Autistic burnout

What is autistic burnout?
SIMPLIFIED EXPLANATION

Although it's the same word (burnout) that is used to describe occupational burnout, autistic burnout is not related to the world of work. Autistic burnout occurs when it becomes too difficult for an autistic person to function and cope with, among other things, sensory and social challenges. It's an exhaustion that can lead to great distress and even suicide. That's why it's so important for autistic people to be able to rest properly, and not only if they experience burnout, but also beforehand, so as to avoid experiencing it in the first place. Rest isn't just about sleeping or doing nothing, it's about not being constantly adapting (noises, people, lights, conversations, unexpected events, etc.).

Autistic burnout manifests itself in feelings of distress and exhaustion, a drop in energy and abilities, and a reduced tolerance to sensations such as noise, texture or light. Social interactions also become much more difficult to manage. It’s as if all the challenges associated with autism were amplified at the same time, making them impossible to manage. As a result, the person becomes helpless and often unable to function. The health risks are severe, since autistic burnout can make it difficult for autistic people to carry on with their lives, and can even lead to hospitalization, loss of autonomy, isolation and, eventually, suicide.

Important

Autistic burnout is not the same as occupational burnout.

How autistic burnout occurs

It’s well known that autistic people may need accommodations to carry out activities of daily living, care for themselves and take on responsibilities in their family and community. But we sometimes forget that autistic people adapt in their everyday lives to function “normally” with their family, their group of friends, at school, at work and in public places. Looking people in the eye, making “small talk(talking about trivial things), using the noisy hand dryers in public toilets are examples of situations that can demand a lot of energy from autistic people. As long as it’s possible, autistic people will perform these gestures, which are so small for neurotypicals, but so energy-consuming for them. It’s a way of accommodating neurotypicals.

If an autistic person has to perform more difficult gestures than they have energy for, they risk exhaustion. This is autistic burnout. When burnout occurs, the autistic person will seem to have “regressed”, no longer be able to do “the little things of everyday life”, “be clumsy” or “no longer make an effort”. But none of these expressions is accurate. In reality, the person has simply exhausted their capabilities. The person’s body is no longer able to perform these activities without the necessary adaptations to ensure its well-being.

What to do about it

You have to give your body and mind time to recover. Every person and every situation are different, and there is no universal answer to the question. In the perfect resting situation, an autistic person’s body could take between 4 hours and a week to recover. After this time, the autistic person will feel less overwhelmed by his or her senses and will regain his or her former abilities. For rest to be optimal, the person needs to rest in a place that is comfortable and secure for them. The person must be able to avoid sensory overload and get on with their routine.

Important

If the person has endured a situation that exceeded his or her capabilities for a very long time, the burnout may also last longer and be more serious, i.e. the person would then no longer function at all.

Note

Autistic burnout is rarely caused by one big thing. In fact, autistic burnout is often the result of lots of little things.

It’s important to understand the causes of burnout in order to avoid further burnout. Once the causes have been identified, solutions can be found. Seeking help from social workers, special educators and people in the autistic community can be essential both to discovering the cause of burnout and to finding clues and solutions for recovery.

We experienced a family situation that disrupted all our activities, our schedule, our mental state and our interactions with our loved ones. This situation changed the personalities of the people around me, as they too had to face this situation. Faced with this, I experienced a major loss of reference points over several months, which led to a total breakdown in my functioning. I needed the help of two professionals to get me through: a psychoeducator and a social worker. They helped me to set clear objectives that enabled me to establish new points of reference over time and concrete steps towards getting my life back on track.

Burnout after an unusual activity

Autistic burnout can occur following a major change in habits that lasts from a day to a few weeks. For example, it’s common for autistic people to become exhausted around the holidays, when traveling, on vacation, after going to a concert, on their birthday, etc. Even when these events are important to the autistic person, they can lead to autistic burnout. It’s important to allow time for the body to recover from these activities.

Long-lasting autistic burnout

Some autistic people feel tired all the time, clumsy and unable to use 100% of their intelligence and abilities. In such cases, it’s possible to have low self-esteem and wonder why we can’t do as much as everyone else. When such thoughts arise, it’s important to remember that we don’t all have the same abilities. It’s okay not to be exactly like everyone else. What’s more, life isn’t a competition, and it’s neither desirable nor possible to measure who “does more” than whom.

That said, fatigue, clumsiness and the feeling of not being able to use 100% of one’s functions are symptoms of autistic burnout. When in doubt, it’s possible to put in place the solutions needed to recover from burnout. Taking time off, if possible, and reflecting on the “little things” in daily life that require a lot of energy can help you regain 100% of your abilities. There’s no age limit to making adjustments that make everyday life easier.

When I worked at the French National Assembly, my main office was inside a century-old house, and there were only between 2 and 4 people working there at any one time. I was able to do many full-time jobs (and even more) without getting tired for a year: as long as I wasn't asked to leave the house. A house is comfortable, there's no neon, no loud noise from air exchangers and air conditioners, and no movement.

Occupational exhaustion

Autistic people can also suffer from occupational exhaustion, commonly known as burnout. Burnout doesn’t just happen at work, it can also happen to students, volunteers and activists. It can happen to anyone. The symptoms of occupational burnout resemble those of autistic burn-out: physical, mental and emotional fatigue, loss of creativity and motivation in one’s tasks. If taking a few days off and adding accommodations isn’t enough to make the symptoms go away, it’s important to talk to a doctor or psychologist and seek help. Autistic people can also suffer burnout. In 2021, it was estimated that 37% of Canadians were at risk of burnout in the last year. It’s normal to need a rest!

References

Autistic Burnout: An Exploratory Conceptual Analysis” (2019) by Dora M. Raymaker et al. – Defining autistic burnout as a process of emotional exhaustion and cognitive dysfunction resulting from the chronic strain of striving for social conformity and adapting to social expectations.

The Costs of Camouflaging Autism” (2019) by Will Mandy et al. – Psychological costs of camouflaging autism and consequences such as emotional exhaustion, deterioration of social relationships and increased repetitive behaviors.

A Conceptual Framework for Autistic Burnout” (2021) by Dora M. Raymaker et al. – A conceptual framework for autistic burnout, which includes dimensions such as sensory overload, social expectations and difficulty maintaining adaptive self-determination. The researchers stress the importance of understanding autistic burnout to support autistic people in their development and well-being.

Catherine Bouchard-Tremblay

Science popularizer