The mental health field has only recently started to acknowledge the existence of autistic burnout, a phenomenon distinct from (but similar to) depressive episodes or other forms of burnout or exhaustion. Masking is one thing that can cause autistic burnout – essentially, pretending to be neurotypical and attempting to present with neurotypical communication, behavior, and sensory experiences when this is not how your brain works can wear a person down over time.
When masking exhausts you to the point of burnout, autistic traits can become more “obvious” to the people around you because you don’t have the energy to uphold the mask. That is why many providers used to think of burnout as a form of regression (skill loss). It is also why masking is not an appropriate therapeutic goal, and why so many autistic adults who were put through therapies to induce masking behavior (ABA) report that their experience was traumatic.
If you or your autistic loved one is in burnout, it is tempting to try and push for “back to normal” as quickly as possible. They may fall behind academically or miss work, leading to more stress. However, “back to normal” is not a healthy goal if “normal” is what caused the burnout in the first place.
These tips might help with managing the symptoms of burnout, fostering recovery, and preventing future burnout episodes.
Name It To Tame It.
This term is used in therapy to note how acknowledging our mental state can start to foster change even if no additional steps have been taken to alleviate symptoms. Simply by realizing you are experiencing burnout, you can feel a little better. You can start being gentler with yourself because you understand what is happening and be more aware of what you need during this time.
Rest, and Rest Some More.
There are not a lot of evidence-based treatments for autistic burnout at this time, in part because we have only recently acknowledged this as a distinct phenomenon from other mental health concerns. What we do know is that rest is imperative. Burnout is like a concussion, and the main way to help is to reduce stimulation and activity until you recover.
This is not always feasible – not everyone has the option to reduce work hours, take time off, or let go of responsibilities in their life so that they can recover from burnout. Know that making small adjustments where you can goes a long way.
Again, not everyone can safely unmask in their environment. However, as much as possible, reducing expectations around masking and presenting in neurotypical ways can go a long way in alleviating burnout. Remember, if masking contributed to your burnout, it might not be helpful to try and re-mask later on. You are redefining your needs.
You might not feel like you even know who you are without your mask if you have been doing it your entire life. Connect with the autistic community and learn more about the process of unmasking. Neuroclastic is a great resource for this information.
Create a Safe, Sensory-Friendly Environment.
As you unmask, you will likely start to notice more about your environment and its impact on your sensory experiences. Many autistic people are more sensitive to lights, noises, textures, visually busy areas, and temperature. Notice what kinds of sensory experiences give you calm feelings and what agitates you, and make changes to your environment to meet your sensory needs.
Learn To Say “No.”
We are all allowed to set boundaries around our time, energy, and relationships. Unfortunately, even though every person has this right, many are taught that they are not allowed to set or reinforce their boundaries. This is particularly true for autistic people, many of whom have experience being told that their needs are “too much,” that they are “overreacting,” or that they could do something that harms them if they just “tried harder.” This treatment, you guessed it, contributes to burnout.
It can be difficult to set boundaries if we are not used to having that option. But you have the right to have your needs met, and that includes saying “No” to requests that make you uncomfortable or cause you distress. Practice saying no to the things that burn you out.
I want to start by acknowledging that many autistic people have experienced harm in the mental health system. Many “therapies” developed for autism focus on making the individual appear less autistic rather than centering the client’s needs and experiences. In fact, some of these therapies contribute to burnout!
At the same time, therapists can help with mental health episodes like autistic burnout. A therapist can create a safe space to process your emotions, help you problem solve coping skills, and build interoception and insight to be able to recognize your needs and get them met.
I recommend finding a therapist who identifies as neurodiversity-affirming, like the ones on ND Therapists, who recognize that neurodivergence is not a flaw to be fixed and commit to meeting clients where they are. It is okay to ask your therapist questions, like how they conceptualize autism and how they approach therapy with autistic clients, before you book with them. This can help you make sure that they are a safe person who understands how to support you in your burnout.
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