Autistic Burnout: What Is It and How Do I Fix It?

A photo of Morgan's notebook, which xe has begun to colour in with an irregular pattern, using biro

Ugh. I don’t know how to start this blog post.

I don’t know how to start anything, actually, at the moment. I have to be prompted to get a drink of water. I have to be bribed into doing work for the Master’s course I am genuinely excited to be on. I have to break down tasks like “get ready for bed” into their smallest parts if I’m gonna have any hope of starting them – steps like: 1. Remove blanket from lap. 2. Stand up. 3. Pick up medication from sofa. 4. Put medication in mouth. 5. Swallow with water. 6. Walk upstairs. 7. Pull down trousers. 8. Pee… and so on.

Sometimes, when I get stuck on a seemingly trivial task, I laugh. I say, “I’m a postgraduate student,” like the juxtaposition is funny. But I’m getting more stuck more often on more trivial things, and it’s getting harder to laugh.

I’d heard of autistic burnout in passing. I knew it happened, and I knew vaguely what it was. Everything is so difficult for autistic people, all the time, and atop all those difficulties we have to place a carefully-constructed neurotypical mask, and naturally, we get exhausted. And we get so exhausted that we burn out, like anyone would, and we struggle more, and we need to recover. It’s sometimes called “autistic regression”, especially in kids, because one of the effects of being chronically exhausted and autistic is losing the ability to do things that you used to be able to do – including sensory processing. People suffering from autistic burnout will often experience heightened sensory sensitivity, as well as a decreased ability to process spoken or written information. I knew all this.

But I didn’t know – really know – how it would feel for me.

One of the reasons I find the terms “high-functioning autistic” and “low-functioning autistic” so infuriating is that I function… selectively. This week, for example, I did the reading I was set for one of my uni modules, made it to my seminar on time and didn’t have a meltdown, but I also had to buy a packet of new underwear from Tesco because I haven’t done any laundry (or even asked anyone else to do it for me) in weeks. I went to the GP and gave an honest report of my recent symptoms, but then had to nap for five hours and have a hearty cry. I sort of shift all of my “functioning” to the places I need it the most, often to the detriment of self-care. (And I don’t mean what Meg-John and Justin have brilliantly termed “neoliberal bubblebath self-care”, the kind where you pamper yourself a bit and eat chocolate. I mean, like, eating meals and showering and shifting positions on the sofa when my hip starts sliding out.)

Unfortunately, it turns out that my functioning is finite. And, sort of like a health bar in a mobile game, it doesn’t recharge as quickly as I need it to. But, unlike a health bar in a mobile game, I can’t watch an ad or make an in-app purchase to refill it instantly. I’ve been bridging the gap between my ability to function and the things that have been required of me with a lot of things – caffeine, nicotine, sometimes adrenaline – but the gap is widening, and I’m falling into it.

The reality is this: I’m suffering with autistic burnout. Right now, in real life, no matter how hard I ignore it. I’m constantly exhausted. 90% of sensory inputs make me want to scream. In the evenings, I literally cannot read. (I’m a sex blogger and a fucking English student, so this is a problem.) I’m irritable and confused most of the time. Like a lot of people with autistic burnout, I’m teetering on the edge of suicidal ideation – not making plans, but often catching myself thinking, “God, I can’t believe I have to be alive tomorrow,” or even, “If that car hits me right now, it’ll all be over.” I’m safe, because my support network is wonderful and I have responsibilities that would make me dying right now really inconsiderate, but I want to be honest about how much this sucks. It sucks so much.

The frustrating thing about autistic burnout is that it doesn’t feel like depression. There are similarities – low mood, low energy, hours of extra sleep that doesn’t leave me feeling rested – but the crucial difference is that depression takes away my motivation to do things. Autistic burnout takes away my ability to do things, but leaves my motivation intact, so I spend hours feeling desperate to get things done but literally unable to do them. And because, from the outside, I look “high-functioning” – talkative! A postgrad! Surrounded by friends! Not visibly stimming! – it feels slightly ridiculous when I can’t figure out how to remove my shoes, or nearly wet myself because I forgot to “ask my body” whether I needed to pee. I have run my metaphorical health bar into the ground, but from the outside, I still look like the model of a “high-functioning” autistic person. This makes it harder to get help, but it’s true for a lot of autistic people, especially the AFAB ones who’ve been under a little extra pressure to mask their autism. Y’know, like me.

I know, in theory, what helps. Less time masking, more time resting. Taking off any unnecessary pressures and allowing myself to recover at my own pace. An enriched “sensory diet” – that is, more sensory inputs that make my autism feel good – and acceptance from those around me. All the advice is there, online, just begging me to take a break.

The problem is that I literally can’t take a break. I can’t defer from my Master’s without sacrificing all of the week-by-week structure it gives me, which is crucial to me actually getting out of bed and eating breakfast sometimes. I can’t take a break from the people around me, because some of them need my support and some of them are the ones making sure I eat, sleep, pee and take my meds. I can’t take a break from worrying about money, because I have rent and tuition fees to pay. I can’t even take a break from blogging, because it’s my outlet, my community and one of the only things that makes me feel useful at the moment.

There are a few things I can do. I’m trying to stim more, which for me involves a lot of knitting, chewing, singing and jiggling. I’m also trying to avoid unnecessary sensory hell, which means I’ve eaten variations on the same dinner for the past seven days and have temporarily given up on underwired bras.

The scariest thing I can do is ask for help – but when I do, I get it in spades. On any given day, multiple people ask me whether I’ve eaten. Strangers and friends on the internet tell me I’m a worthwhile (and cute) person. My Daddy cooks for me, and when they’re not around, my boyfriend offers to order me takeaway despite being in another county. The actual, practical help that I get is incredible, and life-saving, and cannot be overstated – but the encouragement and support I get is invaluable, too. It helps me feel “allowed” to ask for practical help with things, and it helps me feel like I can get through this.

Go and shower the autistic people in your life with love. Love helps.

 

A Little Bit Naughty: How Does Littlespace Feel for Me?

Morgan, i.e. me, a white person with big hazel eyes, in littlespace with an adult pacifier in their mouth.

It’s here: the return of my headspaces miniseries. This time, we’re gonna explore littlespace, the headspace accessed by consenting adult kinksters who are into ageplay – playing at regressing to a much younger age. Personally, I don’t have a clear idea of what my “little age” actually is. I think it fluctuates between three or four (speaking in full sentences but can’t be left unsupervised) to about eleven (occasionally stroppy, but excitable, witty and precocious). Some people have a clearer idea, and some don’t – but, regardless of the age I regress to, how does it feel?

Well, you know how some friend groups have a designated “mom friend”, who always has painkillers and snacks and who looks after the rest of you? I’ve always been the “baby friend”. I cry easily and often; I need reminding to eat, wear a jumper in winter, and refill my meds; I hoard sparkly, fluffy and chewy objects (which makes me a very easy person to buy gifts for). I never mean to be an absolute mess, but my friends all seem to know that I am one, and they’ve all taken me under their collective wing. I think that’s an oddity for ageplayers. I think, a lot of the time, people who are little in scenes are very big the rest of the time, and littlespace comes as a welcome break from being sensible and responsible and rational. And I am big, when I absolutely have to be – but I struggle with it, and I spend a lot of my time on the periphery of littlespace.

I discussed littlespace with a therapist once. She was one who’d already reacted positively to mentions of BDSM and polyamory, but I was still nervous to bring up the fact that I sometimes pretend to be a small child. I had already disclosed that I grew up with some, um, less-than-ideal father figures around, and you can pretty much tell just by meeting me that I have an anxious-preoccupied attachment style that is almost certainly a result of my turbulent childhood. My therapist was, thankfully, very understanding of the role of littlespace in my life as a means to relax into myself and experience the joyful, carefree childhood I’d missed out on when I was actually a child. She told me that it was only a problem if I felt it was a problem, and that it sounded like a comfort and a useful tool for me. Viewing littlespace as a tool for healing, rather than as a simple indulgence or, worse, an unhealthy coping mechanism, reflects more closely my perspective on other aspects of BDSM: that it’s both a valid, healthy pastime and a way for me to connect with my body and my self.

Littlespace feels, for me, like being myself, but magnified. I let myself lean into my sensory-seeking behaviours. I get incredibly excited over little (ha) things, like purchasing sweets or a new stuffed toy. I’m always letting adult things fall out of my mind as a side effect of the autism, but when I’m little, I all but shove them out. It’s a happy, peaceful headspace for me. The paraphernalia associated with littlespace is a dream come true, too – I own half a dozen pacifiers and so many stuffed toys, which are perfect from an autistic sensory-seeking standpoint. I also love colouring, as so many littles do, and having something repetitive and creative to focus on can quiet the loud voices of anxiety and depression in my brain. Being little is like being in a warm bath: I’m comfortable, at home in myself, and under no pressure from the outside world beyond having to brush my teeth and be in bed on time.

And, on the topic of being in bed: some people don’t mix littlespace and sexy stuff. The taboo surrounding children engaging in sex acts is, for some people, too strong, and that’s understandable – but it’s the taboo that can make ageplay scenes so appealing for so many people. I like pretending not to understand what’s happening during a littlespacey fuck, letting my adult-brained partner do all the hard stuff like removing my clothes and figuring out what position we’ll take. I relish the idea that I’m so irresistible that my Daddy cannot keep his hands off me, no matter how little and wide-eyed and innocent I am. It’s not as straightforward as some consensual non-consent scenes are, though: most of the time, Little Morgan really wants to do the sex stuff. They like how it feels, and they love pleasing their Daddy. But it remains a CNC scene nonetheless, because I’m feigning an innocence that prevents me from giving informed consent. Even at my oldest, when I’m in littlespace, I’m too “young” to meaningfully consent, which is what makes it so deliciously taboo. And it is delicious – so delicious that I revisit the same corruption of innocence storylines in roleplay with my Daddy over and over again, asking, “Why’s that hard?” and “What are you gonna do?” until, fuckdrunk, I abandon all pretence and beg him not to stop whatever he’s doing, even if I’m too little to ask for permission to cum.


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FREE RESOURCE: Autism Shapes

So I am aware that this is a sex blog, but it’s also an autism blog, and, as usual, I have a bee in my bonnet about the general public’s perception of autism and their limited understanding of what the autism spectrum actually is. Functioning labels (“high-functioning autistic” and “low-functioning autistic”) are limiting and without nuance, and are mostly defined by how much one’s autism inconveniences the people around them and/or impacts their ability to contribute to an ableist and capitalist society. They fail to take into account the fact that most autistic people don’t have the same level of difficulty unilaterally with all aspects of life, and they make me so annoyed that I want to bite people.

So I made a PDF, because confrontation scares me. You can access it by clicking here. Essentially, the PDF introduces the Autism Shape, a way to visualise the experiences of autistic people in a way that doesn’t limit them to a sliding scale which goes from “not very useful in a capitalist society” to “rather useful in a capitalist society”. The blank template looks like this:

A sort of graph thingy with eight straight lines protruding from a black dot in the middle. These lines are marked at intervals, labelled from 1 (closest to the centre) to 10. They are all labelled with different things an autistic person may struggle with. From the top, clockwise, these are: Social interaction, Sensory perception, Interoception & self-care, Flexible thinking, Adjusting to change, Paralinguistic communication, Verbal communication and Cognitive empathy. In the bottom-right corner, there is some text which reads, “Morgan Peschek, 2019. Feel free to share, but please credit me!”

The idea is to prioritise the nuanced, lived experience of autistic people over the perceptions of their “functioning” that other individuals might have. You mark your own values on the template, with 1 meaning “I struggle a lot with this” and 10 meaning “I’m fucking amazing at this”, and then you connect the dots to create a fun shape, like so:

A radar chart related to the autism spectrum, with eight "spokes" each labelled with a different aspect of autism. More information is available in the PDF.
The same graph as before, but this time with a teal eight-sided polygon drawn onto it. This is my own Autism Shape.

I’ve been developing the Autism Shape for a while now, and I’m really pleased with it, but I’m always open to suggestions! I’m particularly interested in input on how to make the PDF more accessible to people who use screenreaders, and to people with dyslexia for whom black text on a white background is difficult to read.

Who this resource is for:

  • Autistic people who want to define and express their own experience of autism
  • Professionals who work with autistic people and who know that the high/low functioning model is a pile of shit
  • Friends and families of autistic people, only for the purpose of showing it to said autistic person and saying, “Hey, this might be a helpful tool for you!”

Who this resource is not for:

  • Anybody who plans to build an Autism Shape on behalf of an autistic person. Obviously you can help them, but the whole point of revisualising the spectrum is to help autistic people define and express their own experiences.
  • At the moment, people who can’t read English, because I don’t have the means to accurately translate it or to commission a translation (let me know if you do!)
  • Anybody who practices ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis), because if you use my cool resource as a way to harm autistic people, I might actually bite you.

I really hope that this tool helps my fellow autistics, and I encourage all my readers to share it far and wide. And on Saturday, I’ll be climbing off my high horse to deliver some smut, since this is a sex blog – stay tuned!


Liked this post? Excited by the work I’m doing? Amazed that it took me multiple hours to create the goddamn template in free graphic design software? Consider joining my Patreon to help me do more things like this!