#023 Inside the World of Autistic Burnout

The Intentional Hulk

I’m in autistic burnout. I’ve determined this because I learned the term this week, and it seems to apply. Burnout isn’t something that only happens to people with autism. It can happen to anyone, and maybe everyone experiences burnout the same way as me, but they aren’t autistic, so they can’t put “autistic” in front of their burnout and feel a little better about it.

Based on my very limited research, one of the signs of autistic burnout is a complete intolerance for things you don’t like but can usually tolerate. Suddenly, those screaming kids or that car with the loud bass aren’t minor irritations. They feel like someone stabbing you in the brain. And so, for hours afterward you’re preoccupied with questions like, “How is it ok for people to go around stabbing other people in the brain?” And, “Why doesn’t anyone say anything about this?”

Another sign of autistic (or maybe regular) burnout is still wanting to do things but feeling like you can’t. When I heard this, I actually started to cry a little bit. For the first time, I felt a little like I wasn’t completely alone with this. If it’s is unfamiliar to you, I can only describe it as something like this: There’s a brick wall inside my rib cage. It’s not going anywhere, and because it’s inside me, I’m not going anywhere, either.

Lucky for me, or maybe unlucky for me, I have a lot of experience with fighting my way out of this state. The trouble is that it’s all paradoxes.

A photo I took while hiking to rejuvenate myself. Somehow, it seems to represent the situation. Maybe it’s because it’s thriving in the middle of a desert.

To calm down my anxiety, I must strive to accept of my anxiety, rather than strive for calm. Calm looks like an oasis on the fucking horizon, but I have to say, “Nope, that’s just a mirage. We have to keep walking the desert… forever.”

I have to accept the knots in my stomach aren’t going anywhere. I have to accept the painful electric current that hums through my nervous system. I have to accept that the massive brick wall in my ribcage is going to sit there, for now, and that when it comes out, it’ll going to tear itself out of my sternum, because that’s actually how it works. The details of this are deeply off-topic, so we’ll talk about it another time.

To move forward, I have to completely divest myself of all responsibility and desire to move forward. I have to actually stop wanting it. I must extinguish the constant thrum in my brain that tells me that I haven’t proven my worth yet, today. The sheer amount of labor this prove-your-worth voice asks me to do is unreasonable. If I do what it asks, I’ll feel like I’ve won the day, but I will absolutely be ready for a total meltdown by the end of it. When I get it to stop, it’s a lot like turning off a firehose that’s been aimed directly at my face. Recovery ensues.

I almost apologized for my burnout, but then I started wondering, why, even now, when we know so much about human limitations, do we still feel the need to apologize when we don’t act like machines? Where did we get the idea that we need to be like machines in the first place?

When we make something, why do we think we need to produce an exact replica of the one perfect thing we accidentally made that one time? If we were a genius once, we think that every other time when we’re not a genius, we’ve failed. It must mean we need recalibration. Stat.

Of course, pausing—stopping work—well, that’s an abomination.

Did machines teach us to expect this from ourselves or did we start asking more from ourselves because machines became more reliable?

Well, except for printers. A printer is the only machine that fails so regularly that we expect it to fail. It’s also a machine that acts as a liaison between the digital and physical worlds. Like printers, we also have to straddle both worlds, but we don’t give ourselves the same grace that we give printers. Or, maybe we don’t give printers much grace. I’ve thrown out many.

Maybe regular failure is just a consequence of straddling these two worlds, which, as humans with physical bodies, is something we’ll always have to do.

Consistent output is only possible in the digital realm because the digital world isn’t real. It’s just ones and zeros, and physical reality doesn’t interfere with its functioning. Well, rarely.

In the days of the early internet, I’d access it in a computer lab. It would fail regularly, then. When it did, we’d all look up from our terminals and spend a few minutes adjusting our eyes to looking at actual people. The physical world would slide back into place. Back then, there was still a sliver of daylight between us and the machines.

Before the average person needed to work like a machine (before the industrial revolution?), did people still suffer from burnout? Is this all tied to the belief that we have to align our own behavior with something inherently inhuman?


Mom on the Spectrum made a video about how to differentiate between depression and autistic burnout. It was very timely and helpful to me.

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