Autism advocate Viv Dawes has made it her mission to increase understanding of autistic burnout through her advocacy work and books. In our recent podcast interview, Viv provided invaluable insights into what autistic burnout truly entails based on both her personal experiences and helping many others who have experienced severe burnout.
Viv began by explaining that autistic burnout goes beyond just feeling exhausted. For some individuals, it can involve hallucinations, feeling in a constant "fight or flight" state, and exhibiting manic-like symptoms. This goes against the common misconception that burnout simply means needing a few days to rest and recharge. For autistic individuals, burnout can plunge them into crisis and feel completely unable to function.
One of the leading causes of burnout, according to Viv, is the act of masking. Masking refers to autistic people shaping themselves to fit neurotypical social norms by suppressing their autistic traits and behaviours. However, Viv described how masking can be profoundly damaging, both emotionally and physically, when done over a long period of time. It is exhausting to constantly monitor oneself and act in a way that doesn't feel natural or comfortable.
Masking becomes even more difficult during times of significant transition or stress, such as puberty, menopause, or high school/college. Viv believes most if not all autistic individuals experience some level of burnout due to the energy it takes to mask. When people finally reach their limits, their masks crack and autistic traits emerge, often leading to misunderstandings.
Another major cause of burnout highlighted was the lack of acceptance and support within the education system. Viv argued schools expect neurodivergent students to conform to rigid norms without accommodating different learning styles or needs. This "square peg, round hole" problem sets kids up for burnout as masking becomes their only means to survive in the system.
Recovery from burnout is also a long, individualised process according to Viv. It requires fully "resetting and repairing" as skills and executive functioning are often lost. She prefers to view it as a journey rather than something that is recovered from. Supportive environments, understanding from professionals, and avoiding re-masking are all important aspects of managing burnout over the long-term.
Viv emphasised the need for increased awareness, resources, and whole-school approaches to better serve neurodivergent students and prevent burnout. Her insightful perspective provides invaluable understanding of this complex issue impacting many autistic individuals.
Access Viv's resources at https://www.autisticadvocate.co.uk/shop