Autistic burnout - A tired black man sleeping

What does autistic burnout feel like?

One of the symptoms of autism I dislike the most is being tired all the time.

I’ve never heard an autistic person say: “I’m so full of energy!”

Fatigue is so common among autistic people that it should be in the diagnostic criteria of autism.

I fell asleep in a cupboard and the bathroom in my workplace

I’ve always had less energy than most people around me. I was already 28 when I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and ADD. For most of my life, I thought I was just lazy. That’s what people had always told me.

Going to school made me tired. My experiences with “regular” jobs have been short because these jobs wore me out.

When I was 20 I had a job as a cleaner. The workday began at 7 am. I’ve always had trouble waking up early and going to bed early. I was so tired that I fell asleep on the floor of the cleaner’s cupboard. Sometimes I slept for hours in the cupboard in the middle of the workday.

As a junior high school student, I participated in a two-week internship at a travel agency. Once I fell asleep in the bathroom at the workplace. I slept there for around two hours. My supervisor thought I had gone out shopping in the middle of the workday.

I didn’t correct her. Admitting that I had been sleeping in the bathroom would have been more embarrassing than allowing her to think I had been shopping.

Why am I always tired?

I often thought I had some illness because I was always so tired. I thought I had hypothyroidism or something. I went to see doctors, but they didn’t find anything.

The doctors prescribed me SSRIs because they thought I was depressed. The SSRIs made me even more tired. I napped almost daily.

Unfortunately, quitting SSRIs has turned out to be tricky. I’ve been on and off them since 2004. Now I’m slowly withdrawing myself from antidepressants, and little by little, I’m regaining more energy.

I have experienced periods of depression in my life. So, I know what it’s like to be depressed. But even when I’m not depressed, I’m still tired. It’s not like I don’t want to do things, I just don’t have the energy to do the things I would like to do. When I was depressed, I didn’t even want to do most things.

After getting my Asperger’s diagnosis, I found out I did have a physical reason why I was so tired. I had an iron deficiency. I took iron tablets for a year. My ferritin level improved, and I had more energy.

Eliminating the physical causes of fatigue has made me less tired. Not being forced to wake up early or have a “regular job” anymore has also improved my energy level. But I still have less energy than most people. I’ve realized that it’s one of the symptoms of my autism.

A man resting on a bed with his dog

Chronic fatigue is common among people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder

There is scientific proof that fatigue is deeply associated with Autism Spectrum Disorders. The terms used for the fatigue of autistic people are “autistic fatigue” and “autistic burnout”.

One of the reasons why autistic people experience fatigue is masking their autism in social situations.

If neurotypical people accepted autistic behavior, we wouldn’t need to mask our symptoms. That would help us alleviate the fatigue we so often experience.

Dealing with social situations and sensory overload is also exhausting for people with ASD. Public places are not accessible to autistic people. There are bright fluorescent lights and overwhelming noise levels everywhere. Even a trip to a supermarket is exhausting to many of us.

Social situations are also tiring because autistic people need to think about everything. Social interaction is not automatic for us. We need to assess what to say and when to say it. We constantly need to process what other people say and how we’re supposed to react.

People with ASD also often have co-occurring health conditions, such as gastrointestinal problems. I also have IBS. I wonder if it was the underlying cause of my iron deficiency.

Constant stomach problems affect your energy levels. They can also lead to other health issues, such as vitamin deficiencies. Not getting enough nutrients makes you even more tired. It’s a vicious circle.

Being overtaxed for years can lead to autistic burnout

Spending years trying to meet demands that don’t match your needs leads to over-taxation. That is the reality of many autistic people. Many of us don’t even get a diagnosis until we’re grown up. When you don’t even know you have special needs, how can you live a life that meets your needs?

A tired student in the school yard

Long-term over-taxation can lead to autistic burnout. Autistic burnout is described as “a state of physical and mental fatigue, heightened stress, and reduced capacity to manage life skills, sensory output, and social interactions”.

Clinical observations suggest that the symptoms of autistic burnout resemble the symptoms of CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome). The overlapping symptoms include fatigue, brain fog, cognitive impairments, increased pain, impaired emotional contact, and increased sensitivity to sounds, light, and odor.

At some point, I was afraid that I might have CFS. Now I understand I may have experienced autistic burnout. I think I might still have autistic burnout.

As far as I know, recovering from autistic burnout can take a long time. After all, it takes years of stressful life to trigger it in the first place.

I’m not happy to admit it, but I suspect I may not have recovered from my autistic burnout yet. After all, I lived 28 years without knowing I was autistic.

And I put myself under excessive stress even after my diagnosis. I’m still in the process of learning how to adjust my lifestyle to meet my needs.

Based on my experience, autistic burnout makes you tired even when you haven’t had social interaction. I understand that I need recovery time after a social event or even after a trip to a grocery store. That’s normal to me.

But I experience fatigue even when I’ve been at home for days. That’s what frustrates me the most. I don’t have the energy to engage in as many activities as I’d like to.

Recovering from autistic burnout

On top of other health issues, I also suffer from SSRI withdrawal symptoms. That makes it difficult to assess what is the cause of my fatigue. Is it autistic burnout or withdrawal symptoms? Sometimes I have no idea what is wrong with me.

I may have autistic burnout, withdrawal symptoms, or both. Regardless of the cause of my fatigue, I know I need to allow my nervous system to recover.

For me, yoga has been crucial for calming my nervous system. Research shows that yoga relieves stress and conditions like depression, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, and chronic pain.

Autistic burnout is a stress-related condition. That’s why yoga can be beneficial for treating it as well.

A woman doing yoga outdoors

If you suffer from autistic burnout, I suggest doing whatever helps you relax and recover. Relaxation and stress management is vital even if you don’t have autistic burnout. After all, preventive care is more effective than repairing the damage.

This is not medical advice, but these are some habits that have helped me recover from autistic burnout:

  • Yoga
  • Reiki
  • Spending time in nature
  • Working less
  • Energy management; assessing how much energy I have for different activities
  • Learning to say “no”
  • Vagus nerve exercises
  • Exploring my special interests
  • Learning more about myself and my ideal lifestyle
  • Decluttering (take it slow, though!)
  • Processing my emotions and traumas

If fatigue was in the diagnostic criteria of autism, being tired all the time might be slightly less frustrating

If it was official that fatigue is one of the symptoms of autism, it might be slightly less frustrating.

I’m not saying that would make people suddenly understand how autism affects our daily life. But at least we could say that being tired all the time is a symptom of a neurological condition. We would have some proof that we’re not just lazy.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where you need a medical diagnosis so being tired is even somewhat acceptable. That’s why chronic fatigue should be listed as a symptom of autism as well.

It would help autistic people if we knew that being autistic can cause fatigue. Even if other people wouldn’t understand us any better, at least we would know ourselves.

Finding out that you have less energy because of a medical condition can make a difference for someone who has always thought they were just lazy.

Knowing and accepting yourself is the first step to living a life that matches who you are.

Have you experienced autistic fatigue or autistic burnout? How has it affected your life? Please share your experience in the comments.

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  1. Thank you for this post! My 21 y/o was dx’d at age five and, for good and bad, he’s exceptionally good at socially masking. He is also perpetually tired and often lethargic. I’ve wondered if it was exhaustion or laziness, deciding maybe he’s mentally spent after trying to navigate an NT world all day. Hearing another autistic person describe what I see affirms my son isn’t lazy, but experiences the burnout you write about!

    1. Yes, I think most of us with autism experience autistic burnout to some extent. And high-masking autistic people are more likely to experience it. Thank you for your comment!

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