Fear the Almighty Autistic Burnout
With opportunity comes risk
The new year has brought a flood of opportunities into my life, of which I’m grateful. I don’t necessarily believe too much in fate, but I feel like things come to you when you’re ready for them. To have so many new opportunities arrive suddenly feels like a big endorsement of everything I’ve done to this point on this personal growth journey: that I’m ready to move into a new chapter, that I’m ready to handle more on my plate, that I’m ready to put myself out there more than I have during the past two years.
It’s also overwhelming and terrifying.
I think of this analogy: I’m standing on one of those balance trainers—the flat board on top of half a rubber ball in a gym or physical therapy office—trying so hard to stay up. You are never perfectly balanced in the middle; the goal, instead, is to keep within a range on either side that is still pretty stable but that allows you to make adjustments to not fall too far to the right or left.
That’s how managing these opportunities feels with my autistic brain.
I had reached a point in January where I felt like it didn’t require herculean effort to stay within that safe range around the equilibrium. I knew what I wanted to do, I felt confident about how everything balanced and complemented each other, I felt secure that I could commit to everything and not be overextended, etc.
But, whenever new things come in—good or bad—it’s like a gust of wind hitting me, forcing me to adjust my balance to stay within that safety zone. It takes more effort to keep myself from dangerously wobbling too much back and forth and to get myself back to the comfortable equilibrium.
That process includes a lot of evaluating the opportunity, figuring out how much it would require of me to pursue, fitting that into the equation of everything else that’s on my plate, and deciding whether I have the capacity and bandwidth to manage it all, or if bringing in something new means that something else has to give.
It takes time and effort and intention to work through that process, to stop wobbling and get back to equilibrium.
When multiple new things come at once, the gust of wind is stronger, the wobble more extreme, the energy and focus required greater. There are a lot of factors to take into consideration, to balance everything to build the life I want to build.
There’s also a lot of emotion, the largest of which is fear.
In the analogy of the balance trainer, not being able to control the wobble leads to autistic burnout. Not your normal “I’m exhausted after a crazy week” or “I’m overextended and need to get things off my plate” type of burnout.
Autistic burnout is when my brain gets so overstimulated, so overwhelmed, without any rest or time to calm down and return back to even-keel, where it just automatically shuts down. Once I reach that point, it overrides anything that I try to do and basically pulls all control out of my hands. “You couldn’t give me what I need,” it says, “so I’m going to do it myself.”
Once the whole system shuts down, the only thing I can do is wait and ride through the storm. My brain just doesn’t work normally, to where I can’t really function, where eating and focusing on work and having any energy for anything is like climbing a mountain carrying someone on my shoulders. Nothing is easy; everything feels impossible, daunting.
And it’s terrifying because there’s no telling how long my brain will shut down for, how long I’ll need to just survive through to get back to being able to live my life and do the things I need and want to. I have no control. It could be a couple days, or a week, or two, or longer. There’s no telling. It’s painful, traumatic, exhausting, destructive. Every time I’ve emerged from an autistic burnout, I feel like my overall capacity ceiling for anything is lower, like the pain the burnout inflicts and the strength it requires to get out of it permanently reduces what I’m capable of doing moving forward.
After having gone through this process of overheating and burning out again and again in my life—most recently after I moved from Atlanta to Chattanooga—I’ve learned that I need to do everything in my power at all times to avoid ever reaching that DEFCON 1 point where I fall off the balance trainer, where I shut down, where I burn out.
So, in that process of adjusting to the new wind gust of opportunities, the evaluation and decision-making process is filtered through that lens: “will bringing these opportunities on lead me to another autistic burnout?”
Fear-based decision-making normally doesn’t lead to the best results. But fear-blind decision-making normally guarantees the worst results.
There’s no perfect solution or formula for this; like I said, you’re never perfectly balanced on the balance trainer, or at least you aren’t for longer than a second or two before you tip one way or the other.
There’s always fear and uncertainty whenever new things come on, and I’ve learned to accept and embrace that because factoring in the risk of autistic burnout while I’m making these decisions keeps me safe, balanced.
But leaning too much into that fear can be paralyzing, crippling; it can hold me back from taking the opportunities that will lead to the life that I’m trying to build for myself.
Just like you engage your core muscles on the balance trainer to try to steady yourself and keep from wobbling too far to either side, I’ve recognized and built trust in my core muscles that help me avoid autistic burnout:
I’m continuously growing in my understanding of my autistic brain, seeing how it responds to different situations and pressures and recognizing triggers that throw me off balance;
I’m confident in my ability to manage whatever comes to me because of all the experiences I’ve had in the past and the lessons I’ve learned from them;
I’m confident in my decision-making process, which has been honed and shaped from those experiences and lessons to avoid what has led me into instability and autistic burnout in the past; and,
I feel solid in the coping mechanisms that I’ve developed and implemented over the past year: listening to music on my noise-cancelling headphones, throwing a ball against the wall, using the Pomodoro technique while I’m working, listening to my body and resting and working when it feels organic, etc.
If these opportunities had all come to me in this wave a year ago, I don’t think I would have been able to say those four things back then.
Maybe things really do come to you when you’re ready to handle them.
I’ve been out walking/
I don’t do too much talking these days/
These days I seem to think a lot/
About the things that I forgot to do/
And all the times I had/
The chance to/