Two weeks ago I started putting together something of a comprehensive post about my fatigue, in an attempt to have it all of a narrative piece. I haven’t had the energy to get back to it. There’s something I wanted to get into now, though.
Thinking back on how I consider the actual, underlying disorder in autism to be a nervous system that is “atypically sensitive to and susceptible to becoming overloaded or overwhelmed by stimuli”, it occurs to me that this helps explain the mechanics of autistic burnout.
I’ve said before that I view autistic burnout as a sort of hyperactualized version of simply being autistic, in the sense that I view living as an autistic person as a matter of constantly needing to manage my available resources versus the demands being placed upon them—burnout, then, being a matter of having gotten oneself so far over the edge of one’s resource cliff that you’re effectively Wile E. Coyote running in place in mid-air just before the drop.
What I was thinking about today was that recovery takes so long for an autistic person because it’s not like our nervous system stops being “atypically sensitive to and susceptible to becoming overloaded or overwhelmed by stimuli” while we are trying to recover. The normal things people do to achieve rest don’t necessarily work for us, because our nervous systems continue to clock stimuli that others can shut out, or that others do feel but our systems feel them more intensely and more problematically.
Burnout is a little bit like autistic shutdown played out on a deeper level, at a more glacial pace, and on a more existential stage.
When becoming overwhelmed by the pressures of increasing stimuli, the best and natural thing for the autistic brain to do is to seek to reduce both existing and potential further stimuli. Withdrawing into ourselves, often with the aid of self-regulatory behavior or through the use of mitigating factors such as sunglasses and headphones, we engage in emergency measures to manage the balance between our available resources and the demands being placed upon them.
The problem is that the depth, pace, and existential nature of autistic burnout as opposed to a more discrete instance of autistic shutdown is that if we don’t live in a society that admits to the needs evinced by the latter we surely do not live in one that admits to the needs evinced by the former.
We have something of a botched view of resilience as being something we demonstrate through endurance rather than through recovery. This is true before we even reach consideration of the needs of atypical neurotypes. If autistic shutdown necessitates, say, near-term emergency measures to head off the plummet into meltdown, imagine the pressures involved when finding oneself in autistic burnout.
I’m not going anywhere in particular here with this, although it’s part of my examination of my own fatigue issues that I’ve come to call “sub-clinical” because they never seem to match the sorts of intensity with which you’ll see things like ME/CFS and Long Covid described. Mostly I am just thinking.
That said, I know that autistics going through autistic burnout can have trouble articulating the experience in realtime, and sometimes just having someone else try to articulate it can itself be helpful, so in this case while I’m just thinking, I’m thinking aloud.