By Emma Hinze, Professor Tony Attwood and Dr. Michelle Garnett
Life for autistic individuals can be challenging and filled with unique experiences and struggles that are often misunderstood by those who do not share their perspectives. Among the many challenges faced by autistic individuals, one particularly debilitating phenomenon is known as “autistic burnout.” Autistic burnout is a complex and often overwhelming state that arises from the constant effort to navigate a world that may not fully accommodate or accept their neurodiversity. In this post, we will explore the autistic burnout, its triggers, signs, its profound impact on the lives of those who experience it and the role of rest.
Understanding Autistic Burnout:
Being autistic involves managing a range of stressors, including coping with social and sensory experiences, facing misunderstandings and criticism, dealing with high levels of anxiety, and struggling to be one’s authentic self. Additionally, there is often a discrepancy between the expectations placed upon autistic individuals and their coping mechanisms and abilities, leading to chronic stress buildup over time. This cumulative stress can eventually result in autistic burnout, which manifests as physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. During an autistic burnout episode, individuals may withdraw socially, almost akin to a state of ‘hibernation,’ and experience reduced executive functioning, with their frontal lobes metaphorically ‘closed’ as they await recovery.
Triggers of Autistic Burnout:
Autistic burnout can be triggered by a variety of factors that are unique to each individual, including:
- Sensory Overload: Heightened sensory sensitivities can lead to sensory overload, causing distress and exhaustion.
- Social Demands: Navigating complex social interactions and demands can be mentally taxing.
- Masking/Camouflaging: The effort to conceal autistic traits in order to fit in can be emotionally draining.
- Executive Function Challenges: Consistent and highly demanding executive function challenges can contribute to burnout.
- High Anxiety: Elevated levels of anxiety are common among autistic individuals and can exacerbate burnout.
- Cumulative Stress: Navigating a world that may not fully understand or accept autistic traits can lead to long-term stress accumulation.
Signs of Autistic Burnout:
Recognising the signs of autistic burnout is crucial for timely intervention and support. According to Higgins et al. (2021), the provisional criteria for autistic burnout include:
- Significant mental and physical exhaustion, often described as extreme fatigue.
- Interpersonal withdrawal, resulting in reduced social engagement.
- One or more of the following:
- Significant reduction in functioning in various areas (e.g., social, occupational, educational).
- Confusion, difficulties with executive function, and/or dissociative states.
- Increased intensity of autistic traits and/or reduced capacity to camouflage/mask autistic characteristics.
In addition to the core criteria, autistic burnout may involve:
- Low self-esteem and uncertainty about how to restore mental energy levels.
- Confusion about whether the signs are indicative of clinical depression.
- Loss of self-care skills and emotional regulation abilities.
- Persistent difficulties with daily living skills.
Other signs may include increased sensory sensitivities, more frequent and longer-lasting meltdowns, heightened anxiety, reduced communication abilities, a decline in overall mental well-being, and an increase in physical symptoms such as digestive issues, pain, and headaches.
Duration and Impact:
The duration of an autistic burnout episode can vary widely among individuals, lasting from days to weeks or even months. Recovery times also vary, with some individuals requiring an extended period of rest and self-care to regain their functioning and overall well-being. Autistic burnout can significantly impact various aspects of an individual’s life, including education, employment, relationships, and daily functioning. It may lead to difficulties meeting responsibilities, setbacks in academics or occupations, strained social interactions, and a sense of frustration and isolation.
Autistic Burnout vs. Depression: Treatment Differences
Autistic burnout can often be mistaken for clinical depression due to overlapping symptoms, such as pervasive fatigue, withdrawal from social activities, and emotional distress. However, it’s crucial to understand that these two conditions have distinct characteristics and require different approaches to treatment, with the main difference being the role of rest.
The Role of Rest:
One of the primary distinctions between autistic burnout and depression is the role of rest. In the case of autistic burnout, rest is not only essential but often the cornerstone of recovery. Autistic individuals experiencing burnout often need extended periods of solitude and sensory downtime to recharge their mental and emotional batteries. This restorative rest allows them to gradually regain their executive functioning, emotional stability, and overall well-being. Unlike depression, where behavioural activation and engagement in activities are emphasised, the key to recovering from autistic burnout is rest and self-care. However, it’s crucial to note that in cases where autistic burnout coexists with depression, careful monitoring is necessary. While rest remains a critical component of recovery, additional therapeutic support for managing depression-related symptoms may be required.
Autistic burnout is a critical aspect of the autistic experience that deserves understanding and support. Recognising the signs and triggers of burnout can help individuals, their families, and professionals provide timely assistance and accommodations to mitigate its impact.
Where to from here:
Our online courses cover many aspects of autism in different age groups and genders, including Diagnosis for Autistic Adults and Support & Therapy for Autistic Adults. We also offer live and webcast events.