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Autistic Burnout - What Helped Me

 ​​Autistic Burnout - What Helped Me

I’d like to share about my experience with autistic burnout. It’s different than depression. Some depression can be alleviated by doing something different, like exercising or socializing. Autistic burnout often requires doing the opposite; that is, doing nothing and isolating in a quiet place all alone, in order to recover.

I experience autistic burnout most often from sensory overwhelm, and from masking. 

When I’m in autistic burnout, I’m shut down, unable to focus or find my words. I feel depleted, exhausted, sleepy, and incapable of taking care of my basic needs, subsisting on comfort foods like yogurt for days or weeks. I don’t want anyone to talk to me, ask me questions, or make me do anything during these times.

Sensory overwhelm is from trying to hear my own thoughts in a loud distracting environment, with multiple conversations, music, or other noises, or people coming and going. That makes it difficult to concentrate on technical writing or reading documentation or manuscripts. I wore foam earplugs at my cubicle for 15+ years, but could still hear conversations. Then I learned from other autistic people that active noise-cancelling headphones were a helpful accommodation at work.  My doctor wrote a note saying that I would benefit from them and my hubby got me some for around $100. Now I listen to ocean sounds when I need to focus in an overwhelming environment. This is a huge improvement to reduce my stress, frustration, and anxiety for such a small accommodation. 

Masking or camouflaging is even more exhausting. It’s when we act incongruently with how we feel. I learned to hide my differences and discomfort by masking very well at an early age, in order to be accepted and liked. I pretended to be stronger, more enthusiastic, more outgoing, and more energetic than I truly felt, in order to try to find acceptance from family and friends, and to earn love I didn’t feel I deserved. It was never enough. I had to realize I was enough.

Masking included things that were important to my mom, who was a model: acting ladylike, taking personal development classes, home economics, modelling, dance classes for good posture, and a smile when photographed. Learning to cook, sew, decorate, bake, cook and host.  

Masking was also important as a child growing up in a conservative, law enforcement family.  Behaviours and activities were observed, analyzed, judged, and punished - no exceptions. Conformity and obedience were of utmost importance. Children were an extension of their parents, and how children behaved reflected on the parents.

In school, I tried to avoid punishments from teachers by studying hard and getting good grades, acting like the popular girls, and getting involved in all the clubs.

In my career, masking was needed in teaching, working in schools, retail sales, and corporate offices; always being ‘on’ and smiling. I would regularly collapse on my couch after work, and nap before making dinner.

After a lifetime of camouflaging like a chameleon, to blend in and attempt to find acceptance and appreciation from whoever I was with, I hit a brick wall. I went sliding down, and stayed down for the best part of a year. I focussed on discovering who I really am, being authentic, learning about healthy relationships, and setting boundaries.

Part of recovery was finally getting formally and officially diagnosed at 53 with autism, ADHD (attention-deficit /hyperactivity disorder), CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder), depression, and anxiety.  I began to realize that banal suggestions like going for a walk in the fresh air, having a drink of water, or meditating just felt oversimplified, dismissive, and unhelpful, until my body had first rested and recovered. 

I started listening to my body, believing in myself, researching, reading, connecting, seeking answers and support, and distancing myself from sources of invalidation.

I find sleep, silence, puppy and kitty cuddles, no schedules, and no demands are necessary at first. Then maybe binge-watching a Netflix series, and later a walk in the sunshine or coffee with a good friend who will listen without judging. Listening instead of offering unsolicited advice or jumping straight into solutions is also appreciated. Swimming and Tai Chi for movement, when I’m able to get up and get going, are enjoyable.

Most helpful of all was discovering online support communities, full of discussions by people with the same struggles, and questions that I had.  I learn best from concrete examples rather than by theories, memes, or positive mantras, so this makes sense. 

Finally, fitting in and belonging, and having certain ways of being and communicating among ourselves - being completely normalized instead of being ostracized and criticized, is healing. I love that I finally found my people! And now, offering peer support and volunteering as a group admin are ways I enjoy giving back to my communities!

This article was originally written for and published by Autism Around Alberta in November 2023. A newsletter by the Autism Society Alberta.

I then shared it in an Autistic support group that has become my chosen family where it was very well received with requests to share outside of the group. This blog post is in response to that request. I sincerely hope this helps someone recognize that what they are going through is experienced by others. You are not alone. It will get better. This too shall pass.

Please remember that this is not medical advice. You will may need support from loved ones, and your doctor or therapist to recover from this. Please reach out for help in your area.

~ Michelle