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Autistic Burnout : How It’s Different To Stress

Autistic burnout and/or ADHD burnout are not the same thing as stress, although, to the outside world, they may look similar.  I have experienced autistic and ADHD burnout many times in my life, and it was repeatedly mistaken for stress, anxiety, and depression by those around me, including medical professionals. I was even offered medication for it. 

Before we go any further in this blog, I think it’s important to look at the differences between autistic burnout and stress;

Stress: We all experience stress and some stress is good for us! Stress has a bad reputation, but there is such a thing as good stress. Good stress is short-term and boosts our cognitive functioning and strengthens the neurons in our brains. It also helps to boost our immune systems, as the body produces a chemical that has a positive impact on our immune system. 

Bad stress is when it we experience long-term exposure to stressful events or our lives are filled with constant micro stresses. The problem with prolonged exposure to stress is that it puts our body into survival mode which causes it to increase cortisol (our stress hormone) production. Living in a constant state of stress with prolonged elevated cortisol levels can have so many implications for our body, from weight gain, sleep disturbances, a weakened immune system, digestive issues, hormonal imbalances, cognitive impairments, and heightened risks of mental health disorders, heart disease, osteoporosis, and diabetes.
This chronic stress response undermines overall health and well-being.

Everyone experiences stress at various points, whether it’s due to work pressures, family responsibilities, or personal concerns. Stress can manifest as physical symptoms like tension, headaches, and sleep disturbances, as well as emotional symptoms such as irritability and worry.

Autistic and ADHD Burnout, on the other hand, is a completely different beast. It brings a state of utter exhaustion that can be incapacitating in every way possible, although please remember that everyone will have their different experiences. It is often triggered by prolonged stress, coupled with sensory overload. Burnout can result from trying to navigate a world that is not designed for us, and the level of effort it takes to sustain the equivalent of a neurotypical life can be significant and challenging.

What is autistic burnout?

Autistic burnout might look like stress to the outside world, but it differs in that those who experience it, and will likely experience extreme mental fatigue, loss of executive functioning, and a sense of complete overwhelm.  Burnout can be especially challenging to recognise because it often occurs after an extended period of masking or camouflaging in an attempt to fit in and to keep up with life pressures. 

I have had multiple episodes of autistic burnout and ADHD overwhelm throughout my life, but it wasn’t until after my diagnosis in my mid-forties that I was able to understand what was happening. 

My most spectacular burnout was when I exited corporate life. Looking back, I don’t even know how I coped and now I think I deserved a frickin’ medal! But at the time, I just felt like an epic failure and it was more evidence that I was, as suspected, absolutely rubbish at adulting. During the final 18 months of my corporate life,
I experienced chronic insomnia, constant anxiety and frequent panic attacks, IBS and digestive issues, and a brain that felt like someone had put all of the thoughts and feelings I’d ever experienced in at once, and given it a good shake! I couldn’t order my thoughts, I couldn’t function on any level. It took all of effort to get through the day, and I drove home crying every night. 

I couldn’t interact with my family without snapping at them, I stopped replying to text messages or picking up phone calls, and other than going to and from work, I did nothing. My house looked like I’d burgled, which added the shame spiral and of course, more evidence I was rubbish at this adulting lark. 

I used to lay in bed at night thinking of all the things I hadn’t done that day, how rubbish I was, and how I was a moment away from being found out.  I used to lay in bed in the morning not wanting to move, not wanting the day to start. I became fuelled by coffee and sugar, neither of which is good for anxiety, IBS, or my neurodiverse brain!

The crunch came one November evening in 2011 when I was driving home and considered driving my car off the road, so I didn’t have to do it anymore. I was exhausted in a way I’d never experienced. I was broken. 

At the start of 2012 I resigned, not knowing what I was going to do to support myself, but I knew I had to get out, I knew it was my only chance of survival.

After I left, my body and mind shut down, it had had enough. I couldn’t think, it was like my brain had been emptied. I was numb, exhausted beyond words and I would have full-on panic attacks just getting a coffee cup out of the cupboard. My body thought I was in danger, all of the time.  I couldn’t read books (which I love to do), I couldn’t hold conversations because I couldn’t string a sentence together and I would into Sainsbury’s to do a shop and feel a panic attack rising, so I’d leave the basket in the middle of the aisle and leave, dizzy from the lights and noise around me, feeling like the world was closing in. 

I never thought I’d recover. 

Autistic Burnout recovery

Whilst the corporate + autistic burnout + ADHD burnout was the most devasting episode I’ve ever had, there have been many more mini burnouts (in comparison) before and since.  I now realise that there is a certain time of year that I am more prone to having intense burnout, and that’s towards the end of the year and during the summer. The winter ones are the more memorable, as they tend to come in the Christmas run-up.


Pre-diagnosis, I was oblivious to this pattern, reflecting back I can see how twice a year things would all seemingly get too much for me. Old me would have forced myself to keep pushing on, most likely doing more and adding to the pressure, to prove to myself I wasn’t a failure. The thought of stopping made me feel lazy and as if I couldn’t cope.  I didn’t even have a full week off work for the first 5 years of running a business. 


My last big burnout came the winter after I realised I was ADHD, and before autism had even been mentioned to me. Because I was waiting for my assessment, I viewed this period through different eyes and whilst I didn’t stop it happening, I understood it much better. I was able to witness it unfolding and give some thought to what was happening. I didn’t then have the tools or understanding to manage it, but I did approach it with curiosity and a new found kindness to myself. 


These days, I am familiar with the early signs of being overwhelmed and burnout out for me. I know that when I am experiencing overwhelm, my brain starts to scramble, I have a heavy feeling of anxiety and panic rising and my sleep becomes erratic.  I start to get headaches, my body aches and I avoid having contact with people as far as possible. 

When I start to feel the early signs show up, I make a plan to allow myself to step back and recover, avoiding a burnout situation. I also make sure I have plenty of time booked out of my diary, including long weekends, a week off every 3 months, a month in the summer, and two weeks over Christmas. 

Avoiding autistic burnout

Dealing with autistic and ADHD burnout when you’re in the middle of it can feel impossible.  I know from experience that I can barely function during those times, and often my burnouts were accompanied by feelings of shame and isolation.  Here’s my top tips for avoiding autistic burnout.


  • Prioritise your needs:  Take time to do things that you enjoy and that bring you joy and help you to relax.
  • Manage sensory exposure and overwhelm: Recognise your sensory limits and create a comfortable environment for yourself, or limit your exposure to environments that overwhelm you.
  • Set healthy boundaries: Maintaining healthy boundaries will help you to manage external pressures and prioritise your needs.
  • Delegate and ask for help: Don’t hesitate to ask for help or delegate tasks when needed.
  • Manage your workload in line with your energy: Having a flexible approach to your work can help you to harness your energy when it’s in abundance, but choose less demanding tasks when your energy is lower.
  • Stop trying to make yourself behave like neurotypicals: Your brain is different, not less. Focusing on your strengths and stepping away from the need to be like everyone else will help to relieve some of the comparison and pressure we often feel, as neurodiverse women.
  • Communicate Needs: Be open about your needs with colleagues, friends, and family.
I have found that writing down my early warning signs of what burnout looks and feels like for me, has been a huge help. I check in with myself most days and ask the question ‘how are you feeling today’. This might sound a little crazy, but it helps me to keep a check on what’s feeling good and what isn’t and enables me to make some adjustments to my life if needed. 

Set yourself up for success

Once you understand your own unique burnout experiences and triggers, you can start to build strategies into your life that will help you to reduce the risk of autistic burnout, and to enhance your life.  Here’s some things that I have found to be invaluable. You may benefit from a different approach, but this is just to give you some ideas of how to get started. 


Create a sensory safe space:
Instead of trying to fit into sensory environments that feel overwhelming, design spaces that cater to your sensory needs. Create a cozy, calming space in your home filled with textures, colours, and objects that bring you comfort. This is the space you can retreat when you need a break from sensory overload. My comfort space is my front room, more specifically, my sofa. It’s full of soft throws, rugs, and cushions that I can bury myself in, and my cat often joins me for extra comfort. 


Autistic and ADHD-Friendly Scheduling:
Focusing on my own unique energy flow has been life-changing.  Instead of forcing yourself into a typical daily schedule, design a flexible routine that aligns with your natural energy peaks and dips. Allow yourself the freedom to work during your most focused hours, and to take a step back when it dips. And honestly, unless they are working for you, ditch the apps and tools that try and make your brain function in a neurotypical way in terms of time management, they can be more of a source of stress than help for some of us!


Harness your strengths and focus on them:
Being proud of your unique strengths and maximising them can help to boost your confidence and be a source of positive energy. We feel good when we are doing what we’re naturally good at.  Identify your skills, talents and passions and build your life around them.  This approach not only boosts your self-esteem but also leads to a more fulfilling life. I no longer focus on what I perceive to be my weaknesses, I live my life from a strengths approach, and build in support structures to help with areas I find challenging. 


Selective Social Interactions:
Social interactions can be draining, as much as you might love them. Choose your social engagements wisely, considering the people you are spending your time with and the environments you see them in. Focus on quality over quantity by spending time with people who understand and accept you.  I realised I was spending time with people that caused me anxiety and were draining my energy.  I have stepped back from some of those people now, and limit my time with others. I feel so much better for it. 

Self-Compassion & acceptance:
With my autistic burnout experiences, one of the best gifts I’ve given myself is this.  Understanding and accepting yourself fully, without judgment can help to eliminate any feelings of shame or not being good enough, that can come with burnout – certainly in my experiences.  Treat yourself with kindness and understanding, especially when you encounter challenges or setbacks.

You've got this!

I was chatting with a woman a few days ago, who told me that autistic burnout was inevitable and that we, as neurodiverse women just need to accept it.  I disagree. I don’t believe we need to accept that we will go through our lives with periods of burnout. 

Each of us can structure our lives to support us, and ensure that we don’t experience regular burnout.  If you structure your life to support you and are aware of your early warning signs of overwhelm and burnout, you can make adjustments to your life to stop that from evolving into burnout. You can introduce more self-care, ask for support, or set boundaries to protect your energy. You can do whatever you feel you need to do, to manage your energy levels and avoid burning out. 

I hope that you have found my blog on autistic burnout insightful and interesting. As I mentioned at the start, I write from a place of being both autistic and ADHD, and these are just my own experiences. We all have unique and have our own lived experiences. 

Until next time, stay brilliant, stay bold, and go out and shine your incredible light in the world.

If you haven’t taken my Success & Happiness Quiz yet, then click on the link. You’ll get your results immediately, with bespoke advice and tips, which are easily actionable. It takes less than 4 minutes and it’s fun!

Until next time, Nikki x