Autistic burnout is a state of stress and exhaustion in an autistic person. This feeling is brought on by the demands of life and having to cope with them as an autistic individual. When experiencing autistic burnout, a person may be unable to function in daily life and have greater sensitivity to sensory stimuli.
What Is Autistic Burnout?
Autistic burnout is a state of physical and mental exhaustion in an autistic individual. It can interfere in a person’s ability to manage in their everyday life. During burnout, mental, emotional, and even physical resources have become depleted, and there is an imperative need for rest. The exhaustion of autistic burnout is often a result of trying to do too much for too long.
According to Dr. Laura Mraz, OTD, OTR/L, “Autistic burnout usually occurs when the person lacks proper modifications and support within their environment, and they become burnt out attempting to conform to an environment designed for neurotypicals. For instance, an autistic person may need to flap their hands to stay calm in a busy environment but may be told or trained with behavioral interventions to not use this strategy to not look different. Restricting the flapping hands may lead to autistic burnout over time.”
Signs & Symptoms of Autistic Burnout
During an episode of autistic burnout, it may feel difficult or even impossible to keep up with ordinary daily tasks. Burnout can happen at any point throughout the lifespan, and is sometimes referred to as “regression,” particularly in children, when loss of a skill may be observed.
Here are some common areas of struggle, and signs that you or a loved one may be experiencing autistic burnout:1,2,3
- Problems with executive function and struggling to get started on tasks and make decisions
- Difficulty with self-regulation
- Difficulty with activities of daily living like cooking, cleaning, dressing, or self-care
- Difficulty with speech and communication
- Difficulty with social interactions and potential for social fatigue
- Increased sensory sensitivities
- An increased need for stimming or sensory input
- More difficulty with eye contact
- Having meltdowns or shutdowns more frequently
- Increased emotions
- Needing more time alone to rest and recharge
- Difficulty with cognition and memory
- Needing more sleep and rest, but also possible difficulty sleeping
What Causes Autistic Burnout?
Autistic burnout happens when an autistic person is overwhelmed, overloaded, and has been generally operating beyond capacity. Burnout can occur during times of major stress or transition, like puberty, moving, or starting at a new school or job.
Burnout is also possible even if there are no major changes, or no new stressors introduced, but when an autistic person has been spending mental and energetic resources keeping up with the demands of life for a sustained period of time, and now those resources are exhausted.
Autistic masking is the act of camouflaging one’s autistic traits to “blend in” or go unnoticed as different. It continues to be a primary element that can lead to burnout for autistic folks.
Some common ways an autistic person might mask are:4
- Suppressing stimming or needed movement
- Creating facial expressions
- Modulating tone of voice
- Making or “faking” eye contact
- Adopting patterns of socializing and communication that match more neurotypical expectations
- Copying or imitating others
Masking can be done consciously or even unconsciously. It requires a massive amount of energy and can be incredibly draining. Masking over a long period of time can deplete someone’s emotional, psychological, and physical energy, leaving them in a state of burnout.
What Can I Do If I’m Experiencing Autistic Burnout?
If you are experiencing autistic burnout, know that it is most often temporary, and that you can move toward feeling better if you take care to rest and recharge as much as possible. Although you may still have obligations to work, school, or others in your life during this time, some modifications can be helpful and essential for getting through periods of burnout until you feel your energy levels begin to return again.
If you’re experiencing autistic burnout, you may require adjustments or accommodations to better manage your mood and workload during the work day. Because autism is widely understood to be a disability, reasonable support and accommodations are required through the ADA in the workplace.5
Here are some tips for dealing with autistic burnout at work:
- Use additional sensory supports (like earplugs or dimmer lighting), quiet workspaces, or more frequent breaks.
- Connect with a trusted co-worker for emotional support and empathy
- Adjust your schedule to include flexible or reduced hours if possible
- Arrange to work from home if possible
- Take a mental health day
Sometimes, even with support and accommodations, autistic people may still need additional rest which would require time off or away from work. If your job offers sick days, find out if you can take them. If that still doesn’t feel like enough time to recover, would a medical leave be a possibility?
In a school setting, supports and accommodations can be particularly necessary and instrumental while managing a burnout.
Here are some tips for dealing with autistic burnout at school:
- Seek out or amend an IEP or 504 plan to ensure needed accommodations
- Identify any sensory needs which may present the need for accommodation, such as noisy environments, crowded classrooms, or long periods of sitting without movement
- Implement extra sensory supports and breaks in order to maintain comfort and energy levels throughout the day
- Seek out quiet environments like a library during free time at school
- Confide in a trusted teacher or guidance counselor
Even with support, there may still be an increased need for rest that requires some time off from the stimuli and demands of the school environment to most effectively recover.
In Social Situations
During an autistic burnout, social interactions may feel more difficult or energetically taxing.
Here are a few considerations that may be helpful in managing social energy during autistic burnout:
- Pay attention to how you feel during different types of interactions, and which ones may feel more challenging or draining, versus which ones might feel supportive or energizing
- Plan to build in periods of rest and recovery before and after social interaction
- Notice how different types of interactions (in-depth conversations about special interest, small talk, etc.) affect your energy levels, and minimize the ones that feel more depleting if possible
- Connect with friends or community through text, email, or social media, as opposed to the phone or in-person
- Notice if you may be masking, and take steps to reduce or eliminate any masking to conserve energy
- Give yourself permission to forgo eye contact
- Tune into what makes the most sense for you to determine what feels most comfortable and sustainable
Recovering From Autistic Burnout
Although it is difficult to predict how long burnout might last, moving towards recovery can be possible if you give yourself the time and space to regain your energy. If you find yourself in a state of burnout, reduce demands wherever possible. If there are any obligations on your schedule that aren’t immediately essential, cancel or delay them. Paring down obligations to require the least energy output can be crucial in getting through this time and starting to feel better.4
During burnout, you may find that your sensory needs become more pronounced. Make adjustments to your home or work environment which can better support your sensory needs. Pay attention to any sources of sensory stimuli that suddenly feel overwhelming or uncomfortable and adjust them as needed.
For an infusion of energy, spend more time with special interests or preferred music, movies, or TV shows. Note the elements that bring you joy and increase your energy levels, and build those into your routine as much as possible—even if it’s just taking a few moments to listen to a favorite song.
Often, one of the most powerful tools to get through burnout is knowing that you can come out the other side of it and feel better again. During times when it may be easy to lose sight of the light at the end of the tunnel, it can be helpful to talk to other people who have also experienced burnout and recovered.
Community support from other autistic people during this time can be so helpful in allowing you to feel supported and understood. Talking to a therapist can sometimes be beneficial for additional support.
Can Autistic Burnout Be Prevented?
Because autistic burnout occurs when someone has exhausted all of their resources, pacing yourself throughout your daily life can often be helpful in maintaining your energy levels. Listening to your body and mind is so important when you receive those subtle cues for rest before you reach the crisis level of burnout. Managing your level of commitments, family engagements, work projects, and social interactions can help to preserve your energy so that you may be able to prevent a burnout before it happens.
Autistic psychologist Maja Toudal, along with psychologist Tony Attwood, developed the concept and activity of “energy accounting,” to help visualize which elements of life give energy, and which “withdraw” energy from our energetic reserves.6 If it is helpful, create a list of the aspects of your life that deplete energy, and another for the ones that replenish energy levels. To prevent burnout, it’s important to understand (as well as accept) your needs and limitations.
How Can I Support Someone Who Is In Autistic Burnout?
If you know someone who is experiencing autistic burnout, here are a few ways to help them:7
- Meet them with understanding, unconditional love, acceptance, and empathy
- Know that their resources are depleted at the moment, and it is imperative for them to be able to rest and recharge as much as possible
- If they need more space or time alone, afford them space and solitude when necessary
- Believe them when they say that something is difficult, even if it is something they might have previously been able to do with ease
- Use the person’s preferred method of communication—they may find speaking challenging, but can more easily manage a different method, like typing or texting
- Understand that, especially in children, “behavior is communication,” and that an increase in meltdowns, dysregulation, or difficulty with emotional regulation are signs of struggle
- Offer support in any way that you might be able—whether through concrete support like cooking meals, helping with cleaning or childcare, or emotional support like being an understanding and empathic presence.
Dr. Mraz encourages, “Accept the person’s preferred regulation strategies such as hand flapping or verbal stimming and refrain from shaming them or stopping them from using these strategies in public. Educate others on why your loved one is using strategies when others appear fearful or confused. Give your loved one breaks and space to be their own unique person. Advocate for autism acceptance and neurodiversity.”
Autistic burnout can be a time of struggle, but with rest, support, and connection to the things that bring us joy, it is possible to move forward toward a place of feeling better, and regaining our energy once again.