Preventing, Managing and Recovering

by Robert Naseef, Ph.D.

I can relate to this article.  When I was working by the end of my shift I experienced burn out and had to take a nap in my car before driving home.   When I got home I would not come out till the next day. – Greg

When autistic people tell their doctors and mental health professionals that they are suffering from autistic burnout, they get a quizzical look. According to many of the people in my psychology practice, telling them it is not a diagnosis leads them to feel no one is listening to them or believes them. This is awful and needs to change. While autistic burnout is not a current medical term, it is real, and autistic people have been talking about it for years.

‘Autistic burnout’ is a term that originated in the autism community. It is not a medical term as such, but it has captured the attention of researchers, many of whom are autistic themselves. The term captures the intense physical, mental, or emotional exhaustion that autistic people say  emanates from the cumulative effect of trying to fit into a world that was not designed for them.

Autistic burnout varies from individual to individual, much like the presentation of autism itself. Frequently it is an overwhelming sense of physical exhaustion. Some autistics have increased difficulty managing their emotions and may then have outbursts of sadness or anger. Intense anxiety may emerge or develop into clinical depression and suicidal ideation or intent to harm oneself. It may result in an increase in repetitive behaviors, heightened sensitivity to sensory input, or difficulty with change as well as a loss of previously learned communication skills.

Neurotypical, or averagely wired people, who suffer burnout on their jobs feel overwhelmed from the pressures and demands of their work. Autistic, or differently wired, people feel chronically stressed due to the pressures of living and working all day, related to many of the specific struggles that autism entails.

Sarah Deweerdt in Spectrum News discusses how autistic people can recover from burnout, which depends on the individual and what burnout is like for them.  A first step may be taking a break from the situation that is stressing them. The time needed to recover varies greatly. This is why so many autistic children and adults require alone time after a challenging day at school or work.

A key strategy for reducing or even preventing burnout is self-knowledge gained over time by observing which situations are most likely to trigger burnout. Autistic people can watch for signs and symptoms of burnout with this awareness, and they can develop strategies to avoid burnout, such as leaving a social event early or planning a recovery day after a trip before returning to work. They can also ask for workplace or school accommodations that make it easier to avoid burnout, such as a quiet place to work, including working from home as much as possible, or when taking a test.  

Dr. Alice Nicholls, a clinical psychologist and an autistic person, provides helpful resources and guidance to help autistic people live fulfilling lives without sacrificing their mental health. On her website, you can download a copy of The Autistic Burnout Symptom Checklist (ABSC).