Actress with autism opens up about ‘autism burnout’

Sue Ann Pien is getting rave reviews for her portrayal of her character, Violet in a new Amazon Prime video series called “As We See It,” which follows the coming-of-age story of three 20-something roommates on the autism spectrum.

Pien has autism herself and knows exactly what her character is going through.

“I’m expending infinite amounts of energy just to be able to pass as normal,” said Pien.

Pien was recently part of a discussion through Mass General’s Aspire Program about “autism burnout.” It is an intense physical, mental, or emotional exhaustion that many autistic people experience. It may result from the cumulative effect of having to navigate a world that is not designed for them.

It especially affects higher functioning adults with the diagnosis who are working or going to school in a mainstream setting.

“It’s basically like your brains are operating 2 different operating systems. You have one that’s a PC brain and most of the world is a PC world... and then you have the Mac world and your [neuro]diverse world is like the Mac world. I used to have coaches who were like ‘You’re like a Ferrari but if you don’t drive it right, you’re going to crash it,’ " said Pien.

For Pien, autism burnout led to suicidal thoughts. She says the suicide rates are much higher for higher functioning individuals with autism who have higher IQs.

Dr. Scott McLeod is the Executive Director of Aspire at Mass General and a Clinical Instructor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School. Heather asked him what can families and communities do to support individuals with autism and try to prevent burnout.

“Autism can be thought of as a disorder of prediction and the world is fairly unpredictable for many of us, but particularly those on the spectrum, and if we can make a student’s day or an employees’ day more predictable, it’s likely to help them with their anxiety,” explained Dr. McLeod.

Pien says what also helped her, was finding her “tribe” on a Hollywood movie set. She hopes others can do the same.

“I didn’t see this in the media ever, so I grew up thinking... I’m alone and being alone in all of this is what’s going to make it really hard. You’ve gotta find people who get you, love you, just as you are... and who are like you,” Pien said.

To watch Sue Ann’s full presentation on autism burnout click here:

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