(Inside: Autistic burnout can be a serious pain, but today I’m sharing 5 practical strategies for avoiding autistic burnout that you can put in place today!)
I didn’t know I was autistic until I was a married mom in my twenties.
I grew up believing a lot of lies about myself that would have been avoided had I known about my neurology.
One of the worst? That I was “lazy”.
See, when I am on, I am ON. I can get up early, stay up late, and complete projects like nobody’s business.
But randomly, and sometimes without warning, I would completely crash.
And this pattern happened to me over and over again with no real explanation.
I would be the best employee ever, and then I would barely be able to bring myself to work.
I would be an awesome and active mom, and then I’d barely get off the couch and let Netflix take over.
I would write daily blog posts and grow my site exponentially, then I’d ghost for months at a time, unable to even schedule Facebook.
And the whole time I had no idea why I was on this go-go-go-crash cycle.
Then I found out I am autistic, and with that, I learned about something that explained it all: Autistic Burnout.
See, it wasn’t that I was just lazy or that I couldn’t stick to a routine, or that I was somehow less committed than other people.
I was just experiencing autistic burnout, something that’s frustrating but totally normal for someone with my neurology.
And once I knew that autistic burnout was a natural part of who I was, I was able to put together some practical strategies for avoiding autistic burnout!
5 Practical Strategies for Avoiding Autistic Burnout
While knowing that it was normal was SUPER helpful, but I’m not going to lie… I still really struggle with autistic burnout when it happens.
Because the fact is, I’m a busy mom of 5 (almost 6) kids. I run this blog and a very active community on Facebook. I am a parent coach in the Calm the Chaos Program.
Burning out and losing my ability to function in my everyday life definitely throws a wrench in things.
So today I’m sharing 5 practical strategies for avoiding autistic burnout that I use to keep myself from spiraling out of control on the go-go-go-crash cycle.
#1 Recognize Your Signs of Autistic Burnout
Most autistics aren’t going from feeling awesome all day every day to struggling to get out of bed each morning and complete basic daily tasks.
Most of us have some signs that give us a warning that we’re heading for burnout before it happens.
Maybe you feel more tired than normal and find yourself drinking more coffee just to stay alert through the afternoon slump.
Maybe you get more headaches or notice that you aren’t eating normally.
For me, all of the above are signs that autistic burnout is coming.
I notice that I am feeling tired through the entire day instead of just in the early morning before coffee.
I have chronic migraines, but before burnout, I notice that between true migraines I have mini-headaches that are just irritating.
I also struggle with eating before burnout. I either start forgetting to eat altogether, or I start only eating super unhealthy foods.
Now it’s to the point where I can recognize these signs, and so can my husband, so we both can start taking steps sooner to make sure I don’t reach a complete burnout.
I asked in the Embracing Autism Community, and some of our autistic members shared their signs of autistic burnout:
- “I start compulsively rubbing my eyes.” – Molly
- “I’m a little clumsier… I drop things or bump things. Also, I have a harder time expressing myself verbally. I’ll struggle to find the right words or stammer a bit.” – Kara
- “My processing delay gets worse. I have to read/listen to something eight or nine times to work out what it’s saying rather than my usual 2 or 3” – Ollie
- “Short term memory loss, confused easily, spacing out, can’t even solve the simplest of problems, heart palpitations, extreme hair loss, headaches, weakness, and extreme sensitivity to movement and noises.” – Rebecca
- “I can’t figure out if I want coffee or alcohol 😂 like do I need a boost or a relaxant? I don’t know? Seriously though, it’s hard for me to focus, I get tunnel vision trying to recede into my own world for a while to recharge. My temper gets shorter. My patience evaporates. I feel like I’m on high alert fight or flight but would not survive the impending situation because I’m too exhausted. My empathy well is more shallow too, because all I can think about is physical needs at that point and what I need to do to get to a recharge setting.” – Ashley
#2 Prioritize Your Must-Dos
Okay, so now we can recognize our own signs that autistic burnout is coming, but what do we do to actually stop the train before it runs off the tracks?
The first thing is to prioritize your must-dos.
How many of us have a massive to-do list every single day, and like 80% of it gets moved to tomorrow’s to-do list because there wasn’t enough time or energy or spoons to complete it today?
I know I’m totally guilty of this.
One day I’ll write about how I avoid this to-do list trap in general, but for now, I’m going to focus on how we fix this specifically to avoid autistic burnout.
The key is to figure out what you absolutely MUST do.
I’m talking about those tasks that will have the world falling apart around you if they don’t get done.
My to-do list typically has things like this:
- Write a New Blog Post
- Schedule Facebook
- Interact in our Communities
- Call with Coaching Client — 2 PM
- Record Video Lesson for Upcoming Project
- Answer Emails
- Do the Laundry
- Order Groceries
And on a stellar day where I’m full of spoons, I probably still can’t get ALL of that done, so I definitely can’t do all of that when I’m nearing burnout.
So my must-do list would look more like this:
- Call with Coaching Client — 2 PM
- Interact in Communities
- Do the Laundry
I have to do my coaching calls because the client paid for them, and they’re difficult to reschedule. If I do nothing else today, it will be that coaching call.
Then I’ll interact in my communities. This is a low-spoon activity that is required for my job, so it makes the list.
Then I’ll do the laundry. I need clothes to wear, and I LOVE the smell of laundry soap. So this makes the list.
I also do need to order groceries, but I know that I can off-load that to my husband (he’s better at groceries than me anyway) so it didn’t make my list.
So I guess, tip 2a will be to outsource and delegate anything you possibly can. That doesn’t get its own tip because I know it isn’t always possible for everyone.
#3 Find Time for White Space and Self Care
Okay, so you know what you absolutely MUST do, and now we’re going to find time for white space and self care.
And I’ll be honest, this might be the most difficult part of avoiding autistic burnout, but it often makes the biggest difference.
But what exactly do I mean by “white space and self care”?
First, let’s tackle white space: this is time in your day where there’s literally nothing to do.
This isn’t time you spend eating or taking a shower. It isn’t time you spend cleaning or working on anything.
It’s literally time built into your schedule where you have to do nothing.
Mindlessly scroll Facebook? Sure! Turn on a random Netflix show you aren’t even paying attention to? Totally. Literally sitting in a comfy chair and staring at a wall? Awesome!
And I challenge you to not to see white space as “wasted time”. The fact is that autistic brains need this down time where we aren’t expected to do anything in order to recover from being “on” all the time.
Then there’s self-care.
Now, I’m not talking about the magical fluffy picture of self-care that the internet tries to push on us.
I’m talking nitty-gritty, un-cute, really taking care of yourself kind of self-care.
Because as you saw above, one of the signs that burnout is coming is when self-care tasks like making yourself eat or shower go out the window.
That’s why it’s SO important to push through that whenever you can to complete basic self-care tasks.
Make sure there is time on your calendar to eat, shower, and sleep. And go beyond having the time to do it, but set alarms, ask your spouse to help, or do whatever you personally need to actually get it done.
You’re more likely to avoid burnout if you let go of more “productive” things on your to-do list and just make yourself sit down and eat.
#4 Limit Your Commitments
Okay, this is a more general tip to avoid autistic burnout, and it may or may not be helpful if you already find yourself close to burning out, but it’s worth including.
One of the best ways to avoid burnout is to limit your commitments.
Do you really need to volunteer for that organization? Can you handle the number of hours you’re doing at work? Do you need to take a step back from any specific commitments for a season?
This will be a continual process of reviewing how much you’re capable of handling without forcing yourself into burnout.
And remember that different seasons will mean you can handle different things.
When I’m pregnant I scale WAY back on my commitments because I know that my body will be struggling with so many aches, pains, and sensory discomforts that I’ll be definitely running low on spoons.
When baby is about 6 months old, I’ll start sleeping more and nursing less… That means I’ll feel like I have a TON of energy and I’ll ramp up my commitments a bit to match my energy levels.
So that’s my advice for strategy #4… Continually spend time evaluating your energy levels and limit your commitments whenever possible to avoid autistic burnout.
#5 Build In Recovery Times
Okay, my final strategy for avoiding autistic burnout is this: Build recovery times into your schedule.
See, even when we limit our commitments, there will still be times where you have a lot to do.
And making sure you have adequate time to recover is so important when you’re trying to avoid burning out.
So when you’re trying to build in recovery times, try to see this on a major and minor scale.
On a major scale, you need recovery time after large events that take a lot of your spoons.
I remember after I helped host a retreat for my coaching job, I had to build in a solid month of downtime when I got home to recover.
Then on a minor scale, you need recovery time after minor commitments as well.
Like, after a visit with family, I need a day or so to rest before I’m back on my game.
These recovery times help you to get your spoons back and avoid overextending yourself, which almost always leads to burnout.
So there you have it. 5 practical strategies to avoid autistic burnout. Sometime soon I’ll write a post about how I work through autistic burnout, so feel free to leave your best tips in the comments!
If you loved this post, you might also enjoy…
What is Spoon Theory?
5 Tips for Making Autistic/Neurotypical Marriages Work
Thanks for the article. It’s always nice to know there’s an explanation. I’ve always needed the me time more than most. I had thought it had something to do with the hormones and thought about getting treatment but never did. Cos when I’m ON I’m a bloody genius.and things get done. When I’m not though I just need to chill. :)
I agree. I was always know as the “weird” friend. The one who retreated to a dark bedroom at someone house during a holiday party or would “hide” so they say. It just feels so liberating to know “why”, that it is ok to be who I am, and to educate my friends so they can better understand me. <3 Thank you for writting this.
What do you recommend for me who works full-time and can’t cut back on hours even though I can’t really handle full-time work? I am single and am entirely responsible for my own expenses. I can’t afford part-time work, but my body and mental health can’t seem to handle full-time work..