Burnout, also known as autistic burnout, is one of the most difficult aspects to cope with in many neurodivergents’ lives, not just autistics, but ADHDers, dyslexics, dyspraxics, Tourettes, bipolar, the blind, the deaf, so many neurodivergencies – too many to list, but please know I always include you. We all experience the world in ways that make seemingly the simplest of tasks harder, longer and more riddled with anxiety.

I wrote all of this below, and much more besides. Then, whilst looking for a suitable link for you to investigate further, to add at the end, I found this excellent clip that says it all a lot more efficiently and effectively in three minutes! This is The Autistic Advocate, Kieran Rose, who I do my training with (I can highly recommend it). If you only have enough energy or time to read my hyperverbal entry or watch this…

 Click here to be taken to Kieran’s video on burnout.

And here’s part of what I wrote originally, for those who are still here!

For all of us, as our energy starts to fail, as we’re experiencing overwhelm, we are likely to feel able to communicate less, socialise less, eat less nutritious food, stop laughing, do everything less, in order to try to get our essential tasks and our projects done, and still we keep going.

The masking that we may feel we have to do, when we’re not alone, is taking superhuman effort. The pile of To Dos on the desk gets bigger, as we start to shrink inside. We’re now so depleted of energy we are taking longer and longer to achieve less; our output is going down as we cope less with the many many demands being made on us: neurodivergent people trying so hard to function in a neurotypical world.

If we don’t know we are neurodivergent when we’re experiencing all of this, at this stage we might seek medical help and be given anti-depressants to help us cope better with all this stuff we need to do. To get us out of bed and off to work, to care for our families, to get us out and about with all of those exhausting people that we have to mask around – day in, day out. Even the compulsory small talk with a delivery driver or fellow dog walker, reading an email, opening the snail mail, paying a bill – it’s all just too much and gets more unachievable with each passing day. But pills may not be what we need if what we’re actually experiencing is burnout (unless our burnout has actually caused depression and anxiety too, which is, sadly, far from unusual).

We need an oblivion switch, in my view, so that we can flick it on and switch everything else off. But as that is yet to be invented, all we can do is understand what’s happening, and why, respecting our limitations and recognising when we need time out to restore ourselves. We need to stop feeling guilty about it; it’s essential if we are to remain healthy. The closest I come to an oblivion switch is playing endless games of solitaire on my phone. It keeps me focussed enough not to be bored, but my decisions while playing don’t have any impact on my life – the lack of consequence and physical effort is very appealing. Even the gentle sound of the cards turning, I find soothing. This only works as a way of dealing with daily overload for me, especially sensory overload – solitaire is a friendly little safe place that helps to level me out when I’m on the turn! It certainly isn’t effective for anything more emotionally substantial than that.

In the build up to burnout there may be a meltdown, probably several. Fall outs with others (possibly irredeemably) are far from unusual, our patience goes, migraines may takes its place. Our neurodivergence may become more apparent to others, as we no longer have the energy to mask, and that just adds to the chaos, as suddenly those around us don’t know how to ‘deal’ with us – we may seem like different people. Other co-occurring conditions are likely to show up when we can least cope, and all the while our minds are screaming  STOP STOP STOP TRYING TO SOLVE STUFF – IT’S JUST CAUSING MORE HAVOC!’

As is probably apparent, I’m horribly familiar with autistic burnout, though I have only been able to recognise it for what it is thanks to my post-diagnostic research. Last year I had what I described at the time as ‘a complete implosion’ – it was a shutdown turned bad. It was burnout. I can’t remember what my GP called it – it certainly wasn’t burnout – I was too broken to care. Ten months, many prescription pills, one autism diagnosis, an ongoing ADHD diagnosis, and much research later, I still don’t feel I’m through it. I’m still recovering from autistic burnout, but at least I know what I’m dealing with.

And that was certainly not my first experience of burnout in my 54 years.

For me, there will usually be a tipping point that’s related to an unexpected event – an illness, bad news – one extra demand on my time, emotions, or both, when I am only just holding it all together in my head. And then I’m likely to have one almighty meltdown, leading to shutdown and consequent burnout that leaves me unrecognisable, even to myself.

The only up side to this, if you experience it too, is that we finally have to listen to our mind and body’s need to restore itself. This website is a big part of what I do to balance myself. AuDHD isn’t just my identity, it’s quickly become the most important one of my special interests, and writing about it calms me immensely.

The University of Kent’s So you’re autistic (think you are)? site has this very thorough list of common signs of impending burnout.

If we keep a note of these, re-read that reminder regularly and honestly check with ourselves that we are listening to our needs, we are showing respect and kindness for ourselves. If we are fortunate enough to have people around us who can also learn to look out for these signs, and are willing to warn us, gently, that we’re heading down that slippery slope, then we’re doing all that we can. We can’t change the challenging world around us, so we may not be able to prevent burnout completely, not every time, but at least we are giving ourselves the opportunity to spend more of our life being healthy, happy and feeding our need for those very special projects!

It would probably be helpful to read our page on skills regression alongside this, as well as the pages on masking and unmasking, as they are all interconnected.