On a random Friday in October of last year, I got fired from my first corporate job. When I hopped into the virtual meeting, I knew it was all over and I was angry at myself for ever believing otherwise. It was truly my dream job, but it was also the reason I was so drained all the time. After working there for two and a half years, I knew I was burnt out — but I didn’t realize the magnitude of it until I was forced to stop.
“I didn’t realize until much later that all of this had a very clear explanation.”
While I was there, I got my work done and I was excellent at it. I was beloved by many across the company. I even took on extra work on the side because I adored what I was doing. Behind the scenes, though, I was struggling. I struggled to wake up in the morning. I struggled to focus, and when I finally could, I would hyper-focus and forget to eat or go to the bathroom. I struggled to eat three times a day. I would be way too exhausted and anxious to go make something for myself in the kitchen — there were just too many steps, sometimes even microwaving felt overwhelming. Then, at night, I struggled to fall asleep. It was an endless cycle.
I struggled to maintain my relationships, and I felt like I was always screwing up my communication and saying the wrong thing. I would have flare-ups of my chronic pain, and I would go through periods where I didn’t leave my apartment and rarely left my room. I would throw up if something too stressful happened. I’d get the urge to cry in the office randomly, and would need to step away to work by myself somewhere quietly. I had a panic attack because the texture of my clothes was wrong. I didn’t realize until much later that all of this had a very clear explanation: I was experiencing autistic burnout.
As Danielle Aubin, LCSW, an autistic social worker and TikTok creator, explains, autistic burnout is “almost like a medical emergency. It’s when someone loses the capacity to participate in society in ways that would sustain them, whether that be employment, family obligations, or hygiene.” Aubin continues: “They essentially used to be able to have some level of employment — maybe a very high level of employment. They’ve been really successful their whole life, and then all of the sudden something happens, or it’s like the straw that broke the camel’s back, and like they can’t even brush their teeth.”
Early last year, I started getting TikToks about autism, and the more I read about it and the more I listened to the perspectives of marginalized autistic people, the more I realized this was me. There was an explanation for my entire life. In 2020, I had taken an ADHD/autism assessment, and the therapist said the only reason she didn’t think I had autism was because I made eye contact and was too socialized. Everyone who knows me, though, knows that I have always very much struggled with making eye contact.
I still haven’t gotten an official diagnosis. But last year, before I was fired, I took all the research and gave myself a self-diagnosis to make sense of my own mind and how I view the world. It wasn’t because I wanted a label, but because I yearned for an explanation so I could figure out the correct coping skills. Finally feeling like I had an explanation was comforting but overwhelmingly sad at the same time. You become aware of just how much of a struggle everything is — you can no longer disassociate through it.
Apparently, my experience isn’t uncommon. “I work with a lot of late-diagnosed people. So, they’ve spent their whole lives up until adulthood, sometimes older adulthood, without knowing they’re autistic,” Aubin says. “That means they were potentially pushing themselves really hard to look a certain way or perform a certain way, even though it was detrimental and overwhelmed them.”
Another aspect that complicates this is the PDA profile, which I suspect I also have. PDA, also known as pathological demand avoidance or persistent drive for autonomy, is a behavior that some people on the autism spectrum exhibit. “It’s a behavioral profile that basically is like a nervous-system disability where your autonomy or equality is threatened in your environment, you have a nervous-system threat response. It can seem very extreme, and it overrides other survival instincts. So you prioritize autonomy over the need for food or water, for example,” explains Kathleen Duncan, LMFT, a PDA autistic TikTok creator and therapist who specializes in working with other autistic adults.
Because I’ve only been learning about myself recently, I have a lot of internalized ableism to work through. It’s difficult to take myself seriously and advocate for myself when all I hear are all the invalidating things adults in my life have said to me — whether it’s calling me dramatic and lazy or insisting I’m faking my symptoms. But I wish I had recognized it all sooner and been kinder to myself.
Back in October, I didn’t want to lose my job. I knew it wasn’t working for me, but I was too scared to quit. I also didn’t want to get fired; I grew up watching my mom get fired and struggle to find jobs in Puerto Rico. I didn’t want to do that. I thought it was the worst thing that could happen to me.
“I can finally breathe without feeling like I’m doing something wrong.”
But having a framework to think about how I experience the world has been crucial in the time since I got fired. Initially, I thought taking time off would heal the burnout and that by the time I got back to work, I would go back to how I used to be, like when I first started my job. As I’ve learned, that simply isn’t the case for most autistic folks.
“If you’re burnt out and not autistic, it’s more than likely you will recover. It’s just that you need to go rest, and it will fill back up. But with autistic people and burnout, it doesn’t just fill back up. It could potentially take years to recover from that, and some people don’t necessarily recover back to the way they were before,” Aubin says.
No matter how much I’ve tried to convince myself to try harder, to care more, to be just like I used to be, it hasn’t worked. In the eyes of capitalism and corporations, it’s only acceptable to struggle with chronic pain or with your mental health if it eventually goes away and you go back to “normal.” Now I know that there is no way I would’ve healed where I was working. I’m not sure if it was the specific work environment, the corporate setting, or having a full-time job in general (it was my first time having and experiencing any of that, after all). All I know is that it’s been a few months after getting fired, and I can finally function again.
It’s not perfect, and I’m still looking for a full-time job (if only for health insurance), but I feel like I can finally breathe without feeling like I’m doing something wrong or misreading some sort of unspoken corporate rule. I wake up without feeling like I’ve missed an important meeting. I’m able to go to my kitchen and make myself a simple meal without dying of anxiety. I enjoy the freedom and lack of demand from freelancing. I don’t hate myself for feeling too tired to work and forcing myself to do it anyway. Instead, I accommodate myself. I go with my own flow of work.
I don’t want to say I’m grateful for getting fired, but I do believe it happened for a reason — and I’m glad I have finally realized what that reason was.