top of page
  • Writer's picturePatty Laushman

Understanding Autistic Burnout in Adults

Updated: 13 hours ago

By Patty Laushman


Burnout is a term frequently encountered in discussions of mental health and wellness, most often associated with work-related stress. It describes a state of mental and physical exhaustion that can occur when the demands and pressures of work, academic, or personal lives become overwhelming. Burnout as we commonly think about it can also occur because of interpersonal stress, significant life transitions, dealing with chronic physical or mental illness, or even perfectionist tendencies that leave a person unable to delegate or say no.


A related concept, autistic burnout, is a term coined by the autistic community to describe an intense physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, accompanied by a loss of skills, such as executive functioning skills or selective mutism, and increased sensitivity to stimuli. It’s an experience all too familiar for many people on the spectrum, so much so that they’ve given it its own name.

an autistic adult sitting in front of a window being burnout

Autistic burnout has much in common with what people typically think of as burnout, and what causes a neurotypical person to burn out can contribute directly to autistic burnout, but autistic burnout also has unique contributors. Understanding what contributes to autistic burnout is an essential step toward fostering a more inclusive and supportive environment for autistic individuals.


In this blog post, I will explore what autistic burnout is, how it compares to what we traditionally call burnout, and why understanding the difference is critical for supporting those on the autism spectrum.


What is Autistic Burnout?

To understand autistic burnout, let’s first define burnout as we typically think of it. Burnout is a psychological symptom associated with chronic high levels of personal or work-related stress and is characterized by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one's life or job, feelings of negativism or cynicism, and reduced personal or professional efficacy.

an autistic adult holding his head in the midst of a burnout

While the factors leading to regular burnout can vary widely among individuals, it typically arises from excessive and prolonged stress. It often happens when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose interest and motivation in life or your job, eventually leading to burnout.


Meanwhile, autistic burnout is a state of intense exhaustion that many autistic people experience, often resulting from the continual strain of coping with a world that is primarily designed for neurotypical individuals. This exhaustion can manifest as a loss of skills that were previously mastered, a heightened sensitivity to stimuli, and an overwhelming need for rest and recovery.


Autistic burnout can occur at any age and is frequently triggered by major life changes or periods of sustained stress. Unlike regular burnout, which is typically linked to work-related or other life demands, autistic burnout results from the cumulative effort of being autistic – navigating social, sensory, and cognitive demands that often do not accommodate the needs and experiences of autistic individuals.


Autistic Burnout Versus Regular Burnout

an autistic woman holding her head

While both forms of burnout involve exhaustion and can severely impact an individual's quality of life, their root causes and manifestations differ in several key ways.


Origins

Regular burnout often arises from life’s demands or occupational stress, while autistic burnout can stem from the same – plus the ongoing effort to operate in a world designed for neurotypical individuals. This can include the strain of masking autistic traits, sensory overstimulation, and the social pressures of navigating neurotypical norms and expectations.


Manifestation

While both types of burnout involve physical and emotional exhaustion, autistic burnout may also include a regression in skills previously mastered, such as social and communication skills, executive functioning skills, self-care skills, and coping skills. People experiencing autistic burnout may also become more sensitive to sensory stimuli.


Solutions

Addressing regular burnout often involves changes in workload, job roles, or stress management strategies. Mitigating autistic burnout may require all these things plus accommodations and changes in the environment that respect neurological differences, as well as strategies for managing sensory overload and social pressures.


What Causes Autistic Burnout?

As previously mentioned, burnout as we commonly think of it can occur due to interpersonal stress, significant life transitions, dealing with chronic physical or mental illness, or perfectionist tendencies. All of these can factor into autistic burnout, as well as the factors listed below.


Camouflaging

One of the most prevalent contributors to autistic burnout is the practice of camouflaging or masking. This involves autistic individuals suppressing their natural behaviors or learning and mimicking neurotypical behaviors to blend into society. While this might help in certain social situations, the effort required to continually camouflage can be exhausting, leading to increased stress and eventually burnout.


Sensory Overload

an autistic woman crying because of sensory overload

Many autistic people experience sensory processing differences where they may be hypersensitive or hyposensitive to sensory inputs. This could range from finding specific sounds painfully loud, being overwhelmed by crowded spaces, or finding certain textures uncomfortable. Continually being in environments that do not respect these sensory needs can lead to sensory overload, causing significant stress and contributing to burnout.


Unsupportive Environments

Autistic individuals often navigate spaces that are not designed with their needs in mind, leading to constant adaptation and coping. Schools, workplaces, or even social settings that do not accommodate different communication styles, sensory needs, or learning profiles can create constant low-level stress, leading to a gradual build-up to burnout.


Social Expectations

Social norms and expectations can be another significant source of stress for autistic individuals. Understanding and responding appropriately to unspoken social rules, interpreting non-verbal cues, or being expected to maintain eye contact can be challenging and exhausting. The ongoing effort to meet these social expectations can lead to a heightened state of anxiety and stress, contributing to burnout.


Life Transitions

an autistic woman fixing her things in an office setup

Major life transitions, such as moving to a new school or city, starting a new job, or significant changes in personal relationships, can be particularly stressful for autistic individuals. These changes often involve a disruption of routine, new social and environmental demands, and a heightened need for adaptability – all of which can contribute to burnout.


Lack of Autonomy

Being unable to make decisions about one's own life can also contribute to autistic burnout. This could be due to overprotective caregivers, unsupportive environments, or societal norms and expectations that limit an individual's autonomy. When autistic individuals cannot express their needs, make choices, or control their environment, they may experience increased stress and burnout.


Inadequate Support Systems

The absence of a supportive social network can exacerbate feelings of isolation and stress, further contributing to burnout. Support can come from understanding family members, supportive educators or employers, helpful service providers, and inclusive communities. Without these support systems, coping with other stressors becomes even more difficult.


How to Recover From Autistic Burnout

an autistic adult leaning his body on a pillow while recovering from burnout

Understanding the causes of autistic burnout provides us with vital insights into the complexities of this overwhelming state of exhaustion. However, merely knowing the triggers doesn't provide a complete picture. Recovery is an equally important aspect of this process that deserves attention.


With an understanding of the causes under our belts, let's now turn our attention toward the road to recovery. How can someone navigate out of the shadows of burnout and find their way back to a state of balance and well-being? Let's explore the strategies and supports that can facilitate healing.


Prioritize Rest

Burnout fundamentally results from exhaustion, so prioritizing rest is the first step to recovery. This involves not just physical rest but also emotional and mental rest. This might include a break from regular routines, social engagements, or any activities that contribute to stress.


Gradually Reintroduce Activities

While rest is crucial, re-engaging with daily activities is also an essential part of recovery. This should be a gradual process, reintroducing one activity at a time and closely monitoring to ensure it does not exacerbate burnout symptoms.


Establish a Supportive Environment

an autistic adult with his supportive environment holding his back

Create an environment conducive to recovery. This could mean a quiet, low-stimulus space for relaxation or a space equipped with comfort items such as weighted blankets or comforting textures. Additionally, ensure the environment is free of judgment and pressure, providing time and space to recover at your own pace.


Develop and Maintain a Routine

Establishing a predictable routine can provide a sense of safety and control during the recovery process. This should be a flexible routine, allowing for changes based on your energy levels and needs.


Communicate Needs

Open communication about your needs and limitations can help others understand and provide you appropriate support. Try to surround yourself with people who encourage you to express your needs and reassure you that your needs and feelings are valid.


Nourish Your Body

an autistic adult holding her nutritious meal after workout

A balanced diet can contribute to overall health and well-being, supporting the recovery process. It’s also important to eat regularly throughout the day. When in burnout, the idea of preparing meals may be beyond your ability, so try to have healthful, easy-to-prepare options in the house, and figure out how to have healthful foods delivered if necessary.


Respect Your Sensory Needs

During recovery, sensory sensitivities may be heightened. It's important to respect these needs, whether that means avoiding certain sounds, providing specific sensory comforts, or actively managing sensory overload.


Engage in Enjoyable Activities

Engage in low-stress activities that you enjoy. This can provide a sense of comfort and pleasure and promote emotional well-being during the recovery process.


Take Small Steps

Remember, recovery takes time and should not be rushed. Small, incremental steps toward recovery are perfectly acceptable and often more sustainable. If you overdo it, just take a step back, press the reset button, and try again when you are ready.


Seek Professional Help

an autistic adult being tapped in the back by her life coach

Therapists or autism life coaches experienced in working with autistic individuals can be valuable resources in the recovery process. They can provide strategies for stress management, coping mechanisms, and an empathetic outlet for expressing feelings.


Preventing Autistic Burnout

Although recovering from autistic burnout is a critical process that equips individuals with resilience and coping mechanisms, wouldn't it be better if we could circumvent this challenging experience altogether? Indeed, prevention is always better than a cure, and understanding how to avoid burnout from the outset can greatly improve the quality of life for autistic individuals.


Having charted the course of recovery, let's pivot toward proactive measures that can be taken to prevent autistic burnout from occurring.


Embrace Autonomy

One of the key factors in preventing autistic burnout is becoming more autonomous. Make choices about your own life, from day-to-day decisions to larger life choices. Being able to make your own decisions and live based on your preferences and needs can alleviate the stress that comes from feeling out of control.


Create Sensory-Friendly Environments

an autistic adult enjoying her headphones and sensory friendly environment

Figuring out how to make your environment better accommodate your sensory needs can significantly reduce the risk of burnout. This might mean finding or creating quiet, low-stimulus spaces for relaxation, wearing headphones or earplugs to manage auditory sensitivity, or avoiding foods or fabrics with sensory-unfriendly textures. Small accommodations like these can considerably impact your well-being.


Get Strategic Around Social Engagements

Social expectations can be a significant source of stress for autistic individuals. Openly communicate your social needs and comfort levels. Use explicit communication, ask about unspoken social rules, and ask for alternatives to social engagements that you are not comfortable with. This can help reduce the stress associated with “decoding” neurotypical social norms.


Explore Self-Care Practices

Explore regular self-care practices such as adequate rest, a balanced diet, regular exercise, yoga, meditation, and downtime for relaxation and notice how they impact you. Listen to your body. Autistic individuals may have unique self-care needs, so it's important to individualize your approach.


Cultivate a Supportive Network

an autistic adult smiling and having a talk with her supportive network

Cultivating a supportive network can be a powerful preventive measure. This could include understanding family members, friends who respect and appreciate your uniqueness, educators or employers who are willing to provide necessary accommodations, and supportive service providers. Such a network can provide emotional support, help navigate challenges, and advocate for your needs when necessary.


Approach Life Transitions Carefully

Major life changes can be particularly stressful for autistic individuals. Whenever possible, approach these transitions gradually and with plenty of preparation. This can involve asking for details about upcoming changes, viewing images related to the transition like photos of a new city or college campus, reading about other people’s experiences who have gone through the same thing, and asking for additional support during the transition period. A life coach can help with planning and support you through the transition.


Embrace and Explore Your Special Interests

The passions of autistic individuals often provide joy, relaxation, and an area of expertise which contributes to pride and self-confidence. Spending time with these interests can offer a crucial respite from daily stresses and reduce the risk of burnout.


Implement Routine and Structure

an autistic adult smiling in front of his laptop while planning his routine

Having a clear and consistent routine helps to reduce uncertainty and anxiety, making daily life less overwhelming and more manageable. A structured routine decreases the amount of decision-making and planning required each day which conserves energy and reduces stress. It can provide regular periods of downtime to recover from sensory input and ensure time is carved out for self-care activities, hobbies, and rest.

A consistent daily and nightly routine can help regulate sleep patterns and improve sleep quality.


However, it's essential to remember that the routine should be flexible. Unexpected changes can sometimes be necessary, and it's crucial to have strategies in place to cope with these changes when they occur.


Self-Advocate for Yourself

Communicate your needs and preferences to the people in your life. When an autistic individual advocates for themself, they are not only empowered but also ensured that their needs are met, reducing the risk of burnout.


Explore Mental Health Support

an autistic adult having her interventions with her therapist

Mental health support, such as counseling or therapy, can be incredibly beneficial. Neurodiversity-informed mental health professionals can teach coping strategies, stress management techniques, and become an important outlet for expressing and navigating emotions.


While there's no one-size-fits-all approach to preventing autistic burnout, these strategies can provide a strong foundation.


Conclusion

Understanding autistic burnout is not only crucial for the well-being of autistic adults, but it also highlights the profound need for societal and systemic changes. Autistic burnout is a clear signal that the demands and expectations placed on autistic individuals, often in the pursuit of conforming to a neurotypical mold, can have serious consequences.


Our focus should not just be on how autistic individuals can prevent or recover from burnout, but also on how society can reduce the systemic barriers and pressures that contribute to it. This involves promoting understanding and acceptance of neurodiversity, accommodating sensory needs, respecting autistic communication and social styles, and advocating for the autonomy and self-determination of autistic individuals.


By doing so, we can help foster a more inclusive society where autistic individuals are able to thrive, rather than just survive. Just as important, we can pave the way for a future where the unique gifts and perspectives of autistic individuals are recognized, valued, and nurtured, rather than suppressed or marginalized.


We must remember that every autistic experience is unique and varied. Therefore, understanding and approaches to autistic burnout need to be as diverse and individualized as the autistic people themselves. Let's foster a world where everyone, including autistic individuals, can fully express their uniqueness without the risk of burnout. Together, we can pave the path toward a future that is not just inclusive but also nurturing and empowering for all.

Comments


Commenting has been turned off.
Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page