I crashed out of secondary school twice during the course of my five years there. I dropped out of college by the end of my second year. I bailed on my first ever ‘proper’ job at a fast food restaurant after less than two months and about ten shifts, half of which I didn’t go to. I had to give up on my volunteering position in a cafe after a few months and several missed days.
For a long time I was able to recognise this pattern, but I couldn’t understand it. I was never able to explain it to other people, because it just sounded like I was being irrationally negative: “I just have mental breakdowns every few years, so it’s bound to happen again soon.” People would just try to reassure me that I was exaggerating or making assumptions. But… I usually turned out to be right.
Eventually I came across the phrase “autistic burnout”. It’s an experience that lots of people have described, where a period of long-term gradual overload becomes intolerable. That sounds understandable enough: non-autistic people experience burnout sometimes too, maybe when they have major life events happening. But my burnout hasn’t been at times of particularly major life events – nothing more major than others around my age were going through. The explanation for that is deceptively simple, but difficult to fully explain: I have a much lower than average threshold for stimulation.
I’m not just talking about sensory stimulation here – that’s a part of it, but only a small part. I’m talking about the really general meaning of stimulation. For me, that includes things like:
- Spending time around people (moreso if they are strangers).
- Being told what to do.
- Doing time-dependent and time-limited tasks.
- Travelling away from home.
- Anything which involves commitment to a task or a time or anything else.
- Dealing with a rigid social hierarchy of any kind.
- Sensory input – a lot (e.g. crowded places), bad (e.g. smells), or both.
There are other things, too – I only wrote down the main ones. Some of them are so subtle that it’s difficult to even define them. It’s probably easier to define what stimulation isn’t. It isn’t “me being at home by myself doing whatever I want”. Anything which deviates from that will be stimulation of some kind or another.
I think the concept of stimulation applies to everyone – autistic and otherwise. Everyone is probably familiar with the feeling of needing a break, or being desperate for a holiday, or just wanting everything to STOP. Everyone has a certain amount of energy (or spoons, if you prefer) per day, per week, per hour – and it costs that energy to deal with stimulation.
The difference is that not everyone has the same amount of energy. The average able-bodied NT person has plenty of energy to spare, so that they rarely ‘run out’. Most of the time they are perfectly able to have a full-time job, socialise, look after themself and their home, and pursue their interests and hobbies. The idea of a limited energy level that doesn’t simply result in sleepiness after a long day is difficult to understand if you’ve never experienced it.
But some people – autistic people for example, or people with chronic illness, or mental health problems, or many other things – have a much smaller amount of energy to spend. That means they run their energy down to zero much more quickly when doing the same things. People with reduced energy thresholds can still exert themselves once they’ve run out – just like spending money with an overdraft. But overloading that energy debt can have extreme negative consequences (just like how you pay back more in interest than the amount you actually borrowed).
Depending on the reason for a person’s reduced energy threshold, the result of an energy debt may vary. For a person with chronic pain, getting into energy debt might result in a flare-up. For me, the energy limit is not so much physical as neurological. So the result of me getting into debt is a mental inability to cope: which results in severe anxiety, panic attacks, and depression.
Burnout – meltdown
My description of an inability to cope with overload might sound familiar if you read my post about meltdowns. That’s because it is similar. In fact, I’d say that burnout is a type of meltdown – one that occurs over a much longer timescale. It fits the same niche: it’s my brain’s last resort, an extreme emotional release as a result of overload. But it’s a response to a chronic energy debt, instead of an acute one.
Burnout eventually does have the intended effect – it stops the overload. Because it stops my ability to function at all, which handily includes my ability to go to school or work or do the things that were draining my energy faster than I could replenish it. Just like a meltdown forces me to get out of whatever situation was acutely overloading me.
After I’ve hit burnout, there is an unavoidable period of rest as I pay back that energy debt (which could take weeks or years, depending on how large the debt is). And then, if I haven’t learned my lesson, I go back to the overloading things and start racking the debt back up again.
So, I think I will try to learn my lesson. The trouble is, that’s not easy. I’ve spent my life so far having full-time occupations and catastrophically failing to cope with them. I don’t actually know what it’s like to have a level of stimulation that I can cope with. I don’t know what level of stimulation that will be, and I don’t know how to find out without testing myself until I crash again.
For now, my plan is to increase my level of stimulation very slowly. It’s been two years since I dropped out of college after my latest period of burnout. I spent the first year with no real occupation, which was needed in order to repay the massive debt I’d accumulated over the years previously. For the last year I’ve been studying at home full-time, which entails only minimally more than zero stimulation.
This next year I’m planning to carry on studying full-time, and incrementally add more things into my life. I’m about to become an assistant presenter for courses about autism, which will probably only happen a few times a year but is very high-concentration in terms of stimulation (talking to groups of strangers – eek!). I’m tentatively starting to work on a book and looking into publishers. I’m hoping to take more direct action on my mental health. I want to try to see my distantly-located friends and brother more frequently.
Those are mostly good things, but they’re also very hard. I am extremely wary about pushing myself too much. Burnout is not fun.
It’s difficult to explain the concept of limited energy to people who haven’t experienced it. It’s even more difficult to explain when I actually have functioned with a full-time occupation before. If I now say I’m unable to do that, it either seems like I’m flat-out lying, or like I’m deliberately ‘disabling’ myself by limiting what I can do. But neither of those is the case. I never knew that most people don’t feel overwhelmed and overloaded all the time. I did know that most people don’t have mental health breakdowns like clockwork every few years – but I didn’t know why that happened to me and not others. Maybe most significantly, I didn’t know that energy limits existed, let alone that the idea could explain my experiences.
Now that I do know those things, I’m not lying about my past or trying to make myself worse off than I am. I’m finally being honest, to myself, about my own abilities. If that looks like I’m limited myself, it’s only because I’ve pushed myself way too hard for my whole life until now. It might look like I now have the life of a ‘more’ disabled person than I have before. But it’s actually the opposite. I am just as disabled as I always have been, but now I am taking some control over how my life works. I’m looking forward to finding out what happens.