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What can Cause Autistic Burnout?

By Emma Hinze, Prof Tony Attwood and Dr Michelle Garnett

In our previous blog, “Understanding Autistic Burnout”, we discussed the concept of autistic burnout and its impact on autistic individuals. In this blog, we discuss some causes of autistic burnout.

Living an autistic life is not easy. The daily strain and stress can accumulate over time, eventually leading to burnout for some individuals. Autistic burnout is characterised by profound exhaustion, increased social withdrawal and autistic traits, and a decline in executive function. During autistic burnout, the frontal lobes, responsible for higher cognitive processing, including inhibitions, initiations, motivations, and executive functions like decision-making, problem-solving, and attention, are “closed” and need recovery. Below we have created a list of factors that are currently understood to contribute to autistic burnout.

Factors that can Contribute to Autistic Burnout:

  1. Camouflaging and Emotional Drain: Many autistic adults engage in camouflaging to mask their autistic traits to fit in socially. While this may temporarily help gain peer acceptance, camouflaging often comes at the cost of emotional energy depletion, amplifying stress levels and making individuals susceptible to burnout (Mantzalas et al., 2023). Camouflaging becomes a barrier to seeking support and relief, ultimately amplifying stress levels (Feidner, 2023; Higgins et al., 2021).
  2. Lack of Awareness and Accommodations: Insufficient awareness and accommodations for autism across various life domains, school, work, and within the family and community contribute to autistic burnout (Feidner, 2023; Mantzalas et al., 2023).
  3. Feeling Judged and Rejected: Autistic individuals often find themselves on the receiving end of negative judgments and rejection, driven by societal misconceptions and stereotypes (Mantzalas et al., 2023). This unfavourable social environment introduces emotional stressors that significantly affect the burnout experience. (Higgins et al., 2021)
  4. Academic or Professional Challenges: Struggling academically or professionally can be a major source of stress (Feidner, 2023; Higgins et al., 2021). The pressure to meet expectations that surpass one’s coping abilities can quickly become overwhelming.
  5. Overwhelming Demands: The demands placed on autistic individuals at school, work, or home can sometimes surpass their capacity to cope (Feidner, 2023). The inability to manage these demands can lead to chronic stress and burnout.
  6. Insufficient Social Connection: Diminishing social connections and relationships with others can contribute to feelings of isolation and exacerbate stress levels.
  7. Interpersonal Interactions: The stress arising from social interactions, particularly those involving misunderstandings or social expectations, is a significant cause of autistic burnout. Autistic individuals often find navigating these interactions taxing due to the inherent challenges in understanding social cues and norms, leading to increased stress and burnout.
  8. Sensory Sensitivity: Autistic individuals often have heightened or altered sensory sensitivities. An environment that is not accommodating to these sensitivities (such as those with excessive noise, bright lights, or strong smells) can lead to sensory overload. This sensory overload is a critical contributor to autistic burnout, as it can exacerbate stress and discomfort, making daily functioning more challenging (Higgins et al., 2021).
  9. Physical and Mental Health Conditions: The presence of co-occurring physical and mental health conditions can intensify the experience of autistic burnout. These conditions can compound the stress and challenges faced by autistic individuals, making them more susceptible to burnout. The interaction between autistic traits and other health issues creates a more complex and demanding environment for the individual, contributing significantly to the onset of burnout.
  10. Autistic burnout can persist for weeks, months, and, in some cases, years and often begins during adolescence. Life changes such as transitioning from high school, starting a new job, getting a promotion, or experiencing the end of a friendship or relationship can trigger burnout. Sometimes, the experience of burnout may precede and even lead to a formal diagnosis of autism. This recognition and the experience of burnout may be an important aspect to consider in understanding the journey of autistic individuals.

Where to from here

One of our new events for 2024 – Autistic Burnout will be held on Friday, February 23rd, 2023. This half-day live webcast will cover the causes and signs of autistic burnout and how autistic burnout is conceptually different to depression.  We focus on the current best-known strategies for recovery and what to do to re-design life after autistic burnout to prevent another burnout.  

References

Arnold, S. R. C., Higgins, J. M., Weise, J., Desai, A., Pellicano, E., & Trollor, J. N. (2023). Towards the measurement of autistic burnout. Autism, 27(7), 1933–1948. https://doi.org/10.1177/13623613221147401

Feidner, M. J. (2023). Burning bridges and building new ones: a story of autistic burnout in the workplace. Autism in Adulthood, (20231204). https://doi.org/10.1089/aut.2023.0087

Higgins, J. M., Arnold, S. R. C., Weise, J., Pellicano, E., & Trollor, J. N. (2021). Defining autistic burnout through experts by lived experience: grounded delphi method investigating #autisticburnout. Autism, 25(8), 2356–2369. https://doi.org/10.1177/13623613211019858

Mantzalas, J., Richdale, A. L., Adikari, A., Lowe, J., & Dissanayake, C. (2022). What is autistic burnout? a thematic analysis of posts on two online platforms. Autism in Adulthood: Challenges and Management, 4(1), 52–65. https://doi.org/10.1089/aut.2021.0021