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  • Writer's picturemahlia-amatina

Autistic workplace burnout - 1

Autistic burnout can be defined as a “state of incapacitation, exhaustion, and distress in every area of life”, (Raymaker et al., 2020).

I really appreciate the ‘every area of life’ part, as it really is just that. It’s important to differentiate it from traditional burnout, which is often described as being a state of mental and physical exhaustion, caused by intense and prolonged stress, over a period of time. For autistic people, the burnout is experienced at a whole other level; with autistic traits amplified and fired off to a worsening state, which so often feels like it’s at a point of no return.

The effect is so debilitating, and can impact our ability to speak, look after ourselves, as well as our capacity to perform and go to work

This blog is by no means written to minimise traditional burnout (for all burnouts are serious), but to instead highlight the differences in experience in the autistic population.

I know for myself, autistic burnout really reduces my tolerance and ability to deal with the sensory sensitivities that I experience day-to-day. This becomes so profound. And this combination of chronic exhaustion with my inability to perform basic tasks has a massive knock-on effect on my mental health. It spirals my levels of depression; I find myself so low and unable to see into the future. I have a disillusioned structure and sense of reality, and a lack of belief that this too will pass. With regards to my anxiety, it’s actually obliterated to the point of complete shutdown, in that it doesn’t feature centre stage. For once. I’m past meltdown and I’m in this continual sense of permanent shutdown. The long thought loops on continual repeat stop, and instead I’m at complete saturation point. I find it hard to respond coherently, and my processing time has been doubled, tripled, quadrupled. I’m not even sure how slow it becomes exactly.

So how does someone reach this stage, and why is burnout experienced so differently in the autistic population?

There are many thought pieces and research around this, but I find it essentially comes down to one fact: that we are living in a world that is built around neurotypicals and their needs, and that the combination of this, in different forms, really racks up over time and can lead to burnout. Some reasons for this, and what this looks like in the workplace, include the following:

1. The environment: being in a noisy, open plan office, with bright lights, a temperature you can’t control, strong smells and a lack of quiet spaces can have a massive impact on an autistic person’s ability to cope in such an ecosystem. And this overcompensating over time really adds up and contributes towards burnout. Even after adjustments are made, the space may still not be quite right, and the autistic person may continue to overcompensate (for various reasons, for instance not feeling that they can ask for further changes when adjustments have already been made).

When you’re in an environment that isn’t conducive to what works well for you and your needs, this can be really detrimental over time

2. Another major factor is expectation from others, and the impact this has when it outweighs your ability. For instance, when a manager expects you to work to the same deadlines and targets as your neurotypical peers, without adequate support. This mismatch of expectations and abilities has a massive impact, as you’re constantly trying to play catch up, and then to keep up – all of which costs your mental health and overall wellbeing. In my experience, this has really played on my self-esteem in terms of not ever feeling quite good enough. And then there’s the pressure of when you are there – keeping all the plates spinning in the air, and ensuring that nothing goes wrong for them to ever crash down. It’s excruciating.

3. Not receiving the right support from your managers, HR and the organisation at large, to enable you to do your work, can also play a considerable role in building up towards burnout. This support may be practical in terms of having equipment that you perhaps need (e.g., noise cancelling headphones), having more frequent catch ups with your manger, or simply reduced targets with needing to take more frequent breaks to minimise other symptoms like overwhelm.

It’s important to note that it may be a combination of support that you require, and also that this support is not static – it changes over time, as we all change and have different needs at various points in our lives

4. Masking. Now this is a big one, and it doesn’t matter how much I’ve become conscious of this over the years – I very much still mask. I know I do it less, as I’m more aware of it, but there’s something so innate and ingrained in wanting to fit in, and adapting myself to mix in with my peers. Whatever the context. I’m really conscious of my communication and appearing too blunt. I quickly rectify this and soften the blow. I will try to sit, act and be in line with those around me. I still make an effort with my face and ensure I give the appropriate verbal cues of feedback when someone is speaking with me. I don’t want people to remember me, I just want to blend in. And that, I can tell you, is most thoroughly exhausting.

5. Dealing with change.

Any type of transition in life is challenging, but for autistic people, more so

It can realistically take me years to fully integrate a major change that has occurred – and despite knowing fully well how much I struggle with change – this continues to catch me out every time. For cognitively, I feel that “this isn’t a huge change, I should have adjusted by now”, yet the reality is vastly different, and it simply takes me time. A lot of time. The change can be from any area of my life, and this impacts how I am at work. Which is why I wanted to include this as its own separate point, for change is something that we are all regularly affected by in life: invited or not.

Now naturally, how an autistic burnout looks like in terms of its specific symptoms will vary person-to-person

This could be anything from not wanting to get up in the mornings, exhaustion, depression, chronic health issues, restlessness, increased stimming, the inability to complete tasks, anxiety – the list really is endless. And it can be a combination of symptoms, which vary in depth and size. Symptoms are not created equal. Time off work may be required and additional support more generally.

The aim here though is not to get to the point of burnout. We want to be able to spot the signs early on and to find ways to cope and manage. I do want to stress though, that it’s not the be all and end all if you do end up in burnout. At the time, it can feel like it’s irreversible and like there’s no way out, but it’s really not. I do just want to say that. The second part of this blog will look at tips to avoid burnout from occurring.

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