Self-care is important for everyone, especially for those who experience heightened anxiety which is common in the autistic community. To avoid exhaustion and burnout, it's important to adopt a sustainable approach to managing life's daily challenges. The key is learning what you need, what works for you, and where to get the right advice and support.
What is self-care?
Put simply, self-care means taking care of yourself in a way that works best for you. It's about creating an environment and routine that promotes your best physical and mental health and can involve anything from eating a balanced diet to knowing when to remove yourself from certain situations before you feel overwhelmed.
How can I recognise my triggers? Write down when you feel burnt out or exhausted and think about what you were doing leading up to that point. This might help you to recognise whether it was certain people or certain situations that caused these feelings.
What are my symptoms of burnout? Everyone experiences burnout differently. Most autistic people experience problems with severe and chronic exhaustion, a loss of skills and lowered tolerance for stimuli You may find that your senses are heightened and sounds, smells and colours become painful, you may struggle more with overwhelming emotions and some individuals lose words or the ability to speak. Your mental health is affected when you are experiencing burnout and you may be more anxious, suffer from depression, struggle to ask for help, and may even have suicidal thoughts.
What already helps me cope? Think about the items that make you feel happy and calm. This might be picking out items or objects that help you calm down, watching a TV series that you find relaxing, or putting on clothes with textures that help you feel comforted.
It can be helpful to try a couple of tactics or techniques that have worked for people in similar situations. They might not work perfectly for you, but they can be useful in figuring out what does work for you. I’ve shared a couple of real-life examples from patients I’ve worked with that might give you some ideas:
I worked with a woman who had what she called “brain reset day” every Wednesday. This was a day that her husband and children knew not to bother her. She would spend time completely on her own to rest and recuperate, which often meant a day in bed with the lights off and no conversation or responsibilities whatsoever. Having this time specifically set aside for herself helped her cope with the responsibilities and pressures of being a mum and wife for the rest of the week.
Another person I worked with had written a number of scripts for different scenarios, such as asking to leave work early, starting a conversation at a wedding, and telling a friend they did not want to meet up. Having general roleplay scenarios like this stored on their phone helped them to feel prepared and less stressed when dealing with these sorts of situations
Top tip: Use the post-it notes app on your phone to write scripts for when you feel overwhelmed. You can use these scripts by copying and pasting them into a text or email, or you can show them to someone on your phone in a stressful situation.
Create different scripts for different scenarios. For example, you might have a script for dealing with a social situation to explain that you feel overwhelmed and are going to leave quietly.
As I mentioned above, preparation and recovery are key. I worked with a patient who knew they had to prepare for all sorts of events. For example, if they were due to go out for dinner with friends, they would go on the journey the day before, have a look at the restaurant and read through the menu in advance. This helped to lessen their anxiety when it came to actually meeting with friends.
Finding an ally or advocate
Finding an ally or advocate is really important for protecting yourself against burnout and exhaustion. This person could be someone you feel calm around, who understands neurodiverse needs, who understands your triggers, or who simply doesn't judge you. They might be someone else with neurodiverse needs or someone who is related to someone with neurodiverse needs.
If you don’t have anyone like that who immediately comes to mind, there are ways you can find them. Perhaps there is someone at work or someone who’s part of a social community you’re a member of who might be a good ally or advocate for you. You could try opening up to someone you already have a relationship with, and asking if they know anyone autistic, and then gradually start to build trust from there.
For almost two decades, Hannah has been working in the field of autism spectrum and co-occurring conditions, and is undertaking a PhD exploring the sex differences in the clinical presentation of autistic individuals including subtle presentations. Hannah works with young people and adults delivering autism understanding workshops and psycho-education sessions targeted for autistic women and girls.