Our brains are like snowflakes. No two are completely identical in the manner of their function. In fact, every single person’s brain develops and performs uniquely to another. This variation is known as neurodiversity and is a concept that should be thoroughly understood when considering an individual’s functionality1. No two people have the exact same “normal”. While this difference should be accounted for and accepted, the unfortunate reality is that many neurodivergent individuals feel marginalized by others. Resultantly, someone who is neurodivergent may feel compelled to hide their differences and act in a manner that is more socially accepted as normal2. Needless to say, this constant performance is exhausting and harmful, leading to a variety of unwanted consequences. One such consequence is neurodivergent burnout – a state of complete emotional, physical and mental exhaustion2. Fortunately, CareClinic can better help you understand yourself, and how you navigate life and help you track unhealthy habits or symptoms that precede a potential burnout episode.
What Does Being Neurodivergent Mean?
To thoroughly understand neurodiversity, consider a child learning to read. Some autistic children actually begin reading at a very early age – this is known as hyperlexia. If you were to compare a child with hyperlexia to an adult who had no access to education in childhood and is just beginning to learn to read, neither one would be considered abnormal. It just so happens that their brains are developing and operating distinctively – this is neurodiversity!
Contrastingly, the term neurodivergent relates to a more exclusive concept2. While neurodiversity accounts for all variations in brain function, a person who is neurodivergent is simply differently abled as compared to most other people3. It’s merely a decorated way of describing someone with differences in their brain that affect is the manner of working1. In the previous example, the autistic child would be considered neurodivergent.
Moreover, it is vital to understand that being neurodivergent is not negative in any sense. Though its connotation may not be the most accepting, neurodivergence often refers to amazing abilities, for example, some neurodivergent individuals may find that they are better at memorization, visualization, and mathematics1. Holistically, their cognitive profile simply differs from what is expected or considered to be “average” 3. Accordingly, they perform better on certain types of tasks as compared to those who is neurotypical.
Neurotypical vs. Neurodivergent
Neurotypicality, on the other hand, means exactly what it sounds like. An individual who does not demonstrate any differences in brain function or corresponding changes in strengths and weaknesses is considered neurotypical1. Their cognitive profile is likely closer to the established scientific and social “normal” 2. Consequently, being neurodivergent is effectively the complete opposite of being neurotypical.
The term neurodivergent is actually not an official medical term at all, nor is it an official diagnosis1. Instead, being neurodivergent is considered more of a self-proclaimed label, though there are certain medical conditions that are generally accepted as neurodivergent1. This lack of officiality is likely due to the variability that is seen in individuals who identify as neurodivergent.
Take, for example, autism disorder. Autism is a spectrum disorder, with various different symptoms, presentations, and social behaviours. Regardless of which specific symptoms a person presents with as compared to someone else with autism, both will be likely be considered neurodivergent. Their brain functions, strengths and weaknesses are comparatively different to the general population.
Thus, being neurodivergent doesn’t really come with a set of defined symptoms that lead to an all-encompassing diagnosis. Instead, many neurodivergent individuals can appear drastically different to each other, while others may present quite similarly. Just because you may be experiencing different symptoms than someone else who identifies as neurodivergent does not make you any less qualified to use the term.
The Interplay between Neurodivergence and Common Disorders
While there isn’t a distinct list of neurodivergent symptoms, there is a list of common conditions that are associated with neurodivergence. These are generally classified under 3 categories: applied, clinical and acquired neurodiversity4.
Applied Neurodivergent Conditions
Applied neurodiversity encompasses congenital conditions that are not considered health-related4. Some examples include:
- Dyscalculia – Difficulty in applying numerical concepts and calculations4
- Dyslexia – Difficulty in language processing4
- And dyspraxia – Difficulty in planning and executing movement4
Clinical Neurodivergent Conditions
Clinical neurodiversity includes congenital, health-related conditions4. Some common clinical conditions include:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – A developmental condition affecting activity, attention span and control4
- Autism – A spectral condition generally affecting communication, impulsivity, and sensory processes4
- Tourette Syndrome – A nervous system disorder, causing uncontrollable, repetitive movements and vocalisations4
Acquired Neurodivergent Conditions
Acquired neurodivergent conditions are neurological differences as a result of a developed health conditions4. Some such examples include:
- Acquired brain injury – Brain damage caused by an external event resulting in subsequent changes to mental processes4
- Illness – Generally affecting the nervous system, such as Parkinson’s and chronic fatigue syndrome4
- And mental health – Conditions affecting cognition, including anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression4
Neurodivergent Burnout Meaning and What is it?
Understanding the Concept of Burnout
Recently, the idea of burnout is likely one that you have heard your friends mention at work. Over the past few years, awareness and understanding surrounding burnout has increased substantially in workplaces and educational institutes all over the world. So, what really is burnout?
The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines burnout as “physical, emotional or mental exhaustion, accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance and negative attitudes towards oneself and others” 5. Though it is important to remember that like neurodivergence, burnout is not classified as a medical condition. Moreover, an upcoming burnout episode can be even harder to keep track of and many don’t realize the path they’re headed on until they have already crossed the line into “too tired to function” territory. Moreover, people who like to keep themselves super busy may not recognize the harmful effects of their actions at all5.
Tying in Neurodivergence
Being neurodivergent in a neurotypical world is no easy feat. Imagine surrounding yourself with people who never seem to understand why you do the things you do and why you don’t think about a problem the same way they do. Needless to say, these situations can leave a lot of neurodivergent people feeling judged, and misunderstood and can influence negative self-thought.
Though there is little scientific literature regarding these types of feelings in neurodivergent individuals, new discussions surrounding burnout as a whole has begun to bring rise to the idea of neurodivergent burnout6. The idea of this specific type of exhaustion is derived mainly from anecdotal evidence, but a recent study has defined this term as a “highly debilitating condition characterized by exhaustion, withdrawal, executive function problems and generally reduced functioning”.
In extreme cases, neurodivergent can lead to suicidal ideations and withdrawal from society. For individuals with certain neurodivergent disorders, burnout can lead to an increase in the manifestation of disordered symptoms and make daily living more difficult. Additionally, it is important to understand that this type of burnout is not related to depression, despite the symptomatic similarities. Treatment with depression medications may instead make neurodivergent burnout worse6.
Masking to Close the Gap
One of the most well-known and recognized causes of neurodivergent burnout is masking7. Masking is the social practice of suppressing one’s identity in order to fit in with the people around them. This is often driven by stigma avoidance and a desire to be socially accepted7.
Masking is a more common practice than you would think. I’m sure many of us have altered the way we speak, behave, and react depending on the people we are talking to and what we believe will make them like us7,8. This is a form of masking and can be harmful to your self-confidence, sense of worth and acceptance.
Neurodivergent Burnout and Other Consequences of Masking
There are many different strategies for masking, some of the more unanimous and common ones being mimicry of others, avoiding talking about themselves and suppressing behaviours that may be self calming7. More complex behaviours include scripting and setting conscious rules and boundaries for conversations8. Accordingly, most often, masking is a conscious effort and can be completely exhausting to maintain for extended periods of time8. Thus, even though at the moment masking may feel appropriate and may help you develop connections with others, the short- and long-term consequences are harmful. One of these consequences is, you guessed it, burnout, while others include challenging stereotypes and threats to self-perception. Furthermore, though masking can help make a person appear neurotypical, masking can also conceal a person’s need for help or support8.
Overall, masking is an exhausting practice with severe repercussions. While this habit may be a tough one to break due to fear of rejection and societal pressure, there are some strategies you can use to help you stay mindful of masking. One great tool is keeping a diary, such as the CareClinic free write diary located in the app. This diary is a blank page for you to recap your day, masking strategies you may have noticed yourself performing, or how you felt when you consciously decided not to mask, and so much more. The diary can be whatever you want it to be! One thing is for sure: it’s never a bad thing to track an unhealthy habit and your journey breaking it. In the long run, the CareClinic diary can help you understand and manage your positive and negative daily practices, leading to less possibility of neurodivergent burnout.
Neurodivergent Burnout Symptoms
Burnout can manifest uniquely from person to person. Nevertheless, neurodivergent burnout can affect you physically, mentally, and emotionally5. Generally, there are 4 major neurodivergent burnout symptoms, although, always consider that you may experience some, all, or none of the signs listed below5. These symptoms include:
Maybe you feel like you are constantly tired, or maybe even find that the simpler tasks in your life are starting to become more taxing. Navigating your way into a neurotypical world as a neurodivergent is exhausting. As such, it is natural that fatigue is a huge indicator of burnout5.
Apathy or Dissatisfaction
Though it is quite normal to want to snooze through your alarm and call in sick to work, when these feelings begin to persist, it can be indicative of something larger at play. Asking yourself if there’s even a point to the work you are doing, experiencing dissatisfaction and a loss of enjoyment are all major signs of burnout5.
More specifically, tension headaches. These headaches can sometimes be caused by stress and are a common neurodivergent burnout side effect5.
Changes to Diet and Sleep
We are all creatures of habit. In fact, these habits are ingrained into our natural bodily clock. Subsequently, changes to these habits can be an indicator that something is amiss. Common habitual changes associated with burnout are the amount of food or hunger you experience, as well as sleeping patterns5.
Using a Symptom Tracker for Neurodivergent Burnout
These symptoms are quite discreet and can sometimes be difficult to recognize at the moment. Maybe you experienced fatigue every day the past week and wrote it off as a consequence of your sudden change in sleep. Now, you have suddenly begun to experience headaches. While listing these symptoms makes it appear obvious that the signs of burnout are all there, in actuality, recognizing that these symptoms may all be the result of one common cause is harder than you may expect. Oftentimes we ignore neurodivergent burnout symptoms and rationalize them without clearly considering what the cause may be and how to prevent them.
Thus, it can be beneficial to write down your symptoms and keep track of them all in one place. In this way, recognizing patterns over time and other external events or factors may play a role. Fortunately, the CareClinic app offers these features and more within the daily health check-in. More specifically, the symptom tracker is a great tool to use when you’re trying to stay one step ahead of neurodivergent burnout!
Relating Neurodivergent Burnout to Common Disorders
We’ve already talked about common disorders associated with neurodivergence, but what you may not know is that neurodivergent burnout can look different in people with different disorders. Two of the most talked about types of neurodivergent burnout are autistic burnout and ADHD burnout.
Autistic burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic and long-term life stress9. Another aspect of autistic burnout includes a mismatch of expectations and abilities without a steady support system in place. Moreover, some other characteristics specific to autistic burnout include loss of function, and skills, and reduced tolerance to various stimulus9.
Autistic burnout can have significant impacts on an individual’s life, especially when it comes to mental health9. People who are struggling may find themselves losing self-belief, failing at independent living and increased fear. Additionally, anecdotal evidence suggests that autistic burnout is not met with a lot of empathy from neurotypical people who simply cannot relate to or understand the experience. Instead, many autistic individuals report that when bringing up their concerns, gaslighting and dismissal are common responses they receive9.
Along with masking, some other causes of autistic burnout can include difficult and unreachable expectations from others, stress from the lack of accessibility in a neurotypical world and major life changes/transitions9. Additionally, a lack of resources and poor boundaries or self-advocacy all play a role in autistic burnout9.
ADHD Burnout Cycle
Individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), tend to work harder to perform simple tasks that most other people do with little effort10. To understand why this is such a large contributor to the ADHD burnout cycle, take the analogy of someone pedaling with a group of friends on bicycles. Imagine the bike tire is broken and this makes it harder to pedal. No matter how harder to try to keep up, you simply can’t pedal any harder and you fall behind. This is the same way it can be with ADHD. No matter how you try to keep up with social and other demands, you may fall behind the standard of others. This can create various issues with mental health and of course, the ADHD burnout cycle10.
Moreover, certain aspects of ADHD can add fuel to the fire. For example, many people with ADHD experience periods of hyperfocus10. The periods of time consist of fixation on a certain subject with little diverted attention. As a result, many people with ADHD can end up missing meals, sleeping unwell and forgetting to take care of themselves, all of which lead to an ADHD burnout cycle more quickly10.
How to Avoid Neurodivergent Burnout
Prioritize your Mental Health
I’m sure you’ve heard it many times before but seeing a therapist can really be a turning point for repetitive bouts of burnout. If you consider burnout like an empty tank of gas, imagine therapy as the station you can fill up at5. Therapy targets focusing and learning how to refill that tank by providing a safe place for your emotions and experiences. Additionally, who better to provide you constructive feedback than a clinician who truly understands what you are experiencing5.
Establish a Routine with Breaks and Boundaries
When blurry lines between your life and work make hitting burnout much more likely5. Establishing a routine where you prioritize your sleep, diet and personal time is a crucial step toward avoiding burnout. Make sure to schedule work-related events around these aspects and consider picking up a few habits to create these strict divisions.
Now, I know everyone always says to exercise – that those daily walks are life-changing, but I promise, we wouldn’t be saying it if it wasn’t true. The health benefits of exercise can help you deal with burnout and provide a useful coping tool5. You don’t necessarily have to hit the gym for an hour every day, but taking just a few minutes to stretch, go for a short walk or even step outside can be great ways to prioritize yourself and avoid a potential burnout5.
While mindfulness is a relatively new concept, studies have shown there are proven benefits to its practice5. Mindfulness is essentially attempting to be as emotionally present as possible. One of the best practices of mindfulness is something you can do anytime, anywhere: deep breathing. Focusing on one inhale and one exhale at a time can help you relax and feel less overwhelmed5. Something as simple as this can have positive effects on neurodivergent burnout.
Manage your Well-being Above All
Avoiding and dealing with neurodivergent burnout can be a lot. There’s no doubt that trying to figure out if therapy is really working and implementing new healthy habits to avoid burnout is no easy task. To help you along on this journey, CareClinic provides trackers and visual reports that can keep you at the top of your game. The CareClinic therapy tracker allows you to take notice, record length and even write down how you are feeling after an appointment.
The visual correlation charts allow you to compare this data with the mood, exercise and dairy features for easy comparison and analysis. Moreover, the exercise, sleep and nutrition trackers make putting yourself as a priority even easier. Overall, the CareClinic is an all-encompassing tool to help you through your journey with neurodivergent burnout and make sure you come out of it successfully and are required to avoid another burnout.
- Cleveland Clinic. (2022, June 02). Neurodivergent. Retrieved from: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/23154-neurodivergent
- Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (n.d.). Career Burnout. Retrieved from: https://www.camh.ca/en/camh-news-and-stories/career-burnout
- Legault, M., Bourdon, J-N., & Poirier, P. (2021). From neurodiversity to neurodivergence: the role of epistemic and cognitive marginalization. Synthese, 199, 12843-12868. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-021-03356-5
- Skelling, J. (2019). Neurodiversity: An overview. The Education Hub. Retrieved from: https://theeducationhub.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Neurodiversity-An-overview.pdf
- Cleveland Clinic. (2022, February 01). What Is Burnout?. Health Essentials. Retrieved from: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/signs-of-burnout/
- Higgins, J. M., Arnold, S. R. C., Weise, J., Pellicano, E., & Trollor, J. N. (2021). Defining autistic burnout through experts by lived experience: Grounded Delphi method investigating #AutisticBurnout. Autism, 25(8), 2356-2369. https://doi.org/10.1177/13623613211019858
- Miller, D., Rees, J., & Pearson, A. (2021). “Masking Is Life”: Experiences of Masking in Autistic and Nonautistic Adults. Autism in Adulthood, 3(4). https://doi.org/10.1089/aut.2020.0083
- Hull, L. Petrides, K. V., Allison, C., Smith, P., Baron-Cohen, S., Lai, M-C., & Mandy, W. (2017). “Putting on My Best Normal”: Social Camouflaging in Adults with Autism Spectrum Conditions. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47, 2519-2534. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-017-3166-5
- Raymaker, D. (2022, March 01). Understanding autistic burnout. National Autistic Society. Retrieved from: https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/professional-practice/autistic-burnout
- Wheeler, R. B. (2022, July 14). Adult ADHD and Burnout. WebMD. Retrieved from: https://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/adult-adhd-burnout