14th Feb 2023
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder that can be present in children and adults, typically emerging by age three . Autism can impair communication abilities, functioning, and behavior, which can cause difficulties in social, academic, and professional situations.
Living with the challenges that autism can create can be overwhelming and may lead to autistic burnout in adolescence and adulthood, if stress and expectations are too high, resulting in physical and emotional exhaustion and further impairments in social, professional, and individual aspects of life .
Autistic burnout describes a symptom of autism that occurs when someone feels overwhelmed by the pressures of everyday life and begins to experience impairments in how they manage social, professional, and independent tasks and expectations.
It is often compared to occupational burnout and symptoms of depression, which are similar in many ways, as these conditions can also lead to social withdrawal, impairments in functioning, and negative feelings about self .
People with autism are often sensitive to sensory stimuli, such as loud noises, textures, and smells. This sensitivity can become increasingly overwhelming during burnout, making tasks, environments, and activities unmanageable, even if they are enjoyable during other times. This can have negative consequences on mental and physical health, greatly impacting the individual’s quality of life .
Autistic burnout may result in a variety of signs and symptoms, which may vary from person to person, but will typically include :
There may be many things that can contribute to the occurrence of autistic burnout, and it may differ for each person. Often, burnout is caused by the following :
Stressors, such as work pressure or social obligations, can contribute to feeling overloaded with expectations that are unmanageable.
People who do not have autism may be dismissive of autistic burnout, perhaps stating that everyone feels that way or that the individual is just exaggerating, thereby reducing the ability to ask for help or discuss challenges with others, further contributing to worsening symptoms.
Many people with autism mask their symptoms to fit in and manage social and professional situations, but this can add pressure and cause further stress due to a feeling of needing to consistently perform, thereby contributing to burnout .
Autistic individuals may feel afraid of discussing their concerns with the people around them, due to fear of experiencing stigma and prejudice, making it harder to manage difficult circumstances .
Without a strong support system, from friends, family, colleagues, or professionals, it can be difficult to work through challenging circumstances, thus contributing to the occurrence of burnout as things become overwhelming.
Knowing your own limits can be a protective factor, but without set boundaries, it can be very easy to become overloaded with expectations and obligations, feeling pressure to be available.
Big life changes, such as changing careers, moving house, the end of a relationship, or the death of a loved one, can add to the feeling of being burdened and overwhelmed, making it much more difficult to manage challenging circumstances.
Without a proper autism diagnosis, it can be difficult to understand or manage the signs of burnout, contributing to worsening symptoms. Many adults who are later diagnosed with autism experience burnout prior to a diagnosis, thus prompting them to seek help .
Although it may be difficult to completely prevent symptoms of autistic burnout, it may be possible to at least reduce the impact or severity of these symptoms, by using the following techniques :
Learning more about autistic burnout and its potential causes may help in reducing or avoiding these causes, as well as providing further tools to manage challenging or overwhelming circumstances.
Many people with autism mask or camouflage their symptoms, to help them fit in or manage social situations. However, masking symptoms of autism can be exhausting and can lead to several negative consequences that can contribute to burnout . Acting or speaking in an autistic manner, showing symptoms and characteristics of autism, can help to prevent burnout.
People may experience differing triggers and signs of burnout, so it can be useful to learn your own personal triggers, allowing quick recognition and time to put coping strategies in place before a full burnout occurs.
While autism can cause several challenges, it can also contribute to several positive traits and attributes, such as an increased ability to learn new subjects or proficiency in math and science . Considering your own skills and positive autistic traits and trying to apply them to general or professional tasks can help to prevent burnout and increase self-esteem.
Having a somewhat clear idea of what can cause autistic burnout can help you to put strategies in place to prevent its occurrence. It may be useful to communicate with your employer or human resources department to formulate a plan around decreased workload or appropriate ways to take required breaks, thus reducing pressure to consistently perform and helping to prevent burnout.
You are allowed to say no!
Feeling pressure to engage in social or professional activities can increase anxiety and the chances of burnout . Taking time to consider how much you can take part in and setting boundaries for yourself and others in this regard can protect you from experiencing burnout and provide you with the tools you need to decline invitations when you feel the need to.
Looking after yourself is important for everyone, but especially for autistic people who can easily become overwhelmed and overworked. Take time to consider your physical and mental health needs, such as eating and sleeping well, spending time alone, meditating and breathing exercises, doing things you enjoy, and being active .
Self-care is often one of the first things to decline as burnout occurs, so having routines and positive actions in place can help remind you of your needs and be useful in spotting when burnout is beginning to occur, enabling you to put positive coping strategies in place to prevent it.
Managing autistic burnout can feel very challenging, but with coping strategies in place and a strong support system around you, the symptoms can be alleviated and managed effectively. An adequate support system can be several people or just one close friend or family member, if it involves trust and genuine support, with a safe space to discuss concerns .
Similarly, there are various support groups for people with autism, that can provide this safe space to talk about signs and symptoms of burnout and useful ways to manage and prevent it. Speaking with others who have experienced similar challenges can also help to reduce negative feelings, as well as increase understanding and acceptance of the disorder .
Asking for help can be difficult, especially if you have experienced negative feelings about the signs and symptoms of autism and burnout, from others or yourself. Professional psychotherapists can help to alleviate these negative feelings, teach you to understand and accept yourself as you are and provide a space to communicate and feel validated and heard .
Give yourself time to take a break, whether this is from work, social events, overstimulating environments, or any other part of your life that feels overwhelming. Use breaks to recharge, by resting, exercising, or doing things you enjoy .
Listen to your body and mind, taking as much time as is required, whether this means taking regular short breaks throughout each day, or a whole day once a week or once a month.
If you feel overwhelmed with obligations and expectations, it can be useful to ask for practical help, such as with household chores or childcare, to alleviate some of the ongoing stress and allow yourself time to focus on other tasks .
Similarly, if you feel overwhelmed with work or social events, it may be useful to find ways to reduce this load, by taking time off work or backing out of events. Remember your limits and the boundaries you have set for yourself and give yourself permission to say no to things you will struggle to manage.
Self-care can help to prevent burnout but can also be crucial to managing an occurrence. Doing activities that you enjoy and taking time to breathe, rest, and destress can make burnout easier to cope with and recover from.
If you know someone who experiences autistic burnout, you can help them cope by :