In order to facilitate the burnout period for my wife, I have to enter her world and see things through her perspective. Because of that, I’m finding that the format of this blog has become very literal and to-the-point. By seeing the world through her eyes, I am able to support her needs in the way she usually does when she is able. So here are a few tips, reminders and guidelines that I have developed to get us through burnout. I offer this up to the autistic community, their allies and spouses for whatever use it may be. Please be advised this is the perspective of my life I share with my wife and is not a reflection of the entire autistic community as each autistic adult experiences burnout differently and each relationship will have their own coping mechanisms.
ACTIONS TO TAKE
- Offer reminders to her to help her prepare herself for the impending fog that she does not see coming. “After ___ you may be burned out. You might want to finish ___ now so you have the space you need to burnout later.”
- For my wife, burnout is accompanied with confusion and guilt. To counteract this, be a calming and reassuring presence. “You’re experiencing burnout. This is a natural part of your process. It’s ok to feel your burnout. I am not angry with you for being burnt out. You have all the space, time, patience and love you need to accommodate this. Focus on yourself. I love you.”
- Provide space. Not just physically, but emotional space and sensory space as well. No touching, limited eye contact, no overwhelming smells, sudden noises, loud noises or textural changes. (e.g. not a good time to change all the bed sheets or wash her favorite clothes)
- Provide consistent, positive reassurance. Smile at her, share the room with her to show you still want to be around her. Remember not to let your effort to give her space accidentally turn into the silent treatment. Show her you love her even when she’s going through burnout. For my wife, gifts are good.
- During burnout, Stephanie is less self-aware than usual. Ensure she is eating regularly and develops no illness/injury during this time. Be careful to do this in a respectful way, without making her feel incompetent. I am still her wife, not her nurse.
- Provide familiar, repetitive staples. For Stephanie, her staples that help her feel grounded when she’s lost in her “fog” are routine and comfort foods. These things help her to feel grounded in a time when she feels lost. A few of Stephanie’s staples are soup and oyster crackers, sitcoms during dinner, her favorite music and breakfast together in the mornings with the news.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
- During burnout she is more susceptible to negative thoughts, keep it light.
- She may take days or weeks to recover. I can’t let my boredom become her problem. Whip out the hobby box and call a friend. It is not her job to entertain me.
- Don’t forget to take over her household responsibilities until this is over. Letting her responsibilities pile up is NOT conducive to overcoming burnout.
- Don’t forget to take care of yourself; you cannot care for her unless you are in a good place. For me, that means getting my daily dose of socialization elsewhere and providing myself with a little extra TLC (e.g. long baths, selfies, body lotions). I don’t need to be told I’m wanted, I can appreciate myself on my own.
- Remember—helping her is helping yourself. She can’t be with you until she’s recovered.
- If I find myself slipping and losing my ability to cope, it is okay to ask her for a reminder that she still loves me. But be specific and direct, not passive-aggressive. “I feel lonely and like maybe you don’t love me anymore. Will you tell me that you do?” The “will you tell me__” is extra important, otherwise I’ve set myself up for a blank stare, hurt feelings and an in-burnout argument—the worst of all the possible arguments. (This particular aspect we worked on outside the realm of burnout so that it was possible during burnout when I needed it.)
- Sometimes this process is difficult. Sometimes it comes so naturally, I don’t even notice. If it is difficult, don’t let her know. Guilt is not conducive to recovery.
- Be self-aware. Hurt feelings are sneaky. Sometimes I find myself in the middle of a passive aggressive behavior before I realize what I’ve done. Remember it is MY job to make sure I’m happy, not hers. If I’ve become passive aggressive, I need to step back and find out which of my needs I’ve neglected and tend to them so I can be happy.
- Above all, keep perspective. No matter how long it’s been or how deep she wonders into her fog, remember that the fact that this situation is unique does not make it less worthy of support. The fact that it looks strange to me, doesn’t mean she IS strange. Just because no one else in my life understands what I’m going through, doesn’t mean I am alone. Just because she is not conveying her love the way she usually does, does not mean she is not conveying love at all.
THINGS TO KEEP OUT OF MIND
“When she pulls away from me, it’s because she doesn’t want my touch anymore.”
Don’t let your feelings of rejection cloud your intellect. You know better. If you need physical affection, go find the cat.
“How could she say she loves me, then go days/weeks without talking/touching?”
You cannot let a difficult time negate years of happiness, love and affection. She has proven her love for years. She does not deserve this doubt.
“How could she just ignore ___”
She isn’t choosing to ignore ___. Her brain is selecting what to focus on. It’s being VERY selective.
“It’s been ___ days!”
Counting days doesn’t make them shorter. If you’re to this point, it’s time for a break. Call your friends, get out for a while.
Neurotypical couples don’t have to go through this.
You have made the decision to partner with an autistic adult. She is not only autistic when it’s convenient (like when I’ve made a wrong turn and need her brain map, or when she does that adorable info-dump that I admire so much) She is autistic all the time. Sometimes, autism makes things difficult. Do not wallow in self-pity at the expense of your admiration for your wife, she doesn’t deserve it. (I keep a list of autistic traits that I love about Stephanie, so during times when her autism becomes difficult for me I am able to reflect on all of the things I admire.)