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.

 

Parts of My Body I Actually Like

Two photos of Morgan's feet, one of xir favourite body parts, taken from underneath

Like a lot of people – especially AFAB people, and double-especially disabled AFAB people – I have a difficult relationship with my body. There are plenty of parts of it that I dislike (like my nose and my midriff), or that I resent (like my easily-scarred skin that results from the fucky connective tissue I’ve got, and my slightly bowed legs, a reminder that I spent most of puberty deliberately malnourishing myself). Then there are parts of my body with which I can only ever form an uneasy and conditional truce, like my boobs, which only look cute (in my opinion) when my nipples are erect, or my butt, which looks good from certain angles (again, in my opinion). Ideally, I’d like to reach a point where I feel neutral or great about all of my body parts, but I’m just not there yet.I am, however, far enough into my body confidence/body not-hating journey that I can write a whole photo-heavy blog post about the parts of my body I’m feeling good about. I hope y’all will enjoy them as much as I do! (I also hope you’ll be forgiving about my photography. I only have a smartphone camera to work with, and I have the spatial awareness of a drunk toddler.)

 

EARS

A photo of Morgan's ear, which has two piercings in it and is very cute

My ears are, I think, dainty and little. Sometimes, when I’m flirting with someone, I’ll invite them to feel how soft the skin on my earlobes is, because it’s just insanely fucking soft (probably because connective tissue science things). They’re also unreasonably erogenous – nibbling on them, kissing around them, breathing into them and so on will reduce me to a puddle in moments. Plus, they’re great places to get piercings in, for those times when I sort of crave a new piercing but don’t want to commit to anything super visible.

 

FEET (Undersides)

Two photos of Morgan's feet, taken from underneath

I have mixed feelings about my feet as a whole, because I think I have weirdly long, skinny toes – but from underneath, you can’t really tell! All you can see is a delicately arched foot! They’re adorable! (Also, I like my feet from a practical perspective – they endure a lot of walking and stomping and being sat on when I cross my legs, and I appreciate their resilience as well as their cuteness.)

 

EYELASHES

Side-by-side closeups of Morgan's eye, one with a closed eye and one open. Xir eyelashes are thick, long and dark

So it turns out that it’s really tricky to photograph one’s own eyelashes, but I did my best. My eyelashes have always been long and dark, meaning that I have probably saved a fortune over the years in mascara (or eyelash extensions, or tinting, or whatever the kids are doing to their eyelashes these days).

 

THESE COOL MOLES THAT MAKE UP ORION’S BELT

An image of the side of Morgan's torso, showing three moles and also some sideboob. A purple line has been drawn to connect the dots and make Orion's Belt

Need I say more? (I will say more: Orion’s Belt is the first constellation I learned to reliably spot, and I think it’s extremely cool that I have it on my body. We’re all made up of stardust, and these moles remind me of that. They also remind me that I am a huge nerd.)

 

MOUTH & TEETH

Two shots of Morgan's mouth - one where xir mouth is closed, and one in which xe is smiling, so you can see xir teeth

I have nice lips. They do nice things to people sometimes. They’re soft and pretty and a good place to put lipstick. I also have cute front teeth, including remarkably sharp canines which help me get into packaging and destroy stim toys.

 

VULVA

Morgan's shaved vulva, with xir hands either side

I posted on Twitter about disliking my asymmetrical labia minora when I was younger, but now I regard the asymmetry as both natural and very cute. (I’m also fascinated by how it’s the left side that’s bigger, and my left boob is also my bigger boob. Is there a connection?) I’ve never seen a vulva I didn’t love, so maybe including mine in this list is something of a cop out, but I like its proportions and colouring and the fact that my clitoral hood is so protective of my clit.


This post feels weirdly vulnerable. As humans, and especially as marginalised humans, we’re taught not to brag about anything, especially not our bodies – but that’s bullshit, because human bodies are beautiful and we should be excited about the ones we live in!

Skills I’ve Learnt By & From Bottoming

A chalkboard with a mindmap on it, with a lightbulb at its centre. The mindmap is titled "Bottoming Skills" and has six bubbles, which say "boundaries", "self-care", "balance", "processing pain", "communication" and "mindfulness" inside

Last month, I asked my Patreon people what they’d like to see a blog post about for the month of October, and they voted for “Skills I’ve learned or am learning, as a bottom and a human”. So, naturally, I… proceeded to go about three weeks without writing or posting anything. My brain has been on the fritz again and writing about bottoming has fallen to near the bottom of my to-do list (get it?), but at least I can spin it in my favour this time, because one of the most important skills I’ve learned as a bottom is understanding and asserting my boundaries.

Looking after my boundaries comes under the heading of “soft skills”, and it’s a soft skill I’ve had to battle to learn. That’s not a surprise; I’m assigned female and recovering from abuse on top of that, so I’ve spent a lot of time acquiescing on my boundaries for the sake of my safety. In kink, though, the best way to ensure your own safety and wellbeing (and that of the people around you!) is to recognise and assert your boundaries, so that you don’t say ‘yes’ to something you can’t withstand. If you, like me, don’t care much about your own safety or wellbeing, you might find it helpful to reframe it as, “Part of being a responsible bottom is communicating about my boundaries and limitations. It helps my top/dominant if I am forthcoming about what I can and cannot do.” This helps you grant yourself permission to assert your boundaries, and the more times you voice a boundary and have it respected (and even congratulated, with phrases such as, “Good pup for telling me”), the more you’ll train your brain to connect asserting a boundary with having a good time, which is hugely helpful in non-kink contexts, too.

That’s the thing about soft skills like these: I learn or build them whilst bottoming, but they improve my quality of life in vanilla contexts, too. Skills in a similar vein include communication and self-awareness, as well as mindfulness and staying present within my body – something I struggle with, since 1. I dissociate pretty frequently and 2. My brain is usually running at ridiculous speeds and is never fully focused on a single thing. When I’m bottoming, staying present and attentive to my body and brain is essential to my safety as well as my enjoyment of the scene, and this has the pleasant side effect of teaching me that being present inside myself can be a good thing.

Another skill that I practice whilst bottoming and that helps me in my day-to-day life is processing pain. I have hypermobile joints that cause me chronic pain, with acute flare-ups often occurring in cold weather, when I’m ill, when I’m stressed, when I’m not eating right, and/or seemingly at random. It’s hugely helpful to have pain processing strategies to hand for these – things like deep breathing, visualising pain as heat which is radiating from my body, and learning not to freak out because pain is not always equivalent to peril. I’m not learning to ignore pain – in kink, because pain is part of the fun; with my joints, because pain is informative – but I am learning to cope with it.

Bottoming is also teaching me to prioritise self-care. I’m a better bottom (more engaged, more attentive, able to push myself) if I’m well-fed, well-rested and managing my chronic pain appropriately. It’s sometimes difficult to grant myself permission to perform self-care, so, much like with the assertion of boundaries, it’s useful to reframe it as being useful to other people, as well as mixing in the incentive that if I do more self-care, I can do more BDSM.

I have also learned and/or developed “hard” skills from bottoming. Some of these things are as minor and context-specific as coiling my Daddy’s rope for them, but some are bigger – like rope stuff helping me to improve my balance and proprioception. Bottoming-related hard skills are ones I’d like to explore more thoroughly; things like bootblacking would aid my hand-eye coordination, help me to keep my own Doc Martens in good nick and, as a nice bonus, put me into a service-oriented headspace. There are so many ways that bottoming has the capacity to improve one’s quality of life beyond just the bedroom/dungeon/wherever you do kink, and I’m excited to keep exploring them.