What is Autistic Burnout? Unpacking the Emotional Toll

Autistic burnout is a state experienced by many autistic people within the autism community. It occurs when the intense demands of navigating a world designed for neurotypical individuals overwhelm their internal resources, leaving them exhausted beyond measure. 

This burnout can feel like a long, exhausting journey, with autistic individuals experiencing a depletion of their internal resources, leading to feelings of overwhelm, exhaustion, and even meltdowns or shutdowns. 

Here are the most common signs, symptoms, and recovery from autistic burnout, shedding light on an often overlooked aspect of the autism spectrum.

The Cause of Autistic Burnout

Autistic burnout happens when autistic people find it overwhelming to cope with a world that is not geared to their specific needs and sensitivities. Autistic burnout makes autistic people turn inwards to protect their fragile minds and reassess how they manage the world around them. 

When people with autism try to fit in with everyday society, they often hide their specificities for fear of being misunderstood or laughed at. 

Social expectations

Social interactions are typically difficult for autistic people. If their job requires them to socialize with colleagues, they will push themselves to fit in even though this takes a toll on their mental health. When push comes to shove and their mind can’t manage the effort anymore, autistic people can experience autistic burnout. 

Driven to distraction

The world and how society functions are not made for people with autism. The speed of life, the constant bombardment of sensory information, and the requirements of our professional and personal lives mean that autistic people simply find it staggering. They might mask their vulnerabilities at first but with time it’s very difficult to sustain this effort. 

What Does Autistic Burnout Feel Like?

Autistic burnout presents as the lack of physical and mental energy to deal with the world. Even the simplest tasks, like eating or personal care and hygiene, may seem overwhelming and impossible to tackle. Autistic burnout can make people forget or be unable to eat, and be highly forgetful in other ways too. Most burnout periods last over three months. 

Increased anxiety and depression

Autistic burnout manifests itself with heightened anxiety and depressive symptoms. This can include persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Autistic people worry about aspects of daily life that they previously managed more easily, but which seem impossible to deal with during the burnout phase. 

Loss of interest in activities

People with autistic burnout feel no interest or pleasure in activities they once enjoyed. Pleasurable hobbies like gardening, reading, playing music, or doing puzzles just seem uninspiring.  

Difficulty with executive functioning

Even in the best of times, tasks involving planning, organization, and multitasking can be difficult for people with autism. With autistic burnout, this becomes even more challenging. There might be a noticeable decline in the ability to manage daily routines, work, or school tasks. For adults, this might mean missing work days, which can have a serious impact on their professional and financial lives. 

Increased sensory sensitivity

People with autism are particularly sensitive to sensory input. During burnout, these sensitivities are heightened. This can lead to increased discomfort or avoidance of certain environments and situations.

Social withdrawal

As can be expected, individuals experiencing burnout may withdraw from social interactions, finding them even more exhausting than usual. This can lead to increased isolation which their peers, colleagues, and family often misunderstand or experience as rejection. 

Communication difficulties

People experiencing autistic burnout might find it hard to articulate their thoughts and emotions or to engage in conversations. Again, people around them may fail to understand what is happening. This is particularly difficult in the case of teenagers who typically can’t communicate their discomfort to their families. 

Chronic fatigue

Autistic burnout often comes with a profound and persistent sense of tiredness that rest does not alleviate. This fatigue can significantly impact daily functioning. Many people choose to sleep more during the day to avoid the world at large; it’s also a natural attempt to recover their strength and energy through sleep. 

Physical health decline

Stress and exhaustion may manifest physically and worsen pre-existing health conditions or lead to new issues, such as gastrointestinal distress, headaches, or sleep disturbances.

Regression in abilities

Individuals might experience a temporary loss of skills or a regression in areas such as self-care, cooking, or other daily activities. They may also find it harder to use coping strategies that were previously effective.

How Can a Person Overcome Autistic Burnout?

Life is difficult for neurodivergent people who are struggling to keep up with everything happening around them. The most straightforward way to overcome autistic burnout is to acknowledge it. A person with autistic burnout should know and respect their emotional and intellectual boundaries. Many autistic people push themselves by masking their sensitivities and pretending to be someone else. 

Self-awareness and acceptance

The first thing to do is recognize burnout signs and understand a person’s limits. Burnout is a response to overload, not a personal failure.

Prioritize self-care

Rest, healthy nutrition, and gentle activities that reduce stress can help in recovery. This includes allowing for taking breaks and engaging in hobbies or interests that build up energy.

Set boundaries

It’s good to set boundaries. Learning to say no and setting realistic limits on social, work, or educational commitments can prevent overextension. Autistic people should adjust these boundaries as needed, as part of managing their energy reserves.

Seek out supportive relationships

Life is always better with loving people around you. People experiencing autistic burnout should surround themselves with understanding people who respect their boundaries and offer support. This can help an autistic person be themselves instead of masking their autistic traits. 

Encourage autonomy

Autistic people should feel they can make their own choices and control their environment to reduce stress and promote recovery. They should be given the time and space to find their own path. 

Offer practical support

Autistic people experiencing burnout need assistance with daily tasks or obligations to relieve pressure. That includes anything from helping with household chores to handling bureaucratic tasks or making appointments. An autistic person requires support with mundane things that feel unnerving and complicated to them. 

Advocate for accommodations

Whether in educational settings, the workplace, or social scenarios, autistic people need the necessary accommodations to reduce stressors. This might include flexible scheduling, quiet spaces for breaks, or alternative communication methods.

Accessible mental health services

Autistic people in a burnout phase should have the mental health support they need from accessible, autism-friendly, and sensitive services. Therapists and counselors can help them recognize and address autistic burnout and how to handle it.

Autistic burnout is a significant challenge faced by many autistic individuals within the autism community. They need to recognize the signs and symptoms of burnout and take steps to prevent and recover from it. By learning to navigate the world in a way that honors their unique needs and boundaries, autistic people can strive towards a more balanced and fulfilling life.

ABA for Autistic Burnout

While ABA therapy is not specifically designed to address autistic burnout, elements of the therapy could be helpful in managing some of its aspects. For example, ABA can teach coping skills and stress management techniques. The therapy can also focus on building routines and skills that reduce the overall demand on the individual. All this may help alleviate the intensity and frequency of burnout episodes. 

ABA of Southwest Florida Corp. is dedicated to providing the best ABA therapy for autism disorders in Florida and Texas. We are licensed by commercial insurance throughout the state of Florida and provide ABA therapy for autism in Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Lehigh Acres, Naples, and Miami in Florida. Contact us and help your child with autism acquire crucial daily living skills!


FAQs

What is autistic burnout?

Autistic burnout is a state experienced by many autistic adults where the intense demands of navigating a neurotypical world lead to a depletion of internal resources, leaving individuals feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and sometimes unable to cope. It is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion beyond measure.

What are the signs of autistic burnout?

Signs of autistic burnout may include increased sensitivity to sensory stimuli, difficulty with communication and social interaction, exhaustion beyond measure, repetitive behaviors, meltdowns or shutdowns, and a decrease in the ability to perform daily tasks.

How do autistic individuals recover from burnout?

Recovery from autistic burnout involves allowing oneself to rest and recharge, seeking support from the community, and making adjustments to reduce overwhelming stimuli and demands. It may also involve therapy, self-care practices, and learning coping mechanisms to prevent burnout in the future.

Can autistic burnout be prevented?

While it may not always be possible to prevent autistic burnout entirely, individuals can learn to recognize their limits and prioritize self-care to avoid reaching a state of exhaustion beyond measure. This may involve setting boundaries, seeking accommodations, and building a support network.

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