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Understanding Autistic Burnout

Autistic burnout is a phenomenon that many autistic individuals experience at some point in their lives.

It is a state of physical, emotional, and cognitive exhaustion that results when they have been exposed to an overwhelming load of sensory, social, and environmental demands and stimulus.    

Recognizing the signs of autistic burnout is crucial for autistic individuals, their families, and caregivers to provide the necessary support to recover, and ideally minimize the occurrence of burnout moving forward. Of course, recognizing autistic burnout is incredibly difficult if the individual is not aware that they are autistic. Some people may think they are experiencing a ‘breakdown’ or suffering from depression because there are common symptoms. Being misdiagnosed with depression or occupational burnout when you are actually suffering autistic burnout, can prevent individuals from getting effective treatment. 

So, what are the signs of autistic burnout?

1. Sensory Overload: Individuals may become more easily overwhelmed by bright lights, loud noises, strong odours, or textures that were previously manageable. They may withdraw or seek sensory avoidance as a coping mechanism.

2. Communication Difficulties: People experiencing burnout may find it more challenging to articulate their thoughts, leading to increased difficulty in verbal communication or using non-verbal cues like body language and facial expressions.

3. Social Withdrawal: Burnout often leads to social withdrawal as individuals struggle to engage in social interactions. Socializing becomes emotionally and physically draining, prompting the person to withdraw to conserve energy.

4. General and Cognitive Fatigue: Autistic burnout can manifest as exhaustion that is not relieved by rest or sleep. Individuals may experience cognitive exhaustion and struggle with decision-making, problem-solving, and executive functioning tasks. They may have difficulty organizing thoughts and may experience memory lapses.

5. Mood Changes: Emotional regulation can become challenging during burnout. Mood swings, irritability, anxiety, and general low mood are common symptoms.

6. Physical Symptoms: Autistic burnout can have physical manifestations, such as headaches, gastrointestinal issues, sleep disturbances and immune system breakdown. These physical symptoms can compound the overall distress.

How can an individual recover from burnout?

An individual experiencing autistic burnout resulting from a prolonged period of high demand will need time and strategies to aid recovery. Recommendations include:

1. Sleep or Rest: burnout can lead to physical fatigue, muscle tension, and heightened stress responses. Rest, including additional sleep, allows the body to recover, repair, and rebuild energy reserves. Delay all non-critical tasks.

2. Engage in a Sensory “Detox” which can be described as activities or practices aimed at reducing sensory input or promoting relaxation such as quiet time in a calm, low stimulation environment. Definitely avoid the supermarket or other crowded and noisy places at this time.

3. Spend Time Unmasking which means allowing themselves to be their authentic self without the need to constantly suppress or mask their autistic traits, behaviors, or sensory sensitivities.

4. Devote Time to Special Interests because this can have a calming and soothing effect. Special interests often serve as a source of comfort and familiarity, helping to reduce stress and anxiety during overwhelming times.

5. Ensure They are Being Supported: Family, teachers and employers can significantly contribute to the recovery process by offering support, understanding, and accommodations tailored to the individual's specific needs and circumstances. In some instances, people may need to significantly restructure their lifestyle and remove themselves from the causes of their burnout if their existing lifestyle is causing regular and repetitive burnout.

How can you prevent and manage autistic burnout?

1. Self-Awareness: Autistic individuals should prioritize self-awareness. Recognizing early signs of burnout is essential for prevention. Keeping a journal to track sensory triggers, mood changes, and energy levels can help identify patterns.

2. Sensory Regulation: Implement sensory regulation strategies like sensory breaks or using sensory tools (e.g., noise-cancelling headphones, fidget toys) to manage sensory overload.

3. Self-Care: Prioritize self-care routines, including regular exercise, a balanced diet, sufficient sleep, and a sensory-friendly environment at home. Consider undertaking a self-compassion course like the free Aspect Self-Compassion Program for Autistic Adults (ASPAA).

4. Communication: Communicate your needs and boundaries with loved ones and caregivers. Educate them about your sensory sensitivities and triggers, so they can provide appropriate support and, when necessary, delegate tasks to those trusted support people.

5. Stress Management: Learn stress management techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness, or meditation to cope with overwhelming situations. Take the load off your executive functioning by outsourcing to calendars, setting reminders on phones and using whiteboards to ‘unburden’ your mind.

6. Seek Professional Help: If burnout persists or becomes severe, seek the guidance of a healthcare professional or therapist who specializes in autism. They can provide strategies and therapies tailored to your needs. Search for psychologists online  or speak with your GP for recommendations.

7. Advocate for Accommodations: In educational or workplace settings, advocate for reasonable accommodations that can alleviate sensory and social stressors. This may include modified schedules, sensory-friendly workspaces, or additional support.

Recognizing autistic burnout is crucial for the wellbeing of autistic individuals and also for those who are undiagnosed and experiencing this phenomenon. By understanding the signs and implementing strategies for prevention and support, autistic individuals, their families, and caregivers can help navigate the challenges that come with sensory, social, and cognitive overload. With the right tools and support network, they can better manage their environment, reduce the impact of burnout, and lead fulfilling lives.

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