I also just feel really mean and apathetic, which is really really not who I am. Knowing it’s ‘a thing’ is so helpful. Gotta hang in there and give myself grace and space.

  7. I have Asperger’s syndrome, according to the UNWHO and a private clinical psychiatric consultant commissioned by an employer of mine , after I had a nervous breakdown at work. I get burn outs frequently each day. I often call myself a workaholic zombie on auto-pilot. I keep going like a Duracell bunny until the power runs out. Then I have to sleep for a while to recuperate. Two hours usually but sometimes one is enough. I use a guided 45 minute hypno-meditation audio recording by Dr Joe Dispenza, from You Are The Placebo. When I say, keep going, I mean keep thinking and typing, as I’m crippled so spend much of my time in internet activism, advocacy, coaching, counselling, and, writing and publishing books, blogs, courses, and other e-info-products about Autism Awareness Suicide Avoidance and Prevention.

  8. Thank you all for sharing your experiences with this. It’s sad that so many of us have gone through this or are going through it. At least we are not alone.

  9. I am currently going through my third aspie burnout, my second since being diagnosed last year. Lots of changes and a relocation at work means the environment is overstimulating for me. My new doctor seems to get it. First burnout classified as stress exhaustion, second as stress and depression, this one as asperger’s stress related problems.

    If I had the energy and the money, I would love to do research on this as I do think it’s a huge deal for us. Many NTs don’t understand why we can cope for x amount of time and seem fine but then break. I wish I could get my peers to understand the levels of overstimulation that occur simply by existing in the world.

    • i think more research is very important. there is also the issue of people with high functioning autism who are dealing with multiple compounding factors and/or conditions. also what about HFAs (high functioning autists) who may have come from dysfunctional families of origin and who may have not gotten the support or understanding they needed? there is so much emphasis on people “acting normal” that it seems to me that such an approach is more damaging than anything else.

  10. Hello, thx for info. See u latter.

  11. any advice on recovering from burnout? my partner (ASD) is going through a major one and I don’t know how to help…

    • For me a lot of space, time, and something new to be excited about or inspired by helped. I think it would vary for everyone though.

  12. I feel like I am always teetering on the edge of a burnout. I try to work at a pace I can maintain, not putting in extra hours even when I feel I could. I can work from home 2 hours a day, and spending less time in the office makes a huge difference.
    But in order to keep it up, I essentially stopped having a social life, and a lot of my accrued vacation days are spend on ‘mental health days’. I like to just stay home with my dogs as much as I can. We take hikes, and I spent the rest if my time taking pictures, creating images, reading, and lots of napping. I feel like this is as good as it gets, seeing that I do have to make a living.

  13. Thanks for the topic, it’s new to me & explains some of what I’ve gone thru. I’m now into 9 months not working & noticing now an increase in energy & interest in social interactions. It seems I was dealing with a combination of depression, anxiety & burnout. Thanks all for the info.

  14. Thank you for this post. I’ve been burned out for 9 months. I had to quit my job in May due to an emotionally and mentally abusive boss. Nothing was really being done about it by HR, so I finally left. Ironically this boss was probably also an aspie and definitely had ADHD and OCD. I also lost 3 close relatives around the same time including my mother. So for the past 9 months I’ve been on the sofa.

  15. Wow – it’s a real relief knowing I’m not battling alone with this. Thank you so much for posting. I’ve only recently been diagnosed with Aspergers, and I’m still coming to terms with yet another way to define myself. I feel like I’ve always been on the verge of an exhausting ‘make or break’ moment. Life has always been about learning how to pull myself back from the brink of breakdown. I was convinced that everyone else manages to do it, I hate people thinking I’m very capable but a bit lazy, so I tend to push myself beyond my limits. I had no idea that this wasn’t normal. I rarely admit to people that I’ll fall asleep at my laptop when I can’t physically take in any more information, whether it’s cognitive, emotional, sensory… Thank goodness I’m self employed and work mainly from home, but it’s hard to cope writing my dissertation for my MA. I have to take a nap for at least a couple of hours if I’m going to get through a long day, (hard to explain that to the kids). My symptoms seem to have got worse since I’ve been diagnosed…maybe I’m just more aware of them now. I find exercise helps to clear my mind. People think I’m being ultra fit and healthy – if only they knew! I begin to panic if I haven’t done at least an hour of exercise for the day; I feel like I’ll be out of control and can’t manage even the essential tasks so I’ve become a bit obsessed with it. Its the only thing that gives me a slim chance of managing a full 18 or so hours, without completely shutting down.

  16. I burned out in July 2014. I literally slept for a month. I was drunk with fatigue (not literally drunk). I slept the month away. I literally couldn’t function. I couldn’t do anything that was scheduled or expected of me. It was all I could do to eat and drink an bathe..
    I only healed by resting up, until I was so utterly bored that I needed to do something for myself to break up the monotony of things. I jacked in the self employed job I was doing and paved out a way to change my daily routine. If I hadnt of done this, I think I would have cracked up totally.
    I had pushed and pushed myself to work all manner of hours and I simply burnt completely out..

  17. I’m 43, and I have definitely been feeling Aspie burnout (or autistic regression) for several years now, and it has become more pronounced lately. I have never been socially smooth, but recently even ordinary conversations with people outside of my family and closest acquaintances have felt much more awkward and difficult. In public places or social settings, I feel less able to carry myself entirely as others do and not stand out as “weird”. Frankly, I didn’t realize until recently how much energy and concentration I had been expending for years just to “pass”, and now I just don’t feel like I have the energy or mental focus to do this consistently any more. My sensory issues have become notably more pronounced as well. Even at home, sounds are overwhelming me and causing me to slide into panic more easily, and now, in the evenings, I often wear ear covers like airport runway workers wear (they’re awesome). I am less tolerant of other sensory stimuli as well, such as the myriad of visual stimuli in many stores, the feeling of air from fans blowing upon me, etc. Home is not a place of refuge for me in this regard, for I have seven children, all of whom are somewhere on the spectrum, and so noise and stress are all around me. I’m a high school teacher, but I actually face less overload and less of a feeling of burnout at school than at home. At least seniors don’t scream at me, destroy stuff, or need emergency diaper changes.

    What perhaps makes this more difficult for me is the fact that I have never had much of a “safe” release or safety valve when I feel this way. I grew up in a dysfunctional household where meltdowns, shutdowns, or even just ordinary expressions of negative emotions were generally not tolerated at all, and I ended up in college and job settings where putting on a good face for everyone was essential. So, instead, I find myself more often feeling a sort of excruciating mental/emotional/sensory pain on the inside, with triggers constantly causing anxiety flare-ups in the midst of it all, and I’m not even all that good at fully realizing it when I’m in an internal crisis situation and doing something about it.

  18. I don’t feel like I do very much – I have a part time job and no family – but I do feel burnt out. There is my severe anxiety, the immense strain that everything is. Every time I leave the house I am assailed with fears or the possibility of fears, and even in the house I worry so much. There is no way to turn all this down, the volume of thoughts and fears. It is exhausting. Also I have no family at all and no friends, so there are very few buffers against all this. So I burn out anyway, and when bad things happen – like a break-up I had – things just fall apart. I have been thinking very much about the Intense World Theory – that seems to explain so much. On the plus side, though, it does mean that the enjoyable emotions, when they come, are also utterly massive. If despair is overwhelming, so can ecstasy be.

    Or again – sudden thought – although I despise “functioning” labels, maybe my anxiety is set at such a pitch that even for an autistic I find everyday life a struggle.

  19. It is so good that you write this because of the parallel with my own experience! Thank you!

    I was being very successful with my studies, aiming for a PhD and a Crawford Prize 😉 When I started my masters my grandmother passed away – I was 22 at the time. Since then I had to take time off studies, I couldn’t focus, the grief was way too much, I developed major anxiety problems that took over my life. Tried to study after taking 3 months off to grief, but it was hard. A year later, I decided to get myself a job with an organisation I loved, I felt I was changing the world, and instead I was slowly making my health worst – I had a love and hate relationship with that job as I did good, but felt crap, though I felt I had something to prove. The job consisted in managing a team and recruiting new members for the organisation – a lot of social interaction and making sure the team is happy (which was VERY difficult for me). After 1 year in that job I got a burnout – major cognitive problems arose, memory issues, huge headaches. I am still recovering from that – now 27, nothing is the same, still unemployed, but considering taking a teaching degree now in autumn.

    For a while I have suspected that I had Aspergers, but never took it seriously. Now I am taking it seriously, still undiagnosed, but everything makes sense. All my difficulties, all the energy I have put in social interactions, all the stress, and now, as I don’t work and my extremely simple life is super organised with routines and such (important for burnout recoveries), I can see more clearly all my aspie-like behaviours.

  20. Hi, Amy, are you familiar with the book Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome by James L. Wilson? I can’t recommend this book enough, it saved my life four years ago when the doc’s had no idea what was wrong with me.
    http://www.amazon.com/Adrenal-Fatigue-Century-Stress-Syndrome/dp/1890572152/

  21. I wrote this last August. (You may have to accept maturity filters but it’s only for a swear word…)
    http://doki-chan.deviantart.com/art/Core-Malfunction-551908394

  22. This is me! This happens to me every few months (maybe twice a year depending?), last time time it happened I actually got concerned because it lasted nearly a month (longer than usual) I had no idea there was a name for it! I remember searching everywhere on the internet because I literally didn’t know what was happening to me… I mean it’s happened to me since I was a child (diagnosed at 11), I thought it was just me.

    I get what you’re saying about its ‘like depression but not depression’ cus that’s what it feels like, for me it’s like an extreme feeling of lethargy where I just just want to be left alone with my thoughts. There’s like a loss of joy but I feel content if I’m left alone, I don’t want to leave the bedroom (let alone my flat) and I get irrated if people try to interact with me.

    I get it now! Thank you for helping me understand a little bit about myself, thank you!!! X

  23. Thank you for writing this. I think I have been burned out for a long time. I think I might have Asperger Syndrome, but I’ve never been diagnosed. I was always pushed to excel academically – I never truly excelled, but I did pretty well and my parents had the money to send me to very fancy schools – I think I was accepted into places by chance, almost like a wildcard, I had some unique traits? But I can’t manage myself or my life well enough to really excel, especially when it gets to adult life and college, grad school, etc – these demands are too much. I just joined graduate school (again – because I kept burning out and dropping out), but I feel miserable, overwhelmed, and am performing poorly, am more confused than everyone else – it just sucks. I can’t find good work otherwise (with this weird resume of fancy schools and large gaps in employment, and usually low level employment at that), but I don’t think I can make it through this program either – if I do, it would be scraping by, and feeling extremely stressed physically, mentally, emotionally, etc. And the whole time, people thinking I’m just either stupid or lazy. I’m not sure what to do. It’s too expensive for me to get a real diagnosis – and I haven’t found anyone who does real tests – they say they will just ask me about my life. I don’t need their help for that – I already know my life experiences look and feel similar to what I have read about adult women with Aspergers. Anyway, sorry for venting…..but yeah, I wish I had always just taken the much “lower” road, because that is the one appropriate for me – I could only manage that level of stress….and for me that would still be stressful, I would still be dropping the ball, people would still be looking at me like I was weird for being so “stupid”, etc.

  24. Thank you so much for this post!
    I am 48,suffering with burnout or adrenal fatigue ,call it as you want,since 1992 when my adrenals crashed for the first time. Even though my father was a doctor back then I still went undiagnosed for a quarter of a century and I would still be undiagnosed if I han’t done my own research when my adrenals crashed again badly in 2015. The symptoms started showing in 2011 when I had sudden hypertension and I was waking up at the same time every night. That was around2am.,I gained 27 kgrms with no changes in my menu. In 2015,February I was getting my kids ready for school when I felt that I was either having a stroke or a heart attack. I was feeling the left side of my head congested,if that’s the correct way to describe how it felt. I took my blood pressure and,to my surprise,I had 37 beats per moment.Yet,I walked my kids to the school,I came back home,took a shower and headed to my GP who just looked at me,took my pulse,blamed it on the flu that I had a week ago and dismissed me.I had gone through hypokalemia. I never felt right again. 19 months later I am the ghost of who I used to be.not only physically but psychologically as well.I have lost 30 kgrms and I am living on a 7 to 4 blood pressure. My cortisol is hitting incredible lows and so does my blood sugar which goes from 27 to 320.I have been to 27 doctors and all of them refused to diagnose me with burnout. I have suffered such a long list of symptoms that the root cause should have been more than obvious to any doctor with a conscience.Burnout isn’t a valid diagnosis for me now because I have advanced to adrenal insufficiency.On top of all that I have to worry that I won’t fall down in public and ridicule myself,that I won’t feel dizzy in public and people would stare at me,that no one will understand the obvious,that I am so so so freaking sick right now.I am getting so anxious that my heart beats irregularly every time I have to go outside. I never suffered from agoraphobia but now I do and it was caused by my aspie characteristics along with the problems that adrenal fatigue triggered. And what adds more to my condition is having to incorporate two kids in the spectrum in a society that never accepted me,that tortured me,rejected me and almost killed me. Right now I can say that I don’t even know if I am feeling good or bad. Seriously,I don’t have a clue. Sometimes I think that my mind is numb. But I have trouble identifying how I am feeling. Maybe it’s because I’ve sick for so long or maybe because I am functioning in a different way.Either way I adopted self help. I was writing down things or methods that had a relaxing effect on me. They were not many at the beginning but with the time I was adding more little things that I wasn’t noticing when my mind was racing with anxiety.I have discovered relaxing techniques like EFT or re-discovered older ones like reiki to help my adrenals heal because no one else would help me do so,that much I have realized. But there are days that I just want to be left alone. But it seems impossible and then I remember that I still have to fit in at all costs and I tax my adrenals even more. And then I have my family looking at me with that look in their eyes,the why-you-are-different look and I am just giving up.Funny thing my mother is an aspie too,she found out recently.
    From what I have learned,there is a way out. Healing is possible. But in advanced stages like mine,healing is harder to achieve.. I wish you all to feel better soon and to fight this awful condition.

  25. Hi folks, I’m 29 and had my first Aspie breakout at age 26, a year after a long term boyfriend passed away. I was working in a supermarket full time in management, working out 5 nights a week to excess and walking everyday. I decided to take on uni full time along with long hours on the job, before the wheels started falling off and I was having absence seizures at uni and work to add to the trauma. I quit uni a year later in 2014, feeling pretty flat id wasted my life. Now at 29, I’m working 25 hours a week, work out less, packed on 7 kg and struggle with depression. If I had managed my life better before hand, I’d be doing a lot better. Self hatred has ensued and I’m too scared now to push myself in case I fall so far I can’t even work. Burnout is awful. For me, it’s a living death. Best of luck Guys. Stephanie.

  26. Thanks for this.
    I’ve had chronic fatigue (moderate to severe depending on which scale you’re looking at) for 6 years.
    I’ve been describing what I believe to be the cause – chronic hyper-arousal and putting on a very convincing NT front – for years, not realising that Autistic Burnout was a “thing”.

    I find that although I’d love to drop my social, NT persona at least sometimes, I’m compelled to keep it up. It drives me crazy. Part and parcel of the hyper-arousal I guess. Maybe it’s a defence mechanism. I’m also diagnosed with Bipolar2.

    Zel.

  27. I’ve had 4 burnout’s in the last 5 years, and only in the last six months being assessed, do I now know why. I thought I was a broken person, nope I’m just wired differently. :)

  28. I feel this way now may explain it I’m 41 with Aspergers. Never knew about this makes sense.

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