Autistic burnout. It’s a phrase that is used quite a bit. Often in tandem with shut down and even at times connected with a meltdown. In the sense that all of them are response or reaction to living as an autistic in a neurotypical world then it is probably right to connect them. I’m pretty sure though they are all a bit different.
It’s occurred to me more recently that when I self-destructed in my last real job that whilst that moment of destruction was at some level a meltdown, the fallout and result was a much longer term response of shut down or burn out.
Amythest Schaber explains shut downs here
And burnout here
In my experience it seems that I was shutting down in the shorter term to cope on a day to day level, and yet over the much longer term, I was really experiencing burnout. I had worked for a little over 2 years in an office environment. It was busy, I had some responsibility for some other people, I had many competing demands for my time. I spoke to many people a day on the telephone in both support and sales aspects of the business I was working for. I worked long hours, I was never free from the job as emails, text messages and phone calls never stopped at the end of the working day or week. These even occurred regularly in vacation times. I was working overtime passing, keeping it together.
Overall I was doing a good job, the business was doing well and all my requirements were being met. Unfortunately, though it was never enough, and this was compounded by an employer who micromanaged everything to the nth degree. This meant that in a lot of my project based work I engaged in as part of my role, I was never able to finish or complete things. One of those roles, for example, was updating the company website. I was the only one in the company with any HTML knowledge and was regularly required to make changes. These changes were so often over micromanaged that I found myself in a state of despair.
An example was in a change of a banner on the website. A new banner created, sent for approval, approved by the boss. I would then make the change to the site. Half an hour later I would receive a call or an email saying they needed the colour changed or the font changed. It was a perpetual state of never being able to finish anything. This was coupled with my employer regularly calling to have me do some particularly urgent task. This, of course, meant changing up what I was doing and working on the urgent thing. That in itself can be really difficult for autistics and Luna Lindsey explores this concept in Spline Theory here.
In and of itself those changes to urgent things were difficult enough, but I had been somehow managing them. It became apparent in time though that I was somehow meant to still have completed the same amount of normal work task. None of this made sense and it utterly exhausted me.
I can see in reflection that I pretty much went into multiple shutdowns over the time I was there at this position, however, what I didn’t really recognise until more recently was that I had in fact gone into burnout.
The thing that has been occurring to me the most in recent times is that it has actually taken me some years to come out of that burnout and it is really only in recent months that this has occurred. As Amythest says in their video the only healing for burnout is time. Sometimes it is a lot more time than expected.
But then again I think it makes sense that it has taken so long too. After what was in effect more than two years of strenuous effort in passing and managing the whole situation, a few years experiencing the resulting burnout seems legitimate to me.
Personally, the biggest factor has been in motivation to do the normal stuff of life. The idea of actually getting a job again has seemed utterly unattainable. It has been only in the realisation that just in these last few months that such a thing again seems possible that I was, in fact, experiencing a prolonged burnout.
I am pretty convinced then that the takeaway of all this is to be gentle with yourself or your autistic loved ones. This should go without saying, but if they are experiencing burnout this is all the more important. The amount of time it might take is unknown and unpredictable, but I suspect has some connection with the level of stress and overload the effort put in the and the length of time it went on for.
Autistic Burnout seems to be a very under-researched area. It’s time, I suggest that some good researchers took it on and helped us to better understand it, of course with the help of actually autistic people on their research teams.