Dear Dr. Amy,
I am 55 years old and did not get a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder until age 52. Lately, I find after coming home from work I have little energy. It’s almost as if being at work all day uses all my energy. When I get home from work I prefer the lights dim, the room quiet, and I prefer to just sit in a comfortable chair. As a result of using all my energy at work, I find going into places, like grocery stores, is becoming more difficult for me. I know that autism often is diagnosed in childhood. I also know that typically after a child is diagnosed they may receive some services such as speech therapy or occupational therapy to help them cope. I'm wondering if the fact that I didn't have those services is impacting me? Can a person’s energy level be depleted by acting neurotypical all day and, if so, what types of things may help me recharge?
-Tired of trying to be neurotypical
Yes, a person’s energy level can be depleted by trying to act neurotypical. We call this burnout, and it comes from pushing yourself too hard, whether due acting neurotypical, working too much, having an illness, having bad nutrition, or not getting enough sleep. It also can be caused by things that are difficult for people on the spectrum, like major changes or sensory and emotional overload.
If you're not sure if you're experiencing burnout, here are some common signs:
• Lack of motivation (hard to care about goals when everyday life is overwhelming)
• Loss of executive functioning abilities (decision-making, organization, etc.)
• Difficulty with self-care
• Easier to reach overload or meltdown
• Loss of speech, selective mutism
• Lethargy, exhaustion
• Illness, digestive issues
• Memory loss
• Inability to maintain masks or use social skills
• Overall seeming “more autistic” or stereotypical
• May have period of high energy before collapse
There are strategies that can help you deal with burnout and bring your energy levels back up. If you are experiencing a particularly difficult period of burnout, you may have to take a leave of absence from your job to get back on your feet. However, if that's not an option or if you need some long term strategies once you get past the worst of it, here are some other suggestions:
A good place to start is to think about how you spend your time. If possible, make sure you schedule breaks into your day. Creating and sticking to routines can help with this and with reducing the amount of anxiety each day creates. You also should take a hard look at how much you're trying to do and see if you can say "no" more often to give yourself more down time. In addition to focusing on rest, relaxation, solitude, and quiet, it's good to give yourself time to focus on creative projects or special interests. If you can shift some of the time in your day from work and socialization to these types of activities that will help "fill your tank", you may notice improved energy.
It's also good to remember that if you have difficulty with sensory processing, your body and mind may be exhausted by simply dealing with the sensory input of your day to day life. Work to understand what helps you feel calm on a sensory level. This might be exercise or massage, or perhaps a particular stim. Work to create a sensory diet for yourself, so that when you are feeling over or understimulated, you have tools at your disposal to regulate your senses.
Finally, it's important to give yourself time when you're not pretending to be neurotypical. Set aside time when you don't feel as if you have to wear a mask or keep up the act. Make sure that you pay attention to your reactions and your body each day to see when you're starting to become overwhelmed. When that happens, find a way or a place to drop the act and be yourself, even if only for a short time.
Prioritize taking care of yourself, and good luck!
Anonymously Autistic. Autistic Burnout – Are You Going Through Burnout?
Ollibean. Autistic Burnout and Aging.
Baggs, Mel. Help! I seem to be getting more autistic!
Musings of an Aspie. Autistic Regression and Fluid Adaptation.
Schaber, Amythest. Ask an Autistic #3 – What is Autistic Burnout?.
Thanks to Lindsey Allen, AWN Nebraska, for compiling this guide ©Autism Women's Network 2017