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Neurodivergent Burn Out-It's a thing.

Everyone can be at risk of burn out, from work, family life, social pressures and education. However, vulnerabilities due to Neurodivergence such as Autism or ADHD can make a person more likely to experience burn out-why is that?

Masking is a key feature of ND and can accelerate exhaustion from what seem like very simple everyday tasks or interactions. If you are familiar with spoon theory, it is useful here. Some interactions, some people, some work, some activity can use up more ‘spoons’ for those who are Neurodivergent. Spoon theory imagines that we all have a finite amount of spoons that we can use for each day. For some NDers, basic activity can use lots of spoons, leaving fewer left for fun, special interests, friends and family or even everyday self care. The theory can also suggest that if you use too many spoons in one day that you may be in debt the next day and find tasks even harder with no spoons left to use. Continual spoon debt can be really hard to recover from.

ADHDers can feel enhanced guilt and shame for not being able to manage tasks that others seem to do naturally. The difficulties associated with ADHD can be perceived by others as moral failings and many people lack empathy for these difficulties as they simply do not believe that the impairments or even that ADHD exists. This leads to intentional and also unintentional discrimination. Microaggressions are absorbed daily by those with ADHD and self esteem plumets despite what is seen on the outside. Masking can mean that even more energy and effort is piled into doing better, trying harder, and keeping up. Strategies can be employed to cover impairments that for a short time can be very successful and even achieve better than average results. When the mask eventually falls however, self esteem crashes again and the whole masking and overcompensating cycle spins into a frenzy. All this, leads to more use of spoons or borrowing energy from other days or dropping vital replenishing and regulating activities to save spoons.

A couple of weeks ago I saw Holly Smale, late diagnosed Autistic Author of the Geek Girl books, give a keynote speech titled ‘The masks we wear’. Never have I heard a story spoken out loud that validated and resonated so deeply. The take home message here for me was that many successful, high achieving ND people are giving so much more energy than most understand or can ever give credit for and that masking is exhausting, painful and damaging.

If an NDer can get themselves to a stage where they have identified a deficit of energy, drop the mask and ask for help, it can come as a surprise that someone who seems so capable (from super effective masking) needs any help at all. It’s not unusual for ADHDers and Autistic people to be disbelieved even when asking for help outright as ND communication styles don’t always match social norms. In fact many NDers may be fighting against a lifetime of negative labelling such as behaving like a drama queen, being ‘too much’ or ‘extra’ and so finally admitting a struggle can just look like more drama.

Dr. Neff, an Autistic, ADHD diagnosed Psychologist says;

“Research on neurodivergent burnout shows that some of the most common contributors to burnout include:⁠

  • Masking ⁠

  • Having social/sensory needs minimized by others due to appearing "fine" (i.e. masking)⁠

  • Not having access to the appropriate level of supports & accommodations ⁠

  • Executive Functioning fatigue following a number of stressors or transitions

  • When the overall load exceeds abilities + supports = burnout”

This description helps us to understand that ND masking, lack of understanding of social/sensory needs, intentional or unintentional discrimination leading to lack of appropriate support all contribute to a perfect storm for ND burn out.

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