Aspie Burnout

Image“Aspie burnout” is a colloquial term, that the clinical world doesn’t seem to acknowledge as a genuine part of the autistic spectrum, resulting from the attempts to “be normal”, fit in and keep up.  Here, I think it is very useful to draw peoples’ attention to Christine Miserandino’s ‘spoon theory’: because when I read it, I saw such immense parallels with living with Asperger’s/autism.  It can creep up on you, it can hit any time, but for sure, most Aspies will have experienced Aspie burnout by the time they hit 35.

Basically, the higher functioning you are, the more others expect of you and also, the more you push yourself.  You have an invisible disability, you look normal and have no apparent physical difference.  So why can’t you behave and carry on like everyone else?  Sure, everyone gets tired, sure they also can get burnout from pushing themselves too hard.  But the difference is this: we get it from just existing in a neurotypical world, a world that doesn’t accept our differences or make allowances for them.  Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression are greater in high-functioning autistics, because of trying to fit in and finding it so difficult.  Because we are acutely aware of our differences and our failings, but we are just as affected by them as lower-functioning autistics.  So we kind of have the rawest deal.

People say to you things like “Other people manage why can’t you?” which only serves to make you more insecure.  There are low points, when you are angry at having autism and being different and having no control over it.  Those moments are exacerbated by such unhelpful remarks.  When you have brain differences, when you literally get overwhelmed by so many environmental things, just existing is challenging.  So when you try to take on responsibilities that other people find par for the course and take for granted, they can become massive challenges to someone like me.  And ignoring the difficulties, carrying on as you see everyone else doing, at some point, will ensure a mental/physical collapse.  This means, you can’t go out, can’t even contemplate doing the most basic things without great difficulty.  The saying “Something’s gotta give” comes to mind.  We need to pace ourselves, just like Christine, there is only so much we can manage.  Trying to do it all, can only work for a limited time.

If you Google “Aspie burnout” all that comes up is a collection of blogs and websites like this.  The very real experiences of us Aspies.  But there is no clinical term for this specific condition, no doctor seems to be aware of it.  When you hit burnout, you can take a long time to recover.  Even one stressful day, for someone on the spectrum can mean days or even longer, of hiding away to recover afterwards.  So imagine what impact it has if you try day after day to continue living at a level, which to others is ordinary but to you is a massive challenge.  And once you burnout, your coping capacity is diminished.  That means, even when you recover, if it happens again, it can happen quicker and take less to provoke it.

I have read of one author who has written about Aspie burnout:

Suzanne C. Lawton refers to Aspie burnout as The Asperger Middle-Age Burnout in her book Asperger Syndrome: Natural Steps Toward a Better Life.  On page 33 it says:

“She had noted this same behavior and attributed it to adrenal exhaustion from years of pumping out high levels of epinephrine from prolonged severe anxiety. Not only were these AS people dealing with their regular levels of anxiety, but they were also working extremely hard to maintain a façade of normalcy.”

Although I don’t think that it only applies to middle-aged Aspies as I have read of younger Aspies having it too.  I think it depends on your unique balance of traits, the support you have and your environment as to when you get it.  Some may be lucky to escape it, but I think that is a rare Aspie.  So us Aspies must remember, to stop pushing ourselves too hard, think of what we need, like Christina, measure out our spoons with care, and be kind to ourselves.  Don’t be scared to say “no”.  Thought for the day:

“Exhaustion without reward is torture.”
~ Kerlynne Ferrer

(someone has done a Dutch translation of my above blog post here, I can’t verify the faithfulness of the translation because I don’t speak Dutch, but it might be useful to Dutch speakers!)

36 thoughts on “Aspie Burnout

  1. Thanks for the post, I had never heard of aspie burnout before (found this by googling the term after you mentioned it in a comment under Autism Discussion Page’s status update on facebook).

    A clarification question: Does aspie burnout refer to burning out for a few days as a way of recovering from stress, or does it refer to a full-fledged nervous breakdown that takes years of intensive self-help to fully recover from?

    I burn out at least once every two-three weeks in the sense of: I’ll spend a couple of days unable to do any complex thinking, with no energy to do housework (similar to depression), and where I get an immediate anxiety attack if I leave the apartment (or if the neighbours are really noisy) – but this I bounce back from, and it doesn’t seem to get worse over time as long as I respect my need to be in recovery mode while it lasts. I tend to refer to it as sensory overload or a shutdown period. But I’ve also had what I would call a nervous breakdown: My jaw would randomly lock so I couldn’t open my mouth for hours at a time, I became chronically agoraphobic and sociophobic, I hallucinated and had ‘nightmares’ that played like a film in my head while I did ordinary everyday things – basically, instead of just shutting down for a while, I started to go crazy. That was something I couldn’t fix with a few days’, or even a few weeks’ rest, but had to drastically change my life to escape.

    Would you refer to both those things as aspie burnout?

    1. As an Aspie myself, yes I would.

      I was out of work for 5 weeks now, and monday I hope to start again, but I’m not sure, my hopes aren’t my plans any more.

      It hits you, when you’re most vulnerable, that’s how I’ld describe it. I need to go over every possible trigger, analyze it and when it’s a sure trigger, run away from it (it’s the only way I know, I just can’t face it right now). I am now going to send an e-mail to one of my strongest triggers, which I probably shouldn’t. I describe these things often as ‘I know what not to do and still I do them’. .

      Intense fear is my part, both agoraphobic and sociophobic. I tend to get claustrophobic, even though I like small places when I’m sane. Sometimes I need to run from the world …

    2. Your post is interesting. When I worked full time about 3-6 times a year I would have to take a week to 3 weeks of because I had burned out, I likened it to boom and bust. I went part-time and needed less time off, or so I thought but then in Jan I had to leave my job because I started to have delusions and felt that I was getting messages from tv, films and other people. I couldn’t sleep for five days straight and I desperately wanted to die. I’m still getting over it. I thought I had had a nervous breakdown but an Aspie lady that I was in contact with thought it was more likely to be an Aspie burnout

      1. Hi Angie, you don’t say if you have Asperger’s or not, or are wondering. It’s possible it is Aspie burnout. But of course there are other possible causes, both physical and mental, for people to become exhausted. The feeling having messages from TV etc. could be bipolar, schizophrenia or a psychotic break. I would get a professional assessment to find out what you have been going through.

      2. I am a self-diagnosed Aspie at the moment but I’m due to be assessed in June. The episode I had was the first of its kind and I was under a terrific amount of stress at the time. I was frequently having meltdowns and a woman at work who is expert at exploiting people’s weaknesses had started targeting me, she was questioning my integrity, she had just been made the manager as well so had lots of power. I was also struggling in my third year at Uni which I had to give up in the end (clinical perfectionism, struggled to write essays because I couldn’t perfect my argument) The episode itself lasted 5 days finished when I was able to sleep again, but my confidence has been destroyed so I’m feeling depressed at the moment, lacking hope and feeling worthless. I have been assessed for other mental illness such as bi-polar and was found not to have that. I told my doctor and psychiatrist and they seemed unconcerned by the episode. I have been described anti-depressants but I’m unsure as to whether I will take them or not because I just seem to get the side affects and not the benefits (they usually make me suicidal too).

  2. Cecilie, the first one is, like you said, shutdown. You have reached your limit of input at that stage and need some down time to recover and recharge. The other thing, interesting. Not sure nervous breakdown would be the correct term if you think of that as a mental health episode, unless it’s your own version of one. It sounds like a state where you are so burnt-out from a build-up of stressors, that it affects you physically as well as mentally. The hallucinations and nightmares could be a mixture of OCD intrusive thoughts (it’s not at all uncommon to have OCD in Asperger’s) and an element of derealisation and/or depersonalisation. The autistic mind is complicated! It could be Aspie burnout but I can’t say for sure, it could be your own unique version of it. Aspie burnout is a sort of accumulation of exhaustion that builds up over quite a long period of time. Having said that, everyone’s coping levels vary so it might take less for some Aspies than others to reach that stage. For me, prolonged and extreme stress triggered it. It could be an extreme shutdown episode, a combination of shutdown and burnout or Aspie burnout on it’s own. Whatever you go through, you need to respect your body and mind’s limits and don’t let others push you or pressure you and don’t do that to yourself either. As an aside, you said your jaw randomly locks, I just wondered whether there is any chance you could have Ehlers Danlos syndrome as it is strongly linked to autism (posted elsewhere on this blog) and being a connective tissue disorder can affect the jaw. Might be worth looking into.

  3. I can definitely relate to this. I think I have a more overarching long-term burn-out from when I was on my PGCE (teacher training). This was before I was diagnosed and I was staying up until 1 or 2 planning lessons as well as working over weekends – I was permanently exhausted. Other people seemed to manage it so I kept pushing myself – until eventually I couldn’t carry on. I don’t think I have ever recovered even the energy levels I had before. So I function generally tired then every now and then it gets too much.

    1. Yes I think if you reach a certain point of burnout, if you don’t get the opportunity for a full recuperation you are forever teetering on the edge of it thereafter. You can manage much less than before, it takes less to become unwell or get exhausted. Basically your coping levels decline. To recuperate, for me it would be at least a month in some sort of idyllic retreat, with total rest and everything done for me. But of course, life stops that happening. It can also be the trigger for other things, my Ehlers Danlos was triggered by burnout and severe pressure/stress.

  4. Thanks for this, that’s pretty much what happened to me to prompt me to get diagnosed. I’m much better now at taking a break before it gets insurmountable and generally cutting myself some slack!

    1. You need to be kind to yourself. As I have found, meeting the expectations of others becomes impossible and you burn out quicker and quicker if you try. All my energy goes into supporting my children (also autistic) and I find that people (including the professionals who are supposed to understand) don’t take any of that into account. Things that seem like inconsequential everyday things to others, can be at times insurmountable mountains to us. Don’t let the assumptions of others make you do anything differently than what you need to maintain your own optimum status quo.

  5. I have recently toyed with the idea that I have Aspergers, and will eventually get it diagnosed professionally just to give me some confidence boost. I am currently recovering from a burnout that I got for basically pushing myself too hard to keep up with everyone else. What you describe with energy levels and recovery is what a burnout aka brain fatigue consists off. I suppose there is no technical term for “Aspie Burnout” because it is basically brain fatigue, though I suspect that those in the autistic spectrum are easily prone to brain fatigue. Either way, knowing that I might have Aspergers would be essential to my recovery and avoiding more burnouts in the future. I am currently very very dependent on routines to keep my stress level as low as possible to give my brain a break – if the routine changes all of a sudden, it causes me to shutdown. Interestingly, I never allowed myself to be dependent on routines before because a neurotypical person isn’t and the world is always unpredictable so one should learn to deal with unpredictability. But I guess a person with Aspergers do need the routines, as to keep the unpredictability in general as low as possible, thus making it easier to cope with unpredictability. I recall myself complaining a lot about difficulties aspies generally have, it surprises me that my psychologist hasn’t picked up on it (which makes me scared to even mention it, but I can’t keep it to myself). The medical community should be aware about “aspie burnout” either way, as to help undiagnosed aspies to refrain from getting further burnouts, and learn to stop trying so damn hard to be who they are not and cannot be.

    1. Yes, it can be quite surprising what the professionals don’t pick up on. It sometimes comes down to us doing the research & then asking them specifically. Which only works if you’re functioning well enough to do the research & press the point. I thought I had burnout & realize now that the symptoms I’ve been describing to several professionals for almost 2 years seems more like Complex PTSD. Ah well, a perfect world it isn’t. 😕

  6. I’ve not looked up ‘complex PTSD’, I’m guessing it’s something anyone can get, autistic and NT alike. But the name sounds like something different to Aspie burnout, which results from ordinary daily things that autistics struggle to keep up with that become too much. It can include stressful events too, but often our coping abilities are lower than those of NTs and for PTSD it would surely have to be traumatic events, so it sounds like something else.

    1. Thanks for the reply. I read a blog, Autism Discussion Page; Autism & PTSD by a therapist who is noticing symptoms of PTSD in some clients. As you mention, we’re often already functioning close to our limits so it doesn’t take a lot for something to be traumatic for those who are hypersensitive. Complex PTSD is from exposure to long term trauma, a situation from which there is no perceived escape. Examples given: childhood abuse (emotional, physical, or sexual), spousal abuse, on the job abuse, kidnapping. It sounded like it can add up over the years, maybe taking an emotionally abusive childhood and later an abusive marriage to trigger it. Symptoms given are chronic anxiety, depression & isolation (in the sense of social phobia), and anxiety attacks for no apparent reason. Hope this helps.

  7. I did not knew it at the time, but I got the first before I hit 10.
    Then I just ended up pushing it for ~13 years, before I learnt “what is wrong”.

  8. I am in right in the middle of a burnout. The trouble for me is that I have a wife and two young children, so finding time to recover is very difficult, so I usually have to just battle on and I end up depressed. My wife understands, but she’s not always patient about it and I can really piss her off, like I just have, so when I am in the middle of a burn out and I have someone scalding me about things I haven’t done right or shoulf have done but forgot about, it makes me feel so much worse.

    1. Did your wife know you were autistic when she married you? If so, she needs to be more understanding as she could have researched the type of difficulties you would have and taken you “for better or for worse”. If she didn’t, you can understand her frustration to a degree because it’s not something she banked on and having young children is tough work. Do you have a friend you can go and stay with for a few days when you have a burnout, or even leading up to it to prevent it happening? Could you afford a few days in a hotel, B&B or caravan? She should be open to that if she knows it will prevent you sliding downwards and some people have to deal with their spouse going away for work for sometimes lengthy periods so it’s no different. You have to look after your wellbeing to be able to support others.

      1. I didn’t even know I was autistic when we got married; I just knew I had difficulties that I couldn’t understand. My wife does understand and she puts up with a great deal from me. It was just one of those occasions when she happened to be stressing out over things and probably needed me to be supporting her a little, but I wasn’t quite up to it. It can be difficult and I don’t blame people for getting angry about it, because as much as it’s frustrating for autistic people, it’s also a real stressor for the partner because they have to deal with it and they don’t always have the energy. At the moment there’s no way any of me getting space to myself. It’s passing now so it is getting easier.

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