What is Autistic Burnout?

The underlying causes
Recognizing the signs and symptoms
The impact of autistic burnout
Supporting recovery and prevention
Conclusion
References
Further reading


Autistic burnout is the acute or chronic experience of fatigue, exhaustion, reduced tolerance, and cognitive overload faced by autistic people due to long-term stress and overextension. 1,2,3 This stress is generally thought to be influenced by neuronormative societies, which prioritize neurotypical needs and perspectives over neurodivergent ones. 1,3 The experience has been well-documented by autistic individuals online and is starting to be represented in the academic literature.1,2,3

Image Credit: Syuzann/Shutterstock.com

Image Credit: Syuzann/Shutterstock.com

The underlying causes

Research suggests that autistic burnout is often caused by chronic stress. 3,4 This stress can be caused by neurotypical expectations, the stigma faced by autistic people, and a lack of access to support or accommodations.4 Autistic burnout is considered distinct from non-autistic burnout primarily because of the specific stress faced by autistic individuals in an unaccepting and unaccommodating society.4

Self-reported data from autistic people noted that barriers when accessing support lead to burnout.3 The build-up of life stress on top of other stress faced by autistic individuals seems to have a cumulative effect, with little opportunity being provided for rest and respite.3 This cumulative stress causes a great deal of pressure, leading to reduced capacity and tolerance, and in turn, can cause autistic burnout.3

Neurodivergent masking is also thought to be a cause of autistic burnout.4 Masking (or camouflaging) happens when natural autistic behaviors and responses are suppressed, consciously or unconsciously.5 As well as burnout, masking is associated with other negative consequences, including mental health concerns and suicidal ideation.5

Anxiety in autism explained. #AnxietyBreakthroughs

Recognizing the signs and symptoms

Autistic burnout is primarily characterized by chronic and persistent exhaustion, a loss of capacity or skills, and reduced tolerance to stimuli.3 Although autistic burnout can vary vastly from person to person, some common factors include difficulties practicing self-care, a loss of executive functioning, and an increased propensity for social and sensory overload.3

Executive functioning is a group of cognitive processes involved in problem-solving, task-switching, working memory, and controlling select automatic urges, such as attention or emotions.6 Some research suggests that autistic burnout may affect executive functioning, as seen by its effects on concentration, thinking, and processing.3

Some mental health concerns, such as depression, are also commonly associated with autistic burnout.3,7 Because of this, it can frequently be misdiagnosed as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other conditions.1 Looking out for symptoms or diagnoses of these conditions could also potentially play a role in the detection of autistic burnout, although more research is needed to confirm this.8

Social withdrawal and sensory sensitivity or overload are also both common characteristics of autistic burnout.1,3 When interviewed, autistic people noted that burnout could lead to them avoiding socialization due to their reduced capacity for sensory and social input compared to their baseline or masked selves.3

The impact of autistic burnout

Burnout can be persistent and long-lasting or frequently recurring, meaning that it can significantly impact someone’s quality of life.1,3 Autistic people commonly report that during burnout, they have a reduced capacity for the tasks and skills demanded by their lives.3,4 Without the required accommodations and support, the effect of this can be huge.3

Burnout has been compared to a depletion of internal physical, mental, emotional, and social resources.3 This leaves the individual completely, entirely exhausted.3 The loss of internal resources could differ for different people - for instance, someone may be exhausted physically and socially, but not in some other regard. However, the consequence is still an overall sense of fatigue.3

Moving House with Autism: Reducing Stress & Anxiety

Autistic burnout is also related to a number of other mental health concerns. For example, although the condition itself is thought to be distinct from clinical depression, burnout can be associated with symptoms and experiences of depression and anxiety.3,7 Consequently, such concerns can harm someone’s overall health and well-being.8 Moreover, autistic people have reported increased suicidality as a result of burnout.3,4

Supporting recovery and prevention

Recovering from autistic burnout can take a long time, and depending on the circumstances - such as the cause of the burnout or individual differences - many different methods can be used to recover. However, there are a few common themes in the research. Community-based research revealed that acceptance, social support, and “unmasking” could all be fundamental to recovery.3

A 2020 study identified several potential strategies for managing autistic burnout, including strong support systems, community, and peer support from other autistic people.3 Acceptance and social support were identified as overarching themes.3 Specifically, being offered respect, understanding, and connection by others was crucial to burnout management.3 Being offered more empathy by neurotypical individuals was also important.3

Formal supports were also identified as being important for managing autistic burnout.3 Being offered reasonable adjustments if employed and other types of practical support in the home (such as help with housework or childcare) were all cited as making a substantial difference to the management of burnout.3 In some cases, mental health support was also helpful because of the association between burnout, stress, and depression.3

Self-advocacy and self-knowledge are also potential considerations when managing autistic burnout.3 Identifying and recognizing the onset of burnout, or triggers for burnout, can be empowering and support the individual in practicing management strategies.3 In particular, participants noted that trusting their experiences, setting boundaries, and knowing when or how to ask for help were crucial for preventing burnout before its complete onset.3

Conclusion

The impact of autistic burnout on an individual’s health and well-being is serious, and improving the support made available to autistic individuals is important for both managing and preventing burnout. Creating a more accepting and supportive environment that makes space for autistic people is critical for improving well-being and preventing burnout.

Research into autistic burnout is still developing. While the literature is starting to reflect better the experiences of autistic adults, and research around autistic burnout is growing as a consequence, further research is still needed to push the field forward.3,4 If this happens, both better treatment and preventative measures could be developed.9

References

  1. Arnold, S. R., Higgins, J. M., Weise, J., Desai, A., Pellicano, E., & Trollor, J. N. (2023). Confirming the nature of autistic burnout. Autism, 27(7), 1906-1918. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36637293/
  2. Arnold, S. R., 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://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36637292/
  3. Raymaker, D. M., Teo, A. R., Steckler, N. A., Lentz, B., Scharer, M., Delos Santos, A., Knapp, S. K., Hunter, M., Joyce, A., & Nicolaidis, C. (2020). “Having all of your internal resources exhausted beyond measure and being left with no clean-up crew”: Defining autistic burnout. Autism in adulthood, 2(2), 132-143. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/aut.2019.0079
  4. Higgins, J. M., Arnold, S. R., 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://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34088219/
  5. Pearson, A., & Rose, K. (2021). A conceptual analysis of autistic masking: Understanding the narrative of stigma and the illusion of choice. Autism in Adulthood, 3(1), 52-60. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/aut.2020.0043?journalCode=aut
  6. Carlson, S. M., Zelazo, P. D., & Faja, S. (2013). Executive function. The Oxford Handbook of Developmental Psychology, Vol. 1: Body and Mind. Pages 706–743.
  7. Mantzalas, J., Richdale, A. L., Li, X., & Dissanayake, C. (2024). Measuring and validating autistic burnout. Autism Researchhttps://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/aur.3129#:~:text=The%20ABM%20assesses%20facets%20of,or%20withdrawal%2C%20and%20increased%20exhaustion.
  8.  Mantzalas, J., Richdale, A. L., & Dissanayake, C. (2022). A conceptual model of risk and protective factors for autistic burnout. Autism Research, 15(6), 976-987. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35416430/
  9. Schoondermark, F., Spek, A., & Kiep, M. (2024). Evaluating an Autistic Burnout Measurement in Women. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 1-15. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10803-024-06438-8#:~:text=Higgins%20and%20colleagues%20propose%20specific,in%20functioning%20in%20various%20areas

Further Reading

 

Last Updated: Jul 11, 2024

Anthoni Oisin

Written by

Anthoni Oisin

Anthoni Oisin is a writer and content creator. In 2021, he graduated with first-class honours in psychology, where he focused on neuroscience, biological, cognitive, and developmental psychology. During his degree, he developed an interest in psychoacoustics and psycholinguistics due to his work at the local radio station. His thesis investigated the linguistic and cognitive differences in processing human and robotic speech through digital experiments and quantitative analysis. He has continued his research with a Master’s degree in Sound Innovation, where he is researching biological and psychological immersion. Currently, his research interests include psychophysiology, embodiment, neurodiversity, acoustics, and the autonomic nervous system.

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