One of the biggest risks of chronic camouflaging and trying to act the neurotypical part when you’re autistic is that it is so exhausting and wears on you, which can eventually lead to what is termed autistic burnout. Autistic burnout can manifest in many different ways, but in almost all cases, it involves intense, inescapable mental, physical, and emotional fatigue, such that previously possible activities become impossible or nearly so. Work, childcare, exercise routines, chores, social engagements, hobbies, etc. can become unmanageable. It’s much like all moving inertia is lost and per the law of inertia, “an object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force, and an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.” In this case, the first part of the law, the motion—the former ability to fulfill responsibilities and even basic activities of self-care—is lost when the outside force of chronic overexertion due to pretending to be “normal” reaches a tipping point that exceeds the individual’s endurance tolerance. Once this inertia is lost, “rest” is all that is feasible, though unlike the restorative, relaxing connotation of the term “rest,” the lack of ability to carry on—this autistic burnout—is wildly upsetting, distressing, depleting, depressing, and uncomfortable. Ramifications can involve employment and financial consequences, relationship issues, health and hygiene issues, among others, as well as serious depression, anxiety, damage to one’s self-esteem, worry, isolation, hopelessness, stress, and fear.
Autistic burnout isn’t like an autistic shutdown or meltdown, in that those are responses to more acute overloading situations, whether sensory, social, emotional, cognitive, etc. in nature. Autistic burnout, on the other hand, builds slowly, usually over years, from the accumulated effects of constantly trying to wear a mask or facade of neurotypical normalcy in our neurotypical-centric world when you’re autistic. For this reason, it’s most common in autistic adult women, as this subgroup of the autistic population has not only had a full lifetime to amass the deleterious, exhausting effects of pretending to be normal and pushing yourself to reign in your autistic tendencies that are incongruous with what’s socially-acceptable or accepted for “normal” adults (such as stimming, talking at length about special interests, rigidity behaviors), but they also tend to be most concerned with constant camouflaging. Trying to “play the neurotypical role” day in and day out in a society that feels foreign in its stark differences in thinking, social function, and behaviors is never-ending work. You can’t take a day off and hope to still maintain your facade of blending in and “making it.” For me personally, the need to constantly focus observe and study social behaviors, interactions, and norms is a switch I can never turn off. My social deficits are so dramatic that I really have to constantly be a voyeur with glasses and hearing aids that magnify the various components of communication surrounding me in a given setting and context if I have any iota of interest in joining in the conversation or concealing any evidence that I’m “weird.” I have been teased for committing social faux pas far too many times to estimate, but the result of these fallacies is that I’m hyper-aware that I can’t just “be me” if I want to feel included and “like” the others I’m communicating with. However, constantly being a detective and pre-planning what I’m going to say and how is extremely cognitively exhausting. Not only is the work itself tiring and difficult, but the fear and anxiety that instinctually rises to astronomical levels, due to the aforementioned teasing and social blunders, also imposes quite a hefty, emotionally-exhausting toll. Consequently, social situations are among the most intensely fatiguing (and thus unappealing) things for me to do. This, along with the sensory assaults to my highly sensitive body and brain, is the greatest category of energy currency expenditure for me when I try to camouflage as an autistic woman in a neurotypical world. The premium levy that is bundled with the “costs” of trying to blend in socially is that my natural coping mechanisms to handle the associated rampant stress and anxiety must, under all circumstances, be benched. This means that I not only have to deal with this incredibly high level of anxiety and fear about messing up or “auting” myself (like “outing” yourself as autistic), but I cannot rely on my typically-effective tools and strategies to mitigate stress, or at least reduce it to manageable levels. The reason for this is because these coping mechanisms themselves (which are stimming behaviors, in my case like tongue clucking, spinning in circles, or doing this weird arm/hand dance) are disconsonant with the very social situations I’m trying to blend into. It actually takes even more mental and physical energy to restrain these behaviors; thus, instead of them helping diffuse the mounting anxiety, they end up creating more anxiety (that they’ll unconsciously pop out) and exhaustion, as now, I suddenly have yet another “cost” to satisfy—the expensive one of trying to tamp down innate behaviors that are largely out of my control.
Ultimately, autistic burnout can be equated to years of spending more energy than you can ultimately sustain due to the constant, and labor-intensive mental work of trying to alter your neurology enough to satisfy the requirements of passing in a world that’s not set up for you. Work, relationships, schooling, and even public environments with their sensory stimuli all impose demands that that contribute to the continued buildup of exhaustion, stress, and depression (from feeling the need to hide who you really are, or that you are not enough or are defective). Eventually, if both inadequate supports and mask-free, decompression time exists on a regular basis (of sufficient quality and duration) to effectively counteract the daily camouflaging, autistic burnout will result.
As mentioned, the symptoms of autistic burnout can be individualized. Motivation to do obligations, as well as interests, usually plummets, which can make the person feel lazy and depressed, even though it’s really the opposite of laziness that led to the issue anyway, and a deep, restorative, extensive rest is truly needed rest recuperate and regain function. Suddenly, the person may feel like a wet log, unable to ignite; every attempt to take to a match fizzle into just a cloud of useless smoke. Organizational and executive functioning skills usually decline, leaving the person feeling scattered, disorganized, forgetful, inefficient, and irresponsible. The person typically feels like they’ve regressed in their progress, competency, independence, and functioning. This can certainly inflict major blows to one’s self-esteem. It can feel so frustrating and defeating because sliding backwards in terms of progress feels like all improvements were a farce and will never be re-achieved. Sometimes, people feel “more autistic,” as classic autism signs start to emerge more prominently once the heavy-duty harnessing that has been in place to try and conceal and reign in have snapped. Stimming, obsessiveness, rigidity, social confusion, sensory overload, perseveration, etc. can become exponentially pronounced. Again, this can make the person feel like they’ve regressed, and invariably makes any additional attempts to blend in and handle the neurotypical world while in burnout nearly impossible.
There’s nothing inherently “lesser” or “broken” about being autistic. Autism is a neurological difference, not a fault or error. It certainly comes with numerous challenges, but most of those exist because of the fact that our society isn’t designed of well-equipped to support autistic neurology. For this reason, autistic burnout is not always preventable, depending on the constraints, demands, personality, and drive to camouflage that the person navigates on a daily, chronic basis. Unfortunately, unlike shutdowns and meltdowns, which are relatively short-lived, autistic burnout can persist for months or even years with little sign of resolution. Physical health can decline from all the built up stress and fatigue, as well as the commonly-associated burnout ramifications of a reduced ability to take care of one’s self (the person may stop eating well, he or she may cease handwashing, exercising, practicing good hygiene, seeing doctors, taking prescribed medicines, and sleep quality and quantity can drop to abysmal levels (despite the excessive fatigue, the body and brain can become too wired and frayed to actually relax). Autistic burnout can be so prolonged and disruptive to one’s life that it can serve as the fact impetus to seek diagnosis for those autistic adults not yet aware of their autism. I believe I was trying to slam on the brakes of sliding into burnout unbeknownst to me when I saw my doctor as the first step of receiving my autism diagnosis nearly two years ago. Like seeing a car crash just before it happens, I had a premonition that the massive issues I was feeling stacking upon me were the product of a lot more than just an exacerbation or my normal clinical depression, generalized anxiety disorder, ADHD, and even more recent PTSD. The past two years have involved quite a process of adjusting my self-concept, learning about myself, building supports and strategies, and healing from autistic burnout. I’m not out of the abyss that I had unknowingly dug from nearly thirty years of masking and trying to “succeed” in our neurotypical world. Fortunately, while the situation seemed like it would be permanent and that my life (and my independence, mental health, and ability to handle the things I needed and wanted to do) was taking an irreversible nosedive, I now have more confidence that I’m going to pull out of this and get back to a path where I feel I have meaning and the self-efficacy to be who I want and achieve what I want in this life.