Titrating the Whelm: Perceptual Capacity and Autistic Burnout

This piece on “Doing More by Doing Less: Reducing Autistic Burnout” in Psychology Today has several relatable paragraphs. I particularly like this on perceptual capacity and titrating our “whelm” levels:

The divergent ways in which we process the world around us can also leave us fatigued and sapped of energy, as autistic people have “higher perceptual capacity” than our neurotypical counterparts, meaning that we process greater volumes of information from our environment. Autistic people commonly use the concept of ‘spoon theory‘ to conceptualize this experience of having limited energy resources. Initially theorized in the context of chronic illness, spoon theory can be explained as every task and activity (enjoyable or otherwise) requiring a certain number of ‘spoons’. Most people start their day with such an abundance of spoons that they can do whatever they choose, and rarely run low. We autistic folk start with a limited number of spoons, and when those spoons run dangerously low, we need to step back, rest, engage in self-care, and wait for our spoons to replenish.

Before our diagnoses of autism, we focused intently on trying to do more: to match the pace of our non-autistic peers; to fulfill our professional and personal obligations to the highest standard; to emulate the busy, full life that seemed so effortless for others around us. We ignored the signs of autistic burnout and continued to push ourselves because we lacked the framework to understand our experiences and to realize why seemingly simple tasks like attending a social gathering could leave us exhausted, unable to complete even basic tasks of daily living for days afterward. Post-diagnosis, and following a deep and thorough reframing of our life narratives, we now actively focus on doing less, which has helped titrate our “whelm” levels and reduce the frequency and intensity of autistic burnout, thus allowing us to do more.


I’m still recovering from my last and biggest burnout. Forty sevens years of existence in an intense world mainlined through a terrifying perceptual capacity has thoroughly burnt me out. I’ve spent my life feeling like a raw and vulnerable sensory attack surface. For forty of those forty seven years of existence, I had no tools for titrating the whelm. I had no vocabulary for the most important things about myself. I ignored the signs and continued to push because I lacked the framework to understand my experiences.

I pushed. I camouflaged. I burnt out.

We have developed skills and strategies to withstand the sensory, social, and executive functioning demands of working in non-autistic spaces at non-autistic paces. We have taught ourselves this neurotypical syllabus of behaviors to get through the day appearing “just like everyone else”. However, the hidden flip side of this well-crafted camouflage is that we regularly fall in a heap, utterly exhausted, once we are safely behind closed doors. The extra cognitive load and personal resources it takes to camouflage should not be underestimated or dismissed; the cost of camouflaging is immense. Just because we have developed skills to appear non-autistic doesn’t mean it is in our best interests to do so.

A recent study found that women with higher scores on a measure of camouflaging also experienced greater mental health challenges, suicidal thoughts, and-perhaps paradoxically-challenges with daily functioning. More strikingly, autistic traits were not positively correlated with psychological distress, but efforts to camouflage these traits were. This indicates that it is not the experience of being autistic that creates distress, but the pressure to conform, keep pace with our neurotypical peers, and hide our true selves that causes psychological distress. There are countless narratives of autistic adults that describe the act of camouflaging leading to periods of autistic burnout, which often incorporate extreme exhaustion, anxiety, depressive symptoms, and suicidal ideation, and are characterized by a drastic decline in capacity to function for days, months, or even years.

My drastic decline in capacity has lasted years. I went too long in ignorance. I now have the vocabulary and the framework to better titrate the whelm, thanks to other autistic people.

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