Adulting Through Autistic Burnout

Autistic Burnout: Identifying and Coping with it as an Autistic Adult
Okay, so everyone gets tired and overwhelmed sometimes, right? We find ourselves overburdened by the most typical of tasks, adding up over time and combining with the unexpected to thwart the best laid plans. I can’t really speak for anyone else dealing with the spinning of plates necessary as a wife and mother in today’s society, but I would assume I don’t have a monopoly on exhaustion based on my Facebook newsfeed. Even so, I have the added bonus of dealing with something called Autistic Burnout. The symptoms often mimic or coincide with depression. There have been several great articles written on the subject by other adults on the spectrum, but I personally experience these symptoms when in a period of Burnout.

  • Heightened anxiety
  • Feeling more and more lethargic
  • Increased sensitivity to sensory triggers
  • Panic and meltdowns over the smallest mishap
  • Withdrawing verbally and emotionally from social relationships
  • Shutting down completely for periods of time, desiring only to sleep and exist
  • Inability to regulate emotions and crying easily and frequently
  • Forgetfulness and brain fog due to a slowdown in thought processes
  • Decreased motivation and difficulty getting your body or mind to do anything
  • Feeling overwhelmed and extremely guilty for not keeping up with things
  • Drastically worsened Executive Dysfunction

How does it happen? Well, typically it comes after extended periods of time wherein I push myself too hard to constantly achieve a level of productivity that isn’t sustainable while also masking in social situations without taking any time for self care to recharge and process. Basically I try to force myself into the proverbial round neurotypical hole as a square Autistic peg, genetics and psychology be darned. Spoiler alert: reality doesn’t care about my delusions of grandeur.

Burnout can last for days, months, or years. Looking back over my childhood through adolescence and early adulthood, I realize there were several times I remained home from school or work literally sick from exhaustion. An overachiever by nature, I would go and go until there was nothing left to give, and then I would collapse into sleep for anywhere from one day to several until I felt decent enough to get back up and out there accomplishing the things that needed doing.

A little over four years ago, I hit a major brick wall of Burnout after the birth of my middle child. It was triggered by an episode of Postpartum Depression (Or maybe the other way around? Chicken? Egg? Does it even matter?! I dunno. And I digress.) that just would not quit. Around the time my daughter turned one, we moved back to the United States from our duty station in Japan, a place I loved and did not want to leave. I powered through the overseas move, a surprise third pregnancy, and the ridiculous hours and emotional strain of my husband’s temporary job as a recruiter in our new location. Then my daughters were diagnosed with Celiac Disease, and the days of grabbing takeout or frozen dinners to get by were over; they were replaced with the need to cook mostly from scratch for all of their meals to avoid contamination and get their systems clean. With every passing day, my symptoms grew worse and worse.

Two years ago, in the midst of all this, I realized I was on the path to a shutdown of epic proportions. My eldest daughter’s homeschooling was falling miserably behind while I cared less and less about managing the household needs. I was afraid the day would come when I wouldn’t even get out of bed to feed my crying infant son, and with my husband’s work demands, there’d be no one to care for the three children depending on me to survive. I ended up in my psychologist’s office being officially diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and required to attend therapy sessions twice a week to stop the emotional hemorrhaging until I could breathe and get my bearings.

I did a lot of work in those sessions, which continued into once a week appointments over the course of that first year. With a lot of introspection, realizations, and acquiring of tools needed to manage a home and family with my unique circumstances, I eventually reached a level of mental health never before achieved in my life. I came out the other side stronger, wiser, and aware of my needs as an Autistic woman. But guess what? The Burnout still isn’t completely over. I’m still pulling myself out of that hole, one step at a time, being careful not to do anything that might send me flailing back into the worst of it.

Unfortunately, at least in my case, adulting does not stop just because I’m experiencing Burnout. As a military spouse, there is no calvary coming. Thankfully, we are no longer on recruiting duty and were able to move back to Japan for our next station, where we currently plan to live for the next three years. Even so, I have to able to manage the household and the needs of all of the children and myself no matter how I’m feeling because it just isn’t possible for my husband to drop everything and step in, especially if he’s in the midst of training or deployed. My kids can’t eat whatever is convenient because of their health, and I have to be an advocate for my children concerning not only their dietary needs but the spectrum needs of my oldest and youngest children as well as myself.

So how do I deal with the stress of the everyday needs of my family while pursuing my own goals and passions without losing it? I put into place a few boundaries and practices to keep me realistic but productive and healthy.

Routine
While you can’t set a clock by me necessarily, I try to maintain the same order of events in my day. We get up, make beds and prepare ourselves for the day, eat breakfast, and start independent homeschool work while the littles play and I get writing work done. After a couple of hours, we take a one hour lunch break. The kids get cartoons and playtime while I allow myself to watch an episode of one of my shows on my laptop with my headphones in and eat my lunch in relative peace. This break is imperative to keep me from feeling like I have spent my whole day spinning my wheels as a mother, teacher, and professional with no downtime.

After lunch I work with my prekindergartener while the older continues her independent work for about an hour, and then we do reading time together for an hour or two per our literature-based curriculum. Afterward, I get about an hour before dinner needs to get started that I currently use to finish up any work that might be weighing on me, whether related to writing or household management. Dinner, nighttime clean up, and bedtime routine for the kiddos follow, and then I take the evening after they are in bed to watch TV and/or spend time talking with my husband for a couple of hours.

The nightly recharge is a necessity. If I skip it more than one day in a row, I will start to shutdown and get overwhelmed. I know this, so I plan accordingly and force myself to stop and take my designated breaks unless I absolutely do not have a choice because of work or school deadlines that cannot be changed. Even if we have obligations outside of the house, at the very least my evening break is set in stone.

Calendar/Schedule
Along those same lines, I keep a color-coded calendar that divides out the days and weeks to help me keep track of extracurricular activities, nights out with friends or as a couple with my husband, appointments, etc. I block them out and remove homeschool time or office hours as necessary, being sure to make sure we have ample time the other days in our routine so I don’t feel like I’m falling behind. I keep the calendar on my phone and computer so I can check it regularly throughout the day.

Knowing that time for work or school or errands is already accounted for keeps me from feeling like I need to get to everything RIGHT NOW. I also try really hard to set aside Sunday as a family day for a fun outing or a chill day to sit around playing video games or watching movies to completely recharge before we roll into a new week of commitments.

Self Care
The breaks built into my days and week are a great way to make sure I just relax a few hours a week to avoid getting overwhelmed, but I also know I need time to pursue my own interests. Not only do I make an effort to join social groups within our military community (I’m an extroverted Autistic woman. We exist. Hi. Also, it sucks to have social anxiety while also craving social interaction.), but I also take dance and music classes. Though I do usually need a little extra downtime after either event because of the stress of being in a social environment, I love feeling like I have an identity that is my own in pursuing these experiences.

I build work hours into my day and will soon be adding grad school studies to the mix, both allowing me to achieve professional goals that are important to me. I also make it a priority to read almost every evening before bed, filling my literature nerd cup with something not required by my academic career. Productivity is fulfilling for me as long as I am careful to balance it with intermittent social and logistical detox time.

Delegating/Being Realistic
Realizing my own limitations was a major eye-opener for the way I run my life. I simply cannot do it all. I literally can’t. I may be smarter than your average bear, but I cannot function logistically on the same level as my neurotypical peers. Now, I lean on my husband for support to cook and run errands and take care of the kids any time that he can instead of letting my control freak nature make it impossible to ask for help. (And being a team in this way improves our communication and relationship, so bonus!) I hire babysitters to take over when I have an event or appointment that taking the kids to isn’t possible or would be a nightmare for my stress levels.

I also hire a cleaning service to come to our home every couple of weeks and handle the dirt. I can organize all day long and thrive in a neat, picked up home, but the actual cleaning was lost to the wayside a long time ago during this never-ending Burnout. Knowing it will just get done without being the one to worry about how and when makes a HUGE difference in my anxiety when I notice dust or mildew that makes me twitch.

I have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew, so now I make myself stop and think about the reality of what I can accomplish in a day. I only require myself to do the minimum amount of writing for my job instead of taking on extra just because I can. I will only be taking one course at a time while acquiring my graduate degree.

I don’t focus as much on the self-imposed deadlines for our homeschooling and instead concentrate on trying to hit all of our subjects a little each day that we are at home to do school. If we don’t finish something, it is not the end of the world as long as the three R’s are the first thing we do in our routine so we are sure to maintain them at an appropriate grade level. Everything else is icing on the cake.

I don’t expect myself to go to bed or wake up early, as neither come naturally to me. I start my day around 9 and end it around midnight, with plenty of time to do the things I want and like in between. I know I need 9 hours of sleep regularly, with very sparing nights of 7-8 when I have no choice because of obligations outside the home. More than one night in a row toward the lower end, and I will not be able to function. I know my limits, and I try my best to plan around them.

It’s important to my A-type self to keep up with the daily necessities and pursue productive goals, but I also have to be mindful of the reality of my diagnosis and what that means for day-to-day expectations. Making sure I have plenty of time to recharge, giving myself downtime after social interactions, and depending on others to do what I just cannot reasonably get to during the day are coping skills I have adopted over the past year that have made it possible for me to feel fulfilled without being overwhelmed on a daily basis.

If you are on the spectrum or have people in your life that are, please be thoughtful about what overdoing it can lead to and that more help will be necessary dealing with everyday tasks than for those who are not on the spectrum. Burnout is real and can be catastrophic if not addressed. Take care of yourself, and be kind to those around you.

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