Part 1: Autistic Burnout – Playing on the Social Field
Autistic burnout = I literally can’t pretend and devote 90% of my energy to being on your social playing field anymore. Metaphorically, I have to go lie down in the grass because I’ve played too many games on the social field. No one will have noticed until I go and lie down, even though I was more exhausted than everyone else while playing the social games in the first place. But because I was still doing my best to keep up, and was able to keep up, even though it hurt, no one could notice my pain until I stopped playing the game. And that is dangerous for us. That means anxiety, depression, self-harm. That means that we don’t have any resources left to do daily tasks, or take care of ourselves, or to translate our thoughts to NT-speak. That means we stretched ourselves too far. It is much worse than just “feeling tired.” It is stress and scary thoughts. It is not having any thoughts to contribute. It is a literal health risk, both physically and mentally, but is invisible to our neurotypical peers, because we desperately try to keep up, disregarding the risks to ourselves while they are running safely and easily on the social field. They are completely unaware of the effort we put in to playing their social games, because we spend our last ounce of energy on making it look easy. And eventually we fall and crash and lie down.
That is autistic burnout.
Part 2: “Regression”
I hate the word “regression.”
It is not regression – it’s the fact that I can’t keep up this act for more than 25% of my lifespan. That masking may have already shortened my lifespan.
What happens with autistic burnout – with exhaustion – is that you can no longer hide yourself in society. You can no longer step outside and have that “shield” in front of you, even if that shield slowly zaps your energy and mental health in the process.
The idea that a person who is wearing headphones/stimming/not making eye contact is “more autistic” than they used to be, is such a flawed one.
- Person without headphones – people interact normally with.
- Person with headphones – people are confused by, think they cannot hear, or ignore them altogether.
The person in there doesn’t change! The person is the same person. The way people react to that person is different. Society sees autistic people as “regressing” simply because we are being our autistic selves and because we have been taught (implicitly or explicitly) to suppress our identity for our entire lives. No one’s regressing. That adult, or that kid, is the same person they were a month ago. They just can’t pretend to be someone else out in the open anymore. They are exhausted from pretending to be someone else for the last 5-90 years.
I will state that yes, with exhaustion, you may be less likely to verbalize your thoughts or may need to stim more to regulate your sensory environment, or may be extra sensitive to stimuli. But that doesn’t somehow make you “more autistic” than you were. Our brains react differently to stress than a neurotypical person’s brain – that doesn’t make us “more autistic” when we’re tired. We’re just autistic, and we’re tired. Tired from years of pretending that we are not autistic.
For example, what does an exhausted neurotypical person look like? Can they do the same things they did when they weren’t exhausted? No, they can’t! Does that mean they’re “more neurotypical”? See how illogical that is? They’re just tired! Human beings have limits, and autistic people (i.e. human beings) aren’t any different.
For me, autistic burnout and “regression” brings out the arbitrariness of functioning labels. Just because people now notice that I’m having trouble with eye contact, or that I’m accommodating my auditory sensitivity, doesn’t mean that I am “more autistic.” Either I can be in pain and “pretend” not to be and be miserable, or I can wear headphones and be better able to verbalize my thoughts.
If you were me, which one makes sense to do? And which one is going to get you more noticed? Probably the latter.
Part 3: Identity Crisis
And especially for us late-diagnosed folks, it takes quite a while to realize just how much energy we have devoted to masking. And while I kept uncovering things, I started to get more and more frustrated, and more and more tired, because I finally knew just how little other people had to expend to communicate with others. And at first I was angry – I mean, how did I not know this my entire life?! Then I was bitter – realizing how much energy was wasted on masking. Then I was sad – what could I have done if I hadn’t masked? Could I have done more? How would my life have been different?
But then, I got to this state – exhausted. After learning just how much effort I had to put into my communication with others and with sensory environments compared to what neurotypicals put in, I learned just how tired I was from it all. Because only once you start unmasking (even in small degrees), do you realize how much time and energy you have spent on this mask. Just how much time and effort you spent into crafting this magnificent, elaborate illusion of who you are, an identity which you’ve whole-heartedly believed in for the majority of your existence. And then you find out that other people’s masks are not elaborate or magnificent – they are only facets of who they are, pieces they choose to show to the public, which are still commonly themselves. Their subconscious social processing allows them to filter their thoughts and feelings into an appropriate existence in social environments without them realizing this at all. Their mask is rarely all-encompassing. Their mask is rarely used in the privacy of their own home, or when out with friends. Their mask is selective. Our mask is not. Our mask is who we are to others. But it is not who we are to ourselves. But if you believed that was who you were for most of your life – it takes a while to get your identity back. You thought you knew who you were, and now you must decide who you are not. Do you whittle everything down until there’s nothing left?
There will inevitably always be a mask on me. I’ve slowly made it less magnificent, less fanatically NT. I’ve made it more manageable. I’ve pulled it out when needed from time to time, and practiced putting it away. Parts of my mask have likely fused to my identity. But I have whittled the other parts down: an ongoing, difficult feat.
Like young vines growing on old trees, something new seems to be emerging – and I think it’s me.