As of this moment, we are now more than halfway through with the #TakeTheMaskOff Challenge as we are now in Week 4. So far, we have talked about masking, stimming, and how these affect one’s mental health. For this week’s post, we will take an even deeper dive and talk about burnout, how it is related to masking, and my own experiences of this.
To be honest, I had a harder time writing this particular post as I struggled to find episodes in which this has happened to me. I’m actually more accustomed to meltdowns, which happen to me every now and then, and, in hindsight, I think that me having meltdowns every once in a while, whether it be a quick burst of emotion or a long drawn out episode, actually curbs the actual burnout from happening, as everything gets released in spurts instead of everything coming crashing down on me. However, I did have a moment in my life when I did experience burnout.
Let’s first define what autistic burnout is. Autistic burnout is the gradual accumulation of years trying to pass as neurotypical. Masking takes a lot of effort to do, and over the years, that stress of doing so will build up and lead towards a burnout. The leading causes of this include trying too hard to fit in, stress, aging, bad health, big changes happening in one’s life, and being overwhelmed both with sensory stimulation and emotions. This can lead to the individual having lack of motivation, executive dysfunction, loss of speech, and the inability to sustain masks or social skills among other things.
A burnout is different from a meltdown. Burnouts last longer, it is a gradual build up of things, until the individual cannot take it anymore; and it takes longer to recover from it.
Burnout is definitely related to masking as the number one factor that contributes to it is the failure to fit in although the individual is masking as hard as possible, and the built up strain that years of masking have on an individual.
As for me, I do shut down for a while if I do have to mask just a little bit more than usual, or I have to remember all my coping strategies for social events and when I go out, but I rarely do experience a total burnout.
The only time I do remember experiencing burnout was years ago, during the first half of my last year in college, and, interestingly enough, that’s when my parents actually had me tested and I started going to therapy.
Back then, I was an officer in a theater organization, was heavily involved in a big production at the time, had to figure out my own social life in school, had a lot of school work to do, thesis, and was also struggling to fit in within the theater group itself. I mean, I had friends within the group, but I had been, whether I knew it or not, been masking too much ever since day one of college.
I guess that, plus everything else just took a toll on me, but I didn’t shut down or feel the burnout at all because I didn’t have the luxury of time to actually be able to feel it. I was basically running on empty the entire time.
However, I think those around me did realize that something was going on. I was having a harder time controlling my emotions; I was having a hard time with executive function; and my parents were very concerned because it seemed like I was a bit lethargic and didn’t have much motivation at the time. Because of that, they had me tested, and I started seeing the therapist that I do continue to see until today.
Thankfully, because of that, my therapist and I were able to come up with solutions and coping strategies, and that experience basically taught me that it was okay to set boundaries for myself, and that saying no to things if I cannot handle it at the moment, will not make people like me less. Back then, alongside with masking, I found it hard to say no to things as I just wanted to be able to prove myself and be liked, so I just took on things without realizing that it would compound on me like that and make me crash in the end.
This experience also taught me that whenever I feel overwhelmed by everything, especially with work, its okay to take a step back, and even if it costs me half a day, to be able to just plan out everything I have to do and take an objective look at all the steps involved with certain projects, which, in turn, become the basis of whether I say yes to certain things or events or not. Aside from work, I also take into consideration the events that I go to, whether it is a small or a big one, because no matter how big an event is, I know that I need enough time to rest and recover.
For those that do end up in shut down mode during a burnout, I guess, the best thing to do first is to spend some time to rest and recover, and the people around you should respect your space and allow you to open up when you are ready. After resting, that’s when one can finally start the actual road to recovery. My biggest recommendation is to write down everything that’s overwhelming you, and then talking to someone close to you, ideally your therapist, so you can start slowly sorting things out.
Masking is one of the biggest causes of burnout, and while even I still mask a little, I think self-awareness and having coping strategies can lessen these effects on us, and of course, rest and pacing oneself appropriately to be able to recover from how tired we get through masking can help too.
Autistic burnout is something that does and will happen in an autistic individuals lifetime.What’s important however, is learning and knowing how the signs leading to it manifests with you so you can start implementing coping strategies; and how you recover afterwards, which will greatly help the next time burnout comes charging its head at you.
Have you ever experienced autistic burnout? What was your experience like and how did you recover from it? Let me know in the comments below!