This post is part of a series for Autism Acceptance Month in which I will be exploring various ideas and subjects relating to autism and being autistic. Check out the first post here.
Tears stream down my face as words scream inside my head desperate for a release that won’t come. I hold my tight as if letting go will let me fall apart into a million pieces. My body rocks of its own accord, desperation flowing out through movements. Limbs beg to thrash and hit and kick and break things. A fire burns inside trying to scorch all around. I’m melting down.
It’s been weeks of daily meltdowns. Day after day, I get home and I break. My poor husband holds me each day trying to get me through the pain and agony wrapped around my soul. The world is too bright, too loud, too rough, too much. My senses in a constant state of overload. It’s been weeks and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better, if anything, it’s getting worse.
I’m losing my words more and more often. I find myself screaming in my head, desperate to be heard, but unable to make my mouth move to release what’s inside. I’m having difficulty caring for myself. Showers are hard and infrequent. Basic hygiene is a monumental effort. Cooking, cleaning, adulting, all have become so challenging, some out of reach entirely. I’m falling apart piece by piece and I don’t understand what’s happening to me.
Then I stumble across a post about autistic burnout. The pieces all click together and suddenly it all makes sense. The meltdowns, the loss of skills, the daily agony is all a part of burnout. The revelation is relieving yet I’m still caught in burnout. It takes a few months, but after enough rest and recharging I begin to recover, though some things seem permanently changed. I still go nonverbal more frequently than before burnout. I have difficulty passing for neurotypical despite a lifetime of practice. My sensory threshold is lower than it used to be. In other words, I was changed by autistic burnout.
Autistic burnout, clinically referred to as autistic regression, is when an autistic person loses abilities that they previously had, either temporarily or permanently. This can include all sorts of abilities, but commonly affects the ability to speak verbally, executive function, memory, self-care, social skills, and sensory thresholds. These abilities may be regained at after a few weeks or months or could be permanently lost.
Burnout occurs when the stresses of life outpace any coping skills that an autistic person has. It often occurs after puberty and is common in autistics who are transitioning into adult life, though it can occur at any point in an autistic person’s life. Burnout is like the brains way of trying to conserve power. When an autistic person doesn’t have enough energy for everything they need to be able to do, it seems that the autistic brain decides to shut down certain functions in order to allow other functions to continue.
So what do you do if you’re in burnout? While I would love to provide you a nice easy answer that will fix things right away, unfortunately, the only thing that can really be done for burnout is to rest. Eliminate as much stress as possible to allow your brain a chance to recover. Rest as much and as often as you can. Dedicate yourself to self-care. Your brain needs a chance to recharge in order to cope with the stress of the world, so give it that chance. I know this is easier said than done as we often are unable to cut stress out of our lives.
Burnout can be frightening, overwhelming, challenging, and more. It can be really hard to watch yourself lose skills you once had and to possibly not regain those skills, or at least not to the proficiency that they once were. But hang in there. Eventually, burnout will end and you will begin to recover. It may take a long time, but there are better times ahead.