When you go to reach for that energy you rely on to keep going and suddenly there's nothing there.
We all talk about burnout as a thing that happens when someone works long hours in a thankless job and doesn’t take enough time away. But what a lot of Neurodivergent people discover in their 30s — especially Autistic people — is that existing in a neurotypical world carries the same emotional and physical toll as working a thankless job from which you can’t ever take a vacation.
If you google “Autistic Burnout” you’ll discover horror stories: people who lost their ability to communicate, to apply effort, to make themselves understood or function in the ways they’d been functioning.
It happened to me: I’d spent several years working hard at a startup that ultimately failed, then my engagement broke off and I spent some time traveling, I got my life back together and got married and settled down and within six months had what I consider my capital-B Autistic Burnout.
It was a rough adjustment period. I lost my ability to mask entirely— suddenly I was speaking in a loud, abrasive voice. I couldn’t really use words to capture my intentions very well, so my expressions became kind of abstract and hard to understand. I was emotionally completely dysregulated with no tools for managing the emotions that were coming out and no strength left to repress them. This was an incredibly painful experience, and I lost friends and almost lost my marriage over it.
It took time, patience and understanding to even begin to understand what was happening, and then I needed serious rest. Recovery took about 3 years, and I’m still not the person I was — I can no longer push myself as hard as I used to, I cannot work at all under pressure without freaking out. I’m diminished in ways I don’t fully understand, but have learned to respect.
All of this happened one day in one instant I’ll never forget: I went to reach for my special hidden reserve of energy and there was nothing there. In a moment I realized I’d used the last of the fuel in a tank I’m still not entirely sure how to refill.
“But Everyone Gets Burnout”
Yes. When a human is pushed far enough they’ll burn out. When that happens they lose the ability to apply effort to things. They have to simply coast by on instinct for a while until they recover. But here’s the thing.
When you’re Autistic, the number of things you are doing manually by applying effort DWARFS the number of things allistic people are doing manually. When an allistic person burns out they struggle to focus their attention on work for a while. When one of us burns out we lose the ability to mask, the ability to regulate our tone or volume when speaking, we lose the ability to translate what we’re trying to say into allistic-friendly speech.
This isn’t because burnout is somehow different for us — it’s because the way we live requires the constant application of energy, effort and attention to a million details we’ll be punished if we get wrong. And so when we burn out we face all the same things y’all do, but we face it without ANY of the cognitive tools we’ve come to rely on in order to navigate an allistic world.
All of this is shared as a cautionary tale: learn and respect your own limits, because if you’re living beyond them for too long you will eventually do irreparable harm to yourself.