It was just after lunchtime as I started to feel the familiar stinging pain starting to creep in behind my eyes. It had been a few months since the company I worked for had moved into a new larger office upstairs.
I’d already lost count of the migraines that month but could have gone back and counted them on my calendar easily because they were coming on like clockwork, about four to six hours into any shift where I was physically present in the office.
I had been growing sicker and sicker since we moved upstairs, having migraines in the office and waking up sick to my stomach with vertigo most mornings. I couldn’t eat or keep food down. I was wasting away and had lost almost twenty pounds from the sickness and loss of appetite.
Ninety-five pounds wasn’t a good look even on my small frame – though my co-workers kept commenting that I “looked great” – when speaking about my weight loss. I didn’t feel great.
My health continued to decline as I worked with my doctor, desperately trying to get to the bottom of my mystery illness – that was something I’d experienced on an off throughout my life in times of stress and change. In the past, this sickness had debilitated me entirely and destroyed my life.
“We never solved the mystery when I was younger, but I knew if it got bad, I would be unable to work or care for myself. It was terrifying.”
After many missteps and wrong treatments, I was referred out for a mental health assessment and diagnosed Autistic at 29. I realized I had been working against my Autistic mind instead of with it – trying desperately to hang onto a “neurotypical lifestyle,” and doing so was making me sick.
My self-opinion and self-esteem were low when I found out I was Autistic. I was not in a good space mentally when I found out. However, the knowledge I’ve gained since then has changed my life. I’ve had to pick up the pieces… repair the damage done by not knowing for so long. I had to get my mental and physical health back on track and finally start living authentically as an autistic person.
Neurodivergent health is different from neurotypical health. Our different ways of processing the world can lead us to burnout and breakdowns from things that many people can ignore. For example, I’m susceptible to lighting, but I didn’t understand how this impacted me for many years. I needed to change my lifestyle because living the neurotypical way wasn’t cutting it anymore for me.
I spent most of my life, not knowing that I am Autistic. I didn’t know the proper ways to take care of myself for many years. After discovering that I was Autistic, I had to re-find myself – stripping down the heavy mask I’d painfully built over the years. The mask had gotten very heavy. Layer by layer, I worked to unwind all of the damage, unpacking all of the trauma that had caused me to start masking in the first place.
Some autistic people have a “talent” for pushing themselves past where they should push themselves. I am one of those autistic people. Before my diagnosis, I was frequently burning myself out and making myself ill as I tried (and failed) to hold myself up to the impossible standards of the neurotypical people around me.
Often, in workplace and professional settings, many autistic people feel a strong need to disguise their differences and hide much of who they are out of fear they may be ostracized, bullied, passed over for promotions, or even fired. Cultures that champion strength, and discourage vulnerability, prevent employees from speaking openly about their weaknesses and struggles – because they become shameful. People become unable to speak up when they need help – this can lead to Autistic burnout, a common phenomenon in working autistics when non-Autistic people set the pace.
“Burnouts tend to be caused by stressors in an Autistic person’s environment. The stressors can be mental or physical but also includes sensory distress and other sensory-related triggers.”
I’ve burnt out multiple times in my life. The first burnout I can remember was at age 11 – when I secured a minor role in a play with the local theatre. That burnout lasted for months, as I learned my lines and attended rehearsals, then continued even after the play ended.
Since that first burnout, I’ve learned a lot about myself, the causes of my burnout, and how I can prevent them in the future. A big part of avoiding burnout, for me, is having more control over my life.
I now work from home, in a sensory-friendly environment. As I age, I’ve found that I become less tolerant of stress and sensory stimuli, so I work to limit my exposure to environments that trigger overload and anxiety.
When I was diagnosed and failed to have my needs met by my employer, I found a new job – one that would fully accommodate me as an Autistic person.
Now, since losing that job, I’m working for myself and am benefiting from working less and managing my own schedule and workload. Being a “lone ranger” and not working on a team removed many external expectations and demands of other people – something that I tend to struggle with.
I’ve been making more time for activates that recharge me, am keeping a set schedule, making time with friends and loved ones, and turning down work if it doesn’t inspire me – even if there’s money in it. My health is worth way more than money. I believe that now, but I didn’t always.
Burnout is, unfortunately, too common in the Autistic population. I can’t help but wonder how other Autistic people have handled burnout when they’ve experienced it. As I’ve done many times over the years, I head to my keyboard and type out a question:
What was burnout like for you? What caused your burnout? What do you do to help take care of yourself and avoid burnout?
I’ve been in burnout so much of my life, due to being undiagnosed and trying too hard, that I hardly know what it’s like not to be. | AtmosphericRiver
It was horrid and it’s happened to me throughout my life because I didn’t realize I was autistic. Now at least I can identify what causes it for me. When it last hit, I dialed my life right down. Cleared my slate for the summer. It helped. | Cait Gordon, @CaitGAuthor
Having a full-time job. Even when I was seemingly doing well and being attentive at work I’d frequently get home and pass out without dinner, sleep through till the morning and then have to do it all over again. | @shrimpblep
Too much accumulated trauma with years of masking while not knowing I was neurodivergent caused my burnout. I have zero energy and for some time the world seemed gray. I’m still in it but I’m slowly pulling myself out. Color is coming back and I’m fixing my sleep 1st. | @Grumpika
I’m currently heavily burnt out and probably won’t work again. I’ve had a 23 year career as a Psych Nurse. I can think of three other periods of burn out in my life which caused me significant difficulty. | Laurie Morrison, @Glitter_Bombe
Decades of masking and stress culminated in the biggest burnout of my life. I stayed home for weeks. Couldn’t mask at all. And that’s when I realized I’m autistic. I didn’t know I was masking before, but it took a huge toll on me. Burnout and unmasking saved my life. | Juniper, @juniperinlatin
Its exhausting. I become unable to parent beyond keeping them fed and clean. I start to pass out. Wearing earplugs helps me to hear as my brain doesn’t have to process background noise and I am much happier and energised. | @MamaWright2
Pretty sure, in retrospect, this is part of what lead me to check into a hospital a few years back. Among many other factors. I was just tired of even existing it was so exhausting I needed a break and I felt the only way to do it was to lock myself away from society. | @nmsnerd
Thought it was a mental breakdown, didn’t realise I was autistic. I couldn’t function. Cried for no reason, felt intense rage that I didn’t know how to process. Caused by work pressure & bullying. Leaving work and lots of rest & therapy is starting to help. | @craftandfishies
Burnout for me was not being able to take care of myself, unable to eat, shower, brush my hair, unable to talk, exhausted, insomnia. This was as a result of a workplace that completely destroyed me. For me multiple meltdowns indicate burnout approaching. | Yasmeen, @wellbeingEyears
Having to go to school. It wouldn’t take too long, maybe a week. Not having to go for so long each day, or as many days a week helps. Also, working on a film set. So many people. So much social interaction. So little time filming. Burnout happened after just over a week. | Anonymous