When to Fight and When to Retreat

An Autistic’s Take on Autistic Burnout


Living as an autistic can be difficult. You’d be hard pushed to find an autistic that doesn’t feel this way. As an autistic, wider society can seem like a battlefield, like a war. The autistic is constantly barraged by intense sensory information that is not felt by non-autistic people. There is a secret fight in every conversation we are uncomfortably conscripted into, edging through it like a mine-field, planning your next verbalisation as a chess player would his next move. Strategising. This is the fight to look ‘normal’. Whether drummed into us in therapy or gleaned from every sneer or condescending look or comment we are taught that we must act normal, but there comes a point where this is no longer possible. We pull on our armour – ear plugs, sun glasses and compression material and try to tough it out, but there comes a point when the sound of the traffic is too loud,  when you run out of your regularly deployed scripts for conversation. When you are revealed as an imposter, as a spy in the camp. This rarely ends well. When the barrage becomes too much, too loud, too often, you crack. The meltdown. Your strictly disciplined façade is ripped off and you are exposed, raw. You want to tear at something, everything, anything. To charge into no-man’s land with nothing but your fists. Some of us, sometimes, can stop ourselves and instead force ourselves to stay below the parapet writhing in agony on the cold uncomfortable ground. But there are those who cannot and return exhausted, bloody and shuddering, or do not return at all… The survivors, still filled with adrenaline, drag themselves from the mud, take a large gulp of air, replace their masks and brace for another onslaught.

Meltdowns are nothing new to most autistics. They’ve fought that battle many times and pick themselves up every time. Nearly every time. When the barrage has become too fierce for too long, when it penetrates your armour, sometimes we don’t get up. Sometimes we are still cowering in the mud for days, weeks, months at a time. Then a decision must be made. Whether to retreat or to stand your ground. To stand your ground means to take these barrages at an increasing rate, fighting the meltdown almost constantly, in the hope that maybe, this time, this day, it will stop. You’ve stood your ground before but this time might be different, this time it might end you. To retreat, to pull oneself from the fray even to just a short distance may give you the respite you so desperately need. Maybe retreat could be seen as a tactical movement to the rear, to rebuild energy for a return to the fight. Maybe. But sometimes the barrage keeps creeping slowly forward, consuming your normality as it passes. Then it becomes an all-out sprint backwards. A fumbling, stumbling surge back and back and back until you are crawling, until you can go no further. It leaves you far from the frontlines, far from the barrage, but trapped. Burnout. Trapped in a paralysis which no doctor can say how to treat, how long it will last, if you’ll ever move again. A paralysis, a coma but a desperately needed one. You wait stuck, paused in time until the paralysis passes, until you can feel sunlight on your face, until the wounds heal enough to release you from your bonds.

Eventually you advance again. Retaking ground lost in the retreat, sometimes all, sometimes some, sometimes very little and with no guarantee that you will ever reach the line that you once braved. Often, you are left with scars, some small and barely noticeable, some gaping wounds which are tacked together with improvised bandages. On the advance back an autistic watches as those who stood their ground pass. Some run wildly as you did, some dragged back screaming, some wide eyed, vacant on stretchers. You pause, thinking of joining them in their movement backwards, but a hand on your shoulder pushes you forward. The hand belongs to one who has advanced again with you. You hear calling from the line you left, words of support encouraging you forwards. The autistic steels themself and begins to push forward again. On the way you meet people just like you advancing at different speeds despite the increasing noise of the barrage. Some at a limping, dragging speed, some running double-time. Some are resting, just for a little while they say, sometimes you join them. You do not know if you’ll ever reach the line again, but you sure as hell won’t stop trying. You may not be able to battle as you did in the past, you may never be able to, but this is not waving the white flag. This is not yet surrender.

Emma Paley


*Note: this post is not about fighting autism itself.