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Dealing with autistic burnout: importance of alone time.

Updated: Jul 16

Once you're in it, you just know. It takes over. There is the anger and the tiredness..a heavy tiredness. Climb-into-bed-for-days sort. But how did you get to that point? Where did the sudden rage come from?

What I share below are my observations, based on own experience and generalised concerns from autistic clients I have worked with. I also put forward a suggestion on dealing with autistic burnout. I hope it resonates.

Here are three points I have identified, which contribute to the pit of hopelessness that is autistic burnout:

  • Gradual build up

The intensity of sensory experience and demands creeps up over time. It accumulates. A day of back to back meetings, followed by a sports class, followed by a rushed dinner and an extra early wake-up...A few of those in quick succession, with added caring responsibilities or social commitments we may have, and there you go. You have arrived at the pit even though individual days were kind of just about manageable

  • Little or no head space

Another sure culprit I have discovered is being surrounded by people all the time, especially people with rights of ownership on your time and attention. Yes, hello, children! You are lovely and all but my head is hurting. There is a strong sense of responsibility. Things have to be just right, whether it is a work conversation, time with friends or family. And with scarce buffer in between, there's no opportunity to process information. So we just end up carrying around this mental load

  • Lack of control

And here is what in my view brings on the bleakness of autistic burnout like nothing else--the inability to make a positive change. You may know you need to reduce the demands on your resources but it is just not going to happen. The job still has to be done, the family cared for, the house cleaned...Right? So even when you're in the hopeless pit you still drag yourself up and get on with it. Because there is no choice

What might help?

I have a suggestion, which I have personally found useful and seen autistic clients benefit from too. It is actually the inverse of the second contributing point.

Turn little or no head space into sufficient time alone.

The duration and frequency of the restorative solitude will differ from one person to another depending on your natural requirement for social contact. The precious thing about time alone is that it allows us to:

  1. calm ourselves

  2. analyse the information

  3. decide whether we need to take action

You can see really how the time alone leads to dealing with the first and the last burnout-contributing points above. If you stop and process what's going on, you become aware of how you are feeling and can put preventative measures in place. Equally, just through the sheer virtue of taking a purposeful action, based on evidence, you are already regaining a sense of control.

And how, you ask, is this going to happen, the utopian time alone?

Start small, I say. Sneak a coffee slot into your school run. By yourself, in the car, once the children have been delivered to the various destinations. If you are in the office, hide in the corner under a plant with a good book before the day officially starts or at break time. And finally, my favourite, pour a glass* of something decent at the end of yet another manic week and have a thorough chat with peace. This is what I do to ring-fence small sections of re-balancing time. Your way may be different. Spending time in nature is great and so is being around animals.

I would not assume to have the answer to how to banish the autistic burnout altogether. If we were to design our worlds from scratch, they would probably accommodate our needs in a greater way than the stolen few moments of solitude. Sometimes big changes do need to take place. But in order to arrive at the conclusion of what that change is and how to implement it, you are likely going to need a bit of thinking time. I would suggest, preferably alone?

For support with navigating life as an autistic person, please reach out, I would be delighted to hear from you.

*mine happens to be a heady red but each to their own and always in moderation

A small ginger terrier dog sleeping on an armchair
My wonderful terrier, Hazel, showing how it's done

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