What Is Autistic Burnout? Causes & Prevention

Today you’ll learn what autistic burnout is, what causes it, and how to prevent it.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
July 16, 2024
min read

What Is Autistic Burnout?

Autism burnout is a strong mental, emotional, or physical tiredness that's compounded by skill loss. It's most often felt by adults with ASD.

what is autistic burnout

Autistic individuals say that it's primarily caused by them having to go about the world in a way that isn't truly made for their needs. The causes of burnout can be thought of as someone coming from a developed city and traveling to live with a tribe that's far away. A person could undergo feelings of uneasiness from being placed out of the environment that they grew up in.

Other definitions of autism burnout are associated with the general stresses in life. There is an unrealistic setup for expectations and skills in such people that don't possess the right kind of support to be successful.

For this meaning, autism burnout is an exhaustion lasting for at least three months and leads to exhaustion, poor functional abilities, and a lowered adaptation to stimulus.

People have shown an increasing interest in autism and the level of complexity that exists behind the disorder. One term of focus is autistic burnout.

Some may think of burnout and apply it to the meaning of exhaustion. Within most autism communities, people began using the word burnout as a meaning that goes broader.

Adults with the disorder have noted events they've found themselves in where they had problems coping, a sudden loss of abilities they had before, and no more function.

When these events happen, they're thought of as having more symptoms that are moderate for ASD. Such are more behaviors that are repetitive, raised senses, and higher sensory input.

Employment loss could result in this occurring, as could making bad grades in school, and issues with relationships. Mental health issues also can't be ruled out. Things could worsen and lead to more permanent ailments if left unchecked.

Medical professionals that study autism just recently found out about burnout and the level of attention that it's gotten. Five years ago, most had never heard of the problem. Thanks to discussions taking place in varied online forums, most now have heard of it at some point in recent years.

Autistic Burnout Symptoms

Below are some primary symptoms related to autism burnout:

  • No motivation to do anything - In the worst cases, something as simple as getting out of bed might be difficult. Motivational loss and strain can strain relationships, impact work, and serve as a distraction from schoolwork. Motivation can cause people to avoid talking to the few they're friends with loved ones and co-workers.
  • Executive function abilities go away - Someone might suddenly lose their ability to organize and make good choices in their general life.
  • Self-care goes away - A lack of self-care can quickly cause some not to be concerned with their appearance, hygiene, and wardrobe. The hoarding could occur in this situation. Also, a lack of cleanliness could impact relationships with friends and family.
  • Meltdowns begin occurring more frequently - Meltdowns usually happen in autistic people when they're young, but adults can abruptly get them from stress and poor relationships.
  • Temporary loss of speech - Unable to properly communicate or exhibits a total lack of communicative speech.
  • Lethargy and extreme exhaustion - General tiredness and feelings of not having enough energy to accomplish any responsibilities.
  • Temporary increase in symptoms related to autism - A temporary boost in repetitive behaviors such as repeating words, flapping hands, and pushing buttons over and over again.
  • An unusual burst in energy - Increased energy could conclude in crashing.
  • Digestive and physical problems - Upset stomach, diarrhea, bloating, and other problems common in the intestines. For physical illness, there are general aches and pains, backaches, and migraines.
  • Unable to mask autistic symptoms - Since there's no cure for ASD, adults learn to manage symptoms through masking. autistic burnout can make this go away and revert one to the repetitive behaviors they once thought were fully under their control.

Is Burnout The Same As Sensory Overload?

No, ASD burnout is entirely different. However, overlapping symptoms can exist.

Overlapping occurs when two or more symptoms from a different disorder or action are present.

For example, if someone with autism has symptoms that are more common with ADHD, they may become sidetracked easily, have problems paying attention, and have the inability to remain focused on tasks. It doesn't necessarily mean that they have ADHD, but the symptom falls on top of one another nonetheless.

Sensory overload is a common autistic trait, particularly in children.

Kids sometimes have a hard time figuring out the world, and this can be more so for those with ASD.

They must learn to control their feelings when in situations that are away from what they know, places that exhibit lots of auditory sounds, visual complexities, and social cues.

These can become overwhelming to a young mind and result in sensory overload until they're in a familiar set and setting. Still, this isn't indicative of burnout since overload can occur as a primary feature.

Causes Of Autistic Burnout

Autistic burnout can be triggered by sudden events that take place in someone's life. A random or planning transition, such as a move to a new house or neighborhood, or even a new room in the same home. But this could also happen from the largest events.

A student leaving high school for college is naturally nervous and excited at the same time. But for the autistic student, those major changes may open up feelings that they haven't felt in many years.

There's even more social interaction needed to navigate higher education, on top of all the work and extracurricular duties they may want to take part in. Starting a new job when entering the workforce can produce identical reactions since employment is a high responsibility.

Aging is another. Autism doesn't go away easily, even in elderly people. Becoming old can produce burnout that puts one into a depressive state that's teeming with repetitive actions that had not been seen in a long time.

Masking symptoms are taught to people with autism at an early age by therapists.

But negative responses can come back if they're triggered. Also known as camouflaging, masking is when ASD individuals copy behavior through the use of scripts to try and finish minute tasks.

This can force them to make eye contact with people or bury behaviors that repeat many times.

After a while, the ability to mask may appear to be an overwhelming fear, one that's simply too much of a hassle to do day in and day out. in such a case, the masking might end and be replaced with the behaviors they had at some previous time. Sensory stimulation can be too much as well.

One may attempt to handle the sound of a noise that's irritating but fail and become extremely agitated. Adults with autism also balance out many tasks all at once. When these cannot be met, executive function demands go away.

EFD is very common in ASD students that are in high school and college but can be seen in adults working different jobs.

Stress with work, home duties, relationships, and family can end in upheavals that challenge an autistic person's ability to cope, causing burnout and unpleasantness. Losing a good job can do the same thing, as would failing a class at school, bullying, and trying to juggle too many things simultaneously.

Another is sleep deprivation. This can happen from poor nutrition and poor diet. Dehydration, caused by a lack of water consumption, reduces energy and tolerance. If the diet isn't changed and water remains an unpopular drink, burnout is likely.

Preventing Burnout On The Autism Spectrum

There are numerous strategies for avoiding burnout, but the best is through knowing yourself. ASD individuals are capable of learning over distance stretches the kinds of situations that could lead to burnout.

They're capable of watching out for the warning signs when burnout is close. They could feel a strange disconnect between themselves and their physical being. Visual irregularities like reduced vision may be noted by them in this condition. With this in mind, strategies are possible to create for avoidance.

Leaving early is a good thing to do for those that suddenly become distraught over such an environment. Recovery before going back to a normal routine is a great solution for one to gain back control of themselves, through a relaxing day alone or spending time being around familiar people.

Most of the general public has become aware of what autism is. If one with the disorder were to ask another in charge of an area for discretion, such as a host for dinner or stewardess, they may be of assistance in helping them to avoid burnout.

How To Recover From Autistic Burnout

Recovery can be vastly different from one person to the next. But as a general rule of thumb, removal from a situation they might find uncomfortable usually helps at preventing a problem that's likely to produce burnout.

After dealing with so much unpredictability, just having the time to do a bit of resting up in a room where one can't be bothered is another great way. Unfortunately, not everyone has this option.

When in the company of people that are known and trusted, they can offer assistance in getting someone with ASD to a place for them to quiet things down and chill for a bit. This may not always be enough to help out everyone. People are claiming to have experienced burnout for many years. In older people, it's very difficult to manage.

How Long Can Autistic Burnout Last?

Autistic burnout can last for hours, days, weeks, months, and some years. LIfe's chronic agitations and duties aren't always manageable without some level of support from friends, family, and workmates.

In instances where none of such people are available, therapy should be considered. On average, it takes about three months for an autistic person to fully recover from their burnout.

What Is The Difference Between Burnout And Autistic Burnout?

People with regular burnout can show feelings of stress from work issues and such. A person with autistic burnout generally feels stressed from social pressure. The world around them is neurotypical.

It can be thought of as the same way in which left-handed people are forced to adjust to using utensils, electrical equipment, and other daily items built for people with right-hand dominance. The world has not fully adapted to the wants and needs required for autism's symptoms not to appear. These aren't issues that someone with general burnout will produce.

Does Autistic Burnout Feel Like Depression?

Burnout is typically shown in autistic individuals as physical tiredness. Managing emotions could become exhausting, ending in outbursts, discomfort, anger, and depression. It can spring up as anxiety or help in the formation of a later depressive state.

Symptoms found in autism can quickly lower happy feelings and end in a depressed mood where it seems hopeless for it to go away. An underlying mood disorder could be found this way as well, though most won't have such issues.

What Does Autistic Burnout Look Or Feel Like?

In Children

Autistic burnout looks and feels different based on the person experiencing it. But repetitive body movements could frequently appear.

Appearance could come off as weak or sluggish with no apparent interest in things that were just recently appealing. Eye contact could again be reduced back to the difficulty that was felt during their childhood.

In Adults

In kids, a lack of self-care may be shown. Irritability will probably follow, as would a lack of motivation to do work, or care for personal hygiene.

Common autistic traits would manifest such as self-harm, poor manners, and limited understanding of visual and social cues at home and school.

Regulation of their emotions can severely regress and cause unresponsiveness, and tantrums when forced to go places that aren't planned ahead of time.


steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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