Autism is, for the most part, an invisible disability… until it isn’t. My Autism was hidden for most of my life, then suddenly, a few months shy of my 30th birthday, when I was diagnosed Autistic, the invisible was brought to the forefront.
A late Autism diagnosis has a way of shifting your perspective. Up until that point, I had been masking, camouflaging, blending in, hiding in plain sight. I had managed to move through life easily enough by carefully selecting the endeavors I embarked on, avoiding poorly matched tasks for my skill sets, and gravitating towards activities that suited my abilities.
My life was carefully stacked, like a precarious Jenga tower, pieces askew, near the end of the game. One day, the demands of life without additional support became too much, and the carefully balanced tower fell.
For many of us who are NeuroDivergent living in a world filled with NeuroTypical People, even if we don’t have words for what makes us different, we know we are different. I struggled to do things that people around me did with ease, and I didn’t understand why the “easy things” were often so hard for me.
For almost thirty years, I believed I was a non-Autistic person. I didn’t know I was Autistic or that I had ADHD. I didn’t understand my mind and, in turn, was unable to understand others. Thinking I was NeuroTypical meant trying to be NeuroTypical and holding myself to NeuroTypical standards.
Autistic camouflaging or masking is when an Autistic person consciously or subconsciously masks or hides their Autistic traits to blend in or appear NeuroTypical. I didn’t do this to be manipulative or deceptive. I did it for self-protection, to avoid abuse and bullying. Often Autistic People will mask without even realizing we’re doing it, as the pressure from society to be something “socially acceptable” can be enormous, especially for those of us going through life not understanding that our minds work differently.
Passing as NeuroTypical can come at a cost, at the expense of one’s mental and physical health. I pushed myself so hard. Eventually, it broke me, and I found myself burned out and unable to maintain the complex social mask that had kept me safe for most of my life.
Until discovering the truth about my brain, I had been stuck in an endless loop of sickness caused by repeatedly burning myself out, starting in elementary school and eventually, when my burnout happened in the workplace, leading to my autism discovery at the age of 29.
In an article in Spectrum, Autistic burnout is defined as “the intense physical, mental, or emotional exhaustion, often accompanied by a loss of skills, that some adults with autism experience. Many autistic people say it results mainly from the cumulative effect of having to navigate a world that is designed for neurotypical people.”
There are many kinds of burnout in the world: workplace burnout, parental burnout, social burnout, to name a few. Autistic burnout differs from other forms of burnout, as it often includes sensory distress and sensory-related triggers. Many of the pressures from the outside world that cause Autistic burnout are invisible to most people.
Many Autistic People are already spread too thin in a hostile world that doesn’t consider our needs. Then, when we do try to speak up for our needs or try to rest, people around us often won’t understand and may even push back with well-meaning comments like “it’s not that bad” or “please come out with us; it will be fun!”
Other people recharge in environments that drain my batteries, like going out to parties, dancing, socializing, and attending happy hours with friends and colleagues. For me, something like that can be more tiresome than an 8-12 hour workday – which can also take a lot out of me, especially when I used to drive back and forth from a physical office full of sensory triggers, social expectations, and the unspoken nuances of office politics.
Before my Autism diagnosis and my very conscious decision to take my life back from the NeuroTypical expectations that had been crushing me (mentally, spiritually, and emotionally), I had been in survival mode. I was constantly teetering on edge, in and out of burnout.
I would come home from work at my corporate job and had no energy left to give to anyone or anything – not my hobbies and passions or the people in my life I cared about.
When things got bad, I began to neglect everything around me: my home, chores, life, body, friends, loved ones, and family. I was floating through life but not living. I didn’t have the energy. All I could manage was the bare minimums in life as I watched my mental and physical health fail, like a passenger in a speeding car headed for the edge of a cliff.
Hitting a crisis point was my wake-up call. Hitting a crisis point was what led to my Autism diagnosis.
The life I had built was for the sake of others, doing what I thought had been expected of me. I squeezed myself into the NeuroTypical mold that I was not built for – forcing, distorting, and breaking myself to fit.
My Autistic burnout at 29 hit me like a ton of bricks – stopping me in my tracks, forcing me to reevaluate my life. Without it, I don’t know where I’d be today.
I am still recovering over five years later. If it hadn’t happened, it is unlikely my Autism would have been discovered at all. To be diagnosed as Autistic, the person evaluating you has to see you are struggling. Before my burnout, I had managed to hide all my struggles well.
Would I still be stuck in that soul-crushing corporate job, living for the sake of other people, never learning how to speak up for my needs, and not understanding that sensory issues are real and they impact me significantly? Would I have made it, or might I have given up on life? There were many days, at the peak of my burnout, when I had not been sure how much more I’d be able to take.
When you’ve been trapped in a vicious cycle of burnout for most of your life, without knowing why things can feel quite hopeless, you start to wonder when it will end, and ending can mean a lot of different things. In my case, the end was completely changing my life and finding a more suitable and authentic way to live. The end was learning to establish boundaries and speak up for my needs. The end was quitting a job that wasn’t good for me and realizing I needed to work less.
Too many Autistic people are trapped in these cycles of burning out over and over and over again. That’s because the pressure to hold yourself to NeuroTypical standards is enormous.
Putting those expectations down can mean freedom, but also it can mean judgment. With so much on the line, it can be hard to make that leap unless you are pushed, like I was pushed, to that place of crisis, to that wake-up call, and one day you say, “Enough is enough. I’m taking my life back.”
My ending is happy, but it could have just as easily been a much more tragic and early ending if I wouldn’t have course-corrected when I did because I’m convinced that if I hadn’t made those changes when I did, my burnout would have killed me.
I want so much more than burnout and survival mode for the Autistic people of the world. I want to see Autistic people thriving and happy in life. I want to see authentic Autistic joy and success, but it is difficult when we live in a world that wasn’t designed for us.
Lyric Holmans is an autistic self-advocate from Texas who runs the neurodiversity lifestyle blog Neurodivergent Rebel. They are also the founder of NeuroDivergent Consulting.
Lyric is known as the pioneer of the #AskingAutistics hashtag, where simple questions prompt open-ended responses that Autistic people can easily chime in with, and invites participants to engage each other in conversations related to the topic. This hashtag connects NeuroDiverse people who would not otherwise have a reason to engage with each other, and fosters collective understanding of the Autistic Experience.
If you or someone you know is experiencing an emergency, contact 911 or go to your nearest emergency department.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386
National Domestic Violence Support
Crisis Text Line: 741741