We all get burnt out every now and again. In a hustle and bustle work society, it is inevitable. We work long hours, perform overtime. We overcommit to copious projects or sign up for too many classes. However, nobody seems to talk about neurodivergent burnout. It’s a rarely considered occurrence, yet it happens all the time. A large number of neurodivergent people are engaged in the workplace and in universities. However, the scarce accommodations provided are not enough to stave off burnout.
I keep using the word neurodivergence/neurodivergent, but what does it mean? Neurodivergence is any type of difference in the way a person’s brain works. This includes conditions such as Tourette’s Syndrome, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, ADHD, and Autism. Regular burnout occurs when people get overworked and feel frazzled. A good night’s sleep and a bath usually helps people recuperate. Neurodivergent burnout occurs when an individual becomes so overworked or overstimulated that they shut down and lose energy.
This is a personal subject, because I am neurodivergent myself. I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was twenty-one, even though I had it my whole life. I am also seeking a professional autism diagnosis, because I believe that I am also autistic. I want to bring to light something that is not often known or understood, especially in the workforce, and that is the burnout unique to a neurodivergent individual. I bring this up because I go through it every three to four months, and if any other neurodivergent person sees themselves in what I write, then I can give them a voice as well.
For those that are unaware, ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It is way more difficult to live with than the media makes it out to be. ADHD is a neurodivergence that severely impacts the frontal lobe of the brain. This includes memory, organization, planning, emotional regulation, attention regulation, impulsivity, and motivation. Autism is highly comorbid with ADHD, meaning many autistic people’s frontal lobes work differently to neurotypical frontal lobes. In autistics, there is a big difference in social communication compared to neurotypical people.
Autistic burnout is considered to be a state of executive dysfunction alongside sensory and emotional dysregulation, with symptoms such as lethargy, frequent nonverbal periods, deterioration of hygiene, and an inability to perform tasks considered basic. ADHD burnout symptoms include lack of motivation, inability to concentrate, guilt, depression, anxiety, poor productivity, cynicism, and irritability.
Living with these differences and masking them almost every single day leads to burnout. I got out of my last burnout about a week ago. It lasted for about two weeks, though it felt longer than that. I felt like I was stuck in a dark pit or hole and had no resources or energy to climb out. On certain days I had no energy to get out of bed, and on others, I had severe anxiety about nothing in particular. I skipped showers until it was necessary, because I did not have the energy to even think about making time for a shower. It was hard for me to be happy about things. I was late to work more than once, I called out of work once, and missed a deadline at school. To me, that was a big deal. It took a lot of effort to hold myself together and avoid missing more days of work or more deadlines.
I take pride in being a good worker and a good student. The deadline I missed was for my favorite class, and one in which I had a grade of 100%. Yet the horrible feeling of missing a deadline for a class I like and have a good grade in was nothing compared to the empty feeling of being completely drained of energy and devoid of joy. I needed a break from work, school, and household obligations in order to recuperate. Due to the nature of the productivity culture present in America, I could not get the full break I needed. I lessened my workload a little, but could not ignore all of my responsibilities.
There needs to be more awareness and acceptance of neurodivergent burnout, especially in the workplace. Being unable to take time off for a needed break, or being penalized for it leads to higher rates of burnout. It is so rarely known or accepted that I feel almost silly telling teachers or bosses that the reason I did not do what I was supposed to is because I am burnt out. I end up making excuses and still falling short on promises.
If I tell my boss I was late to work because I did not have enough energy to get out of bed until the very last minute he would think that I am lazy, or that I do not care about the job. I am not lazy, and I do care about the job. Yet when I fall into the burnout pit I feel like a shell of a person, hollow, with barely any ability to get out of bed, let alone get out of bed with a spring in my step.
The teacher for the class in which I missed the deadline was the first and only person I told about my burnout. Even then, I flowered up my words a little; I told her I had a neurological condition that severely impacts my executive functioning and makes me susceptible to burnout. She was incredibly understanding. We need more people like her in the workforce.
If there were more people like my English professor in the workplace, more neurodivergent people would feel comfortable expressing their need for accommodations. They would be able to recuperate faster. As neurodivergent people, we would know that no matter how productive or unproductive we are on any given day, the people that pay us and the people that grade us understand our true abilities and accommodate accordingly.
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