Most people recall some chapter in their lives that they would look back on and identify as burnout. This term usually refers to the amount of energy someone has for their job or that they have taken on too many activities in general.
In the autistic community, however, the word has taken on a different definition that is unique to autistic people. In a 2020 AASPIRE research study, it was defined as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic life stress and a mismatch of expectations and abilities without adequate supports. It is characterized by pervasive, long-term (typically 3+ months) exhaustion, loss of function, and reduced tolerance to stimulus.” It goes beyond tiredness and is different from depression. Rather, it is a cumulative experience for autistic people that builds up over time because they have become too taxed to handle the responsibilities or expectations in their lives. Autistic burnout involves the loss of skills and abilities the person would ordinarily possess.
Trying to fit in socially and behave in a neurotypical way appears to contribute to autistic burnout. Adjusting one’s behavior and impulses to appear more “normal” involves a high level of neurological, cognitive, and emotional demand. Imagine a pie chart representing cognitive ability. When a person uses ongoing self-awareness and self-monitoring to modify their social presentation, it takes a slice out of the pie, reducing the cognitive ability they have available to apply to other tasks.
It is important to note that nobody chooses to get burned out. It reflects an involuntary neurological state. The person may notice they are starting to feel burnout because they are less capable than usual or they are experiencing more meltdown or shutdown episodes. Sometimes burnout affects people so gradually that they don’t realize they are struggling until they are fully incapacitated or until someone else alerts them that they are not managing well.
Autistic burnout usually involves increased cognitive difficulty with making decisions and managing tasks capably, organizing activities, and remembering things, and intensifying of sensory sensitivities. For many autistics, speaking ability is adversely affected as well. Autistic burnout may also involve increased suicidal thoughts or impulses.
If You or Someone You Love Is Experiencing Burnout
Although not all burnout episodes can be prevented, it is nevertheless crucial to have a plan you can implement in advance to reduce the likelihood of burnout. Sometimes, the best you can expect is to lessen the episode’s intensity and duration. Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to prevent burnout or counteract it if it can’t be prevented. The suggestions below are not “one size fits all.” Try what makes sense to you for your or your loved one’s situation.
Less is more: If you feel you are entering burnout, recognize the signs. To get some relief, try to build more downtime into your schedule. Admittedly, you may have job, school, or family demands that are non-negotiable, but anything you can do to allow yourself more rest and recreation is a positive step toward preventing burnout. Add extra time to sleep if you can. Most autistic people have trouble getting deep rest and so may need more hours in bed to match the amount of sleep experienced by a neurotypical person. Even taking the smallest segments of time throughout the day to let your eyes relax and be unfocused for a moment here and there will give your nervous system a respite.
For those supporting an autistic loved one, encourage them to prioritize downtime, and ask them what they need you to do to reduce the demands on them.
Pursue your interests: “Special” or intense interests are a wonderful source of energy for autistic people and can help with burnout prevention or recovery. Make sure you have time to sort Magic cards, read an art history book, or do something creative with your hands. Regenerative activities like this can help you sustain your ability to complete less preferred activities. In addition, just going through your stash of materials related to an intense interest can help you feel good. Organizing, tidying, and handling your items can perk you up, even if you don’t have the time or space to really pull them out and engage with them.
Family members, partners, and friends can help their autistic loved ones by encouraging them to lean into their special interests. They can also show their support by engaging with their autistic family member or friend, by asking them about their interests, enjoying those interests with them, or validating their interests in other ways.
Forever learning: Are you lacking an intense interest these days? If you have lost focus or drifted away from the passions and pursuits that excite you, that may be a sign of burnout. One strategy for getting back your enthusiasm and excitement for life is to go to a library or large bookstore and start browsing. If your budget is limited, it’s okay to jot down book titles at a store and see if you can borrow them from your library or request an interlibrary loan. If books aren’t your thing, look for apps, many of which are free, to learn more.
Let yourself wander and see what catches your interest. You may find yourself caught up in an unexpected topic. You might discover you want to learn about manga, sailboats, chess, or the history of weaving in Latin America. Other slices of life that you know nothing about may also capture your imagination. Maybe something new has been published abut a subject you used to enjoy that will cause you to revisit that interest.
If bookstores and libraries don’t excite you, there are other possibilities, like visiting your favorite museums or going to parks if you prefer the outdoors and seeing what sparks your interest in those places.
If you can’t get out or don’t have access to these resources, searching online might spark something, but it’s not as vivid as making a real-world field trip.
For those looking to offer support, you can help by making time and transportation (if needed) available to your autistic loved one to pursue their curiosity.
Room for repetition: Stimming is one aspect of autism that differentiates us from neurotypical people. Everybody stims occasionally, such as tapping their pen or twirling their hair, but autistic people have a neurological need to stim to release energy and self-soothe. If you don’t want people to see you stim, try to get creative about how you fit it in to your day. Wear fabrics you can touch, with textures you find pleasant. Get pens you really like and make sure they stay at your workstation. Discreetly wiggle your fingers and count or make patterns as you move them across the palms of your hands.
Non-autistic family members, partners, and friends can help by accepting the value of stimming and giving autistic loved ones a space to stim freely, without judgment or stigma.
The sensory world: We talk about the five senses, but there are more kinds of sensing. The knowledge of where our body is situated in space and in relation to our surroundings, for example, is called the proprioceptive system. The interoceptive system gives us awareness of our bodies and what is going on with them, such as hunger, thirst, elimination needs, and emotional sensations. Any of these functions can be affected by being autistic. Many autistics have some sensory challenges. In fact, occupational therapists often recommend a “sensory diet” — physical activities and accommodations to meet their sensory needs — for children’s sensory processing issues; adults who are willing to experiment can borrow this concept to devise their own sensory diet.
These activities can help you vary your sensory input so you can better deal with being burned out or manage it when you feel it creeping in. Keep trying, because you don’t have to live with burnout, and different things help at different times.
- Carrying a backpack
- Skateboarding, roller-skating
- Using a swing or a hammock
- Movement with resistance bands
- Jumping jacks
Using your hands
- Handling clay
- Knitting or other textile crafts
- Doodling, drawing
- Using fidget toys/devices
- Writing in a journal
- Listening to music
- Wearing earplugs or headphones
- Playing an instrument
- Listening to nature sounds
- Wearing sunglasses
- Beneficial paint colors in your living space
- Enjoying art
- Comforting images or photos
Taste and smell
- Enjoying fragrances: lavender or vanilla for calm; citrus or mint for stimulation
- Selecting appealing foods: Consider temperature, texture — crunchy, chewy, etc., and flavors — bland, exciting, spicy, sweet, savory
- Chewing gum or hard candy
Autistic people need and deserve joy, and the trick is to find the aspects of life that help you avoid burnout and experience that joy.
Kate McNulty, LCSW, had a long career as a therapist when she began to realize she was autistic and came from a thoroughly autistic family. She has since incorporated this awareness into her practice and now sees many autistic adults. Her latest book is Parenting Adult Children. Her previous book, Love and Asperger’s, was published in 2020. Visit her at www.autistictherapist.com.