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Autistic Burnout: Prevention and Recovery

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Autistic burnout is a term used to describe the experience of exhaustion, reduced functioning and mental health challenges that many autistic people face during or after a prolonged period of stress and overwhelm. According to the National Autistic Society it is defined by pervasive exhaustion and reduced tolerance to stimuli for 3 months or more. In this post, we will dive into the causes and consequences of burnout and provide practical tips for prevention and recovery. 

Although it is not officially recognised as a diagnostic symptom, autistic burnout is widely acknowledged within the autism community and is a useful term for describing the negative experience that autistic people face at some point in their lives. Burnout is said to be first experienced during puberty, after finishing secondary or tertiary education or during changes in transitions and expectations. Therefore, it typically occurs when demands and expectations placed on an autistic person exceeds their ability to cope effectively. Autistic burnout has a huge impact on health, mental health, independence and general quality of life on the individual.

Here are some causes of autistic burnout:

  • Masking: many autistic people mask in order to blend in with society and not stick out or “be a burden” for others. A lot of energy is used when masking autistic traits and acting to be socially acceptable.
  • Sensory overload: having heightened sensory sensitivities means autistic people are more susceptible to sensory overload from bright lights to loud noises and strong smells. Being unable to filter out all this sensory information creates stress for the autistic person and also drains their energy. 
  • Social demands: family, friends, school and work may have unreachable or difficult expectations of individuals causing exhaustion and the feeling of not being “enough”
  • Lack of accommodations: Living in a world without access to the right support and understanding can put a lot of stress on an autistic person. 
  • Transitions: Unexpected changes are a fact of life but for an autistic person changes are hard to deal with thanks to rigid and inflexible symptoms. Bereavements, changes in environments and having health issues can be very difficult for autistic people to deal with effectively.

Prevention and Recovery

Autistic burnout is very important to manage as it can reduce a person’s quality of life considerably and lead to physical and mental health issues. There are many ways to cope with and prevent burnout and here is a look at some strategies:

  1. Develop better self-awareness for prevention: it is important to learn what early signs of burnout look like as we can easily forget to do so when we are busy with work or school. Checking in with yourself every day to see how your emotional wellbeing and energy levels are is essential. 
  2. Reasonable Adjustments: Asking for help can be difficult when autistic people are trying to blend in, but receiving accommodations at work or school can make a big difference. Employers and schools are required to support their autistic employees and students and provide accommodations in a variety of areas.
  3. Boundaries: Have clear and healthy boundaries and expectations from others and learn what to do when they aren’t respecting your boundaries. Saying “no” is not mean when you have necessary needs that need to be attended to first. Prioritise self-care and have time for your own relaxation, and regulation needs.
  4. Sensory Regulation: Use strategies to manage sensory overload by having a “sensory kit” to hand to calm yourself whenever you need. Having sunglasses for the bright sun, noise-cancelling headphones, comfortable clothing, a soft toy or fidget item to stim with and redirecting energy are a few examples of what can be placed in your sensory kit.
  5. Social support and acceptance: build a small network of understanding and accepting individuals who you can interact with without masking and have emotional support and validation. There are many neurodivergent communities online where you can share experiences and learn tips and especially find a sense of belonging.
  6. Seek professional support: Sometimes things can get too much to handle alone. It is important to seek a professional such as a therapist, counsellor or coach who can help provide mental health interventions, guidance and coping strategies specific to your needs
  7. Be your autistic self: spending time with your special interests, stimming and unmasking are the best ways to reduce and prevent burnout.

To summarise, Autistic burnout is a significant experience many autistic people face but by educating yourself on the potential causes, learning strategies and coping skills for both prevention and recovery you can better manage the impact of burnout. Spreading awareness of the experience can also help more people understand and provide more validation for individuals suffering from it. Embracing autistic strengths, seeking support and prioritising wellbeing are essential for autistic people to thrive.

Author: NeuroDirect