Regardless of neurotype, every person has their good days and bad. Looming work deadlines, personal relationship struggles, financial concerns, and physical health issues can all take their toll on a person’s ability and energy in the workplace.
However, when it comes to your autistic employees, fluctuating energy levels and ability can be a bit more complex. In addition to the struggles faced by our neurotypical counterparts, we autistic folk also have to contend with sensory overload, masking, chronic health concerns, shutdowns, and something called autistic burnout.
As I’ve explained in past articles, neurotypical and autistic people may live in the same world, but we experience it quite differently. Due to this, many of our struggles remain invisible until we can no longer conceal or mask our physical and emotional reactions.
And–by the time we get to this level, we’re already headed for our breaking point.
Autistic Masking – A Survival Mechanism That Can Backfire
Many autistic people mask or camouflage. This means we hide our autistic traits and do our best to speak, act, and appear neurotypical.
This isn’t done with the intent to deceive, but to survive.
Many of us, especially those of us who were identified as autistic later in life, have been told either directly or indirectly that our autistic traits were unacceptable, so, over time, masking them became an unconscious survival mechanism we developed to avoid being chronically corrected, mocked, or mistreated.
While masking may get us a job we’re qualified for and skilled in, it can also lead to us ignoring our own needs while on the job to the point of not seeing the signs of impending burnout until it’s too late.
Moreover, due to past negative interactions with others, we may also have an ingrained tendency to be cautious about speaking up about our needs and boundaries, and this can backfire by sending us into shutdown or burnout more quickly.
Autistic Burnout – How It’s Different Than Neurotypical Burnout
Burnout is something that can happen to anyone, but for autistic individuals, its causes (and fixes) are often different than they are for neurotypical folks.
For example, a neurotypical person may experience burnout due to the reasons I mentioned above; work stress, family struggles, ill health, lack of exercise and rest, etc.
While all of these can also be a factor for autistic people, there is often the added stress of sensory sensitivities, lack of support, lack of understanding, and continual cross-neurotype miscommunication. This is a daily onslaught that most of your neurotypical employees will never experience.
As far as burnout recovery, many neurotypical people can recover their equilibrium after a long vacation, reduced work demands, and/or a diet and sleep reset.
Once autistic people reach burnout, however, we take months or even years to achieve total restoration–and our recovery is a lot more complex.
That’s why it’s so important we avoid it in the first place!
How You Can Help Your Autistic Employees
One of the best ways you can help your autistic employee who is experiencing fluctuating energy levels and ability is to avoid attributing neurotypical intentions to their behavior.
For example, assuming that your autistic employee is coming in late, leaving early, taking days off, making mistakes, or being short-tempered due to laziness, loss of interest in the job, or a personal failing can be harmful.
It’s also important to avoid assuming that your autistic employee is “faking it” or trying to get out of doing something when they seem to struggle with tasks they once found easy or don’t appear to have the enthusiasm they used to.
Instead of making assumptions that can hasten burnout, offer support, reduce demands, provide accommodations, and suggest training refreshers for declining skills.
In addition, allow your autistic employee to work from home for part of the week and give them the option of a more flexible work schedule.
Reduction in energy levels and ability is common in autistic individuals, and they are not signs of laziness or even “quiet quitting”. Your employees may just need some extra support and be unsure of how to ask for it–or even that they need it.