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Autistic burnout

With the first quarter of the 2021 past us and Easter holidays approaching, it feels like for many of my neurodiverse clients that the holidays couldn't come sooner.


So why is it that almost on cue, 2 weeks before each holiday period begins, our neurodiverse people start to feel tired, exhausted and appear to lose skills that they could previously do? So we all experience burn out but Autisitic burnout is a unique experience for neurodiverse individuals so here is a bit more information on what the signs are and how we can help.


Signs and Symptoms of Autistic Burnout

  • Physical exhaustion

  • Emotional outbursts and difficulties managing emotions 

  • Spike in anxiety which may coincide with increase of repetitive behaviours

  • Spike in aggression and/or depression and suicidal behaviours

  • Increased sensitivity to sensory stimuli 




It is important to note that everyone experiences burn out differently and may not show these symptoms. Burnout can sometimes result in a loss of skills: An autistic woman who usually has strong verbal abilities may, for example, suddenly find herself unable to talk.


What causes burnout? 

Burnout is often a consequence of camouflaging, or masking, a strategy in which autistic people mimic neurotypical behaviour by using scripts for small talk, forcing themselves to make eye contact or suppressing repetitive behaviours. These strategies can help autistic people in their jobs and relationships but require immense effort. It can also result from sensory overstimulation, such as a noisy bus commute; executive function demands such as having to juggle too many tasks at once; or stress associated with change. 


How do autistic people recover from burnout? 

That depends on the person and on what burnout is like for them. A first step is for autistic people to remove themselves from the situation that triggered the burnout. This could be as simple as going back to a hotel room to rest alone after a day of unpredictable social interactions at a conference. Others may need longer to recover. Some autistic people have described burnout that is so severe its effects have persisted for years. Burnout may occur more frequently and be more difficult to recover from as people get older. 


Is it possible to prevent burnout? 

A key strategy for preventing burnout is self-knowledge and self awareness. Neurodiverse people can learn over time which situations are most likely to trigger burnout for them. They can also watch for signs that they are getting close to burnout: Some Neurodiverse people describe feeling disconnected from their bodies or experiencing tunnel vision in this state.


Armed with this awareness, 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 accommodations that make it easier for them to avoid burnout, such as doing the shopping during off peak times to avoid sensory overstimulation or working from home part of the time and taking a mental health care day when they notice that their burnout signals are present.

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