Autism and neurodiversity are still often misunderstood both within the medical community and amongst loved ones, friends, and anyone else who interacts with a person on the spectrum. However, burnout, which anyone can experience, is especially difficult to deal with as an autistic person and can lead to even further confusion and misunderstandings.
Burnout, in general, is typically a sign that an individual has pushed themselves too hard. It is most often associated with a person’s job; however, anyone can experience burnout, from young children and teenagers to adults. While the signs of burnout can overlap between those who are neurotypical and those who are neurodivergent, burnout can also look quite different in people with autism and can be hard to identify.
People who are neurodivergent and on the spectrum already struggle to be understood and taken seriously, so when they start exhibiting signs of burnout, it is not uncommon for people to dismiss them and assume that the symptoms they are exhibiting are just normal behaviors for someone on the spectrum. Unfortunately, autistic burnout can have severe consequences if it is not properly dealt with.
This is why it is crucial to understand what burnout looks like in people with autism. Whether you are someone who is on the spectrum yourself or you know someone with autism, it’s important to recognize the signs of autistic burnout and how to manage and overcome autistic burnout to avoid making the situation worse.
What Are the Signs of Burnout in People With Autism?
Again, while people with autism can exhibit any of the typical signs of burnout—such as physical and mental fatigue, irritability, self-doubt, detachment, and loss of motivation—autistic burnout is often even worse and experienced on a whole different level. General autistic traits and behaviors can amplify the conditions that cause burnout, and in reverse, burnout can amplify autistic traits and make them worse.
Autistic people already struggle to perform certain tasks or act in a “socially acceptable manner” due to cognitive differences. In simple terms, people with autism process things differently. This doesn’t mean they are not just as capable as neurotypicals, but it might take them a little longer or require more effort to act or perform a certain way. Thus, when they experience burnout, it can make things even more challenging, which can result in a depletion of their physical, mental, and emotional resources.
Though autistic burnout can vary from one person to the next, depending on how it was triggered, there are some general signs and symptoms to watch out for that may indicate a person with ASD is experiencing burnout. These can include:
- Overwhelming physical and mental exhaustion
- Difficulty managing emotions more than usual
- A decline in the ability to self-regulate or be self-sufficient
- Challenges with executive function and the ability to perform tasks and make decisions
- Depression and suicidal thoughts, such as feelings of worthlessness and an extreme loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
- Skill regression (i.e., difficulty with speech and cognitive skills)
- Extreme social withdraw
- Increased sensitivity to stimuli
- Frequent meltdowns (more than usual)
- Heightened emotions
- Increased autistic behaviors (i.e., stimming, self-soothing, repetitive behaviors, etc.)
- More difficulty making eye contact
- Needing more time alone
- Needing more sleep but having difficulty falling asleep
Tips for Overcoming Burnout for People on the Spectrum
Combating autistic burnout can be done by following some of the same methods used for combating creative burnout, such as taking breaks from the things stressing us out; however, there are also some additional tips and things to keep in mind. As burnout overall—no matter who is experiencing it—is a form of physical and mental exhaustion, the methods to overcome it can overlap for neurotypicals and people with autism.
However, as some autistic persons may struggle to self-regulate, they may need a little extra help getting over their burnout. Autistic children especially can struggle to self-regulate and will need a supportive adult in their life who can advocate for them to help them overcome their burnout.
Some tips for combating and overcoming autistic burnout can include:
- Use additional sensory support to block out too many stimuli, such as headphones and earbuds.
- Take frequent breaks at work, school, or even at home if everything becomes “too much.”
- High-functioning autistic adults can take a mental health day or even go on a mental health holiday or a solo vacation to escape and get some much-needed alone time to rest and recharge.
- Seek out and spend time in more quiet environments.
- Find someone to confide in for support, such as a therapist, a teacher, a parent, a friend, or a counselor. Don’t try to manage burnout alone.
- Prioritize the “less is more” mentality. Start incorporating more downtime into your schedule as soon as burnout is recognized and focus on smaller, more manageable tasks and activities.
- Focus on pursuing interests that bring joy as this can help replenish energy.
- Avoid social activities or interactions where you know you will be more inclined to mask.
- Engage in physical activities or get outside more often if it’s not too overwhelming.
- Don’t be hard on yourself, and give yourself permission to forgo masking to recharge your energy.
Though autistic burnout can be harder to overcome than general burnout for neurotypicals, it does not have to be something that negatively impacts your life. The best thing you can do to avoid the negative implications of autistic burnout is to take steps to prevent it from happening in the first place.
All of the above tips are helpful if you are already in the middle of burnout, but they are especially helpful if you start following them the moment you recognize signs of autistic burnout. The sooner you intervene and start taking steps to mitigate burnout from getting worse, the easier it will be to overcome.