What Is Neurodivergent Burnout?

Neurodivergent burnout is the outcome of doing the work that is required of us to bridge the gap between who neurotypical society wants us to be and who we are. Neurodivergent burnout grows from years of faking being someone you are not; trying to fit into a world that is not designed for people like you. When you are constantly trying to mask what you are to the world, which is common with Autistics, burnout can strike differently. Burnout happens most frequently to folks who are holding themselves up to neurotypical standards/living/working, and learning within a neurotypical space.

This may differ from the way that neurotypical folks experience burnout, in both its lead-up to it and its recovery. Research shows that burnout for Autistics is different than depression, and also from burnout experienced by neurotypicals. Autistic burnout is considered to be a state of executive dysfunction along with sensory and emotional dysregulation, with symptoms including lethargy, frequent periods without speaking, impaired grooming, and inability to complete tasks considered essential. Autistic burnout is described as a result of prolonged stress for an Autistic or Neurodivergent individual.

Autistic burnout occurs when a person is repressed from their autistic traits, experiencing too much stress or sensory overload, and/or experiencing a major change in their life. While most people go through periods of burnout–physical, cognitive, and emotional exhaustion caused by high, sustained stress–autistics, at some time in their lives, go through burnout–physically–on an entirely different level. Autistic burnout is often the result of disguising, or masking, which is a tactic whereby Autistic individuals imitate neurotypical behaviors, using scripts to conduct small talk, forcing themselves to make eye contact, or inhibiting repetitious behaviors that Autistic individuals themselves engage in. Autistic burnout can particularly affect autistic adults who have strong cognitive and verbal skills and who are working or attending school with neurotypical individuals.

Whereas a person experiencing occupational burnout would experience chronic stress from the stresses of work, someone experiencing autistic burnout would experience chronic stress from living and working in the neurotypical world, living under stresses, and dealing with social and sensory pressures. People who come to their primary care physician with symptoms of autistic burnout might end up getting diagnosed with stress, anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue, or occupational burnout instead.

First and foremost, people who are neurodivergent are more likely to experience stress, anxiety, depression, which can cause burnout. For instance, burnout in autism may resemble depression, since they may both include a lack of motivation, difficulties caring for oneself, fatigue, and memory difficulties; however, the support approaches are quite different. Supporting autistic burnout involves time, privacy, and extreme silence, while supporting a depressive condition will encourage the opposite via behavior activities, CBT, and/or medications.

Armed with such knowledge, some autistics may be able to devise strategies for avoiding burnout, such as leaving social events early, or scheduling in recovery days following travel, before returning to work. They may also request accommodations that will help them avoid burnout more easily, such as boarding an aircraft ahead of time or working at home for a portion of their time. Someone can also feel exhausted and lacking the motivation to contribute to open source when they are struggling with burnout.

In a case of acute burnout (like someone getting tunnel vision at a party), they will need to come home and take some time off during the evening, and they are more than likely to have their vision and skills back by the morning. Massive, complete burnout may also seem far less dramatic, or much more gradual, and it may occur with any Autistic individual. The pattern that leads to burnout is a bit of a similar one; you begin wearing masks, as time goes by and you are put into challenging situations, you accidently remove your masks, you burn out, this leads to trauma.

We are all familiar with the concept of burnout, it is used by people all the time when they are talking about work stress or home stress. When thinking about a few of the complicated interactions that go into the way we act on a daily basis, and how, for some, that can lead to a burnout.

Autistic burnout is a condition of physical and mental exhaustion, increased stress, and decreased ability to handle life skills, sensory input, and/or social interactions, which comes about as a result of years of being greatly overtaxed from strain of trying to meet demands that are not in sync with our needs. Symptoms of ADHD burnout include a lack of motivation, an inability to focus, guilt, depression, anxiety, low performance, cynicism, and irritability.

To the outside world, it may seem as though an otherwise perfectly normal person who is in their forties has suddenly started acting very stereotypically autistic, and they may assume this is a sudden shift, not an accumulation of burnout eventually leading to an absolute failure to function in any way that seems remotely normal. Critically, burnout among neurodivergent employees may appear to someone who is being lazy, is not doing his job, or is missing crucial details, when neither of those things is true. The other main reason for burnout in inclusive workplaces is when a topic hits a nerve and becomes personally triggering.

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