NB this was written before the author’s newly gained experience of Polyvagal theory. Autistic burnout aligns very well with shutdown, in polyvagal theory – see this article at Arrive Therapy’s website. Read a scientific interpretation HERE.
Do you know the phrase ‘burning the candle at both ends’?
Autistic burnout is when the candle is being burned at both ends without enough replenishment to counteract the areas in which an autistic individual especially struggles, or uses up the most energy units – e.g. social, communication and sensory. Everyone, no matter what their neurology, experiences low mood, tiredness and potentially has the capability to burn out – but autistic burnout is slightly different, in that it usually relates to the autist’s deficits and challenges.
The autistic individual (especially, it seems, if female), tends to use up a lot of energy on ‘autistic masking‘, or fitting in (you can read more about energy exertion in our blog about the spoons theory.)
Most autists face some kind of difficulty with fitting in, especially if they are undiagnosed and unaware of their autism, or if they are young and still getting to know social conventions. Avoiding autistic burnout only becomes easier once you know what self care tools you need in your toolbox!
Going back to masking; what would be classed as ‘fitting in’? Maybe engaging in expected conversation at work, appearing unperturbed by sensory difficulties when shopping, and managing the challenges of certain socialisations, e.g. extended family get-togethers or office parties. This ‘masking’ is often required in order to hold down a job, access education services or maintain relationships, and can be an automatic reflex, rather than something calculated. However, the processing power and social energy required to maintain the mask can be very depleting.
Ryan Boren writes eloquently about autistic burnout as follows – “Periods of burnout caused problems at school and work. I would lose executive function and self-care skills. My capacity for sensory and social overload dwindled to near nothing. I avoided speaking and retreated from socializing. I was spent. I couldn’t maintain the facade anymore. I had to stop and pay the price.”
What tends to happen to autists who are responsible for others is that this important element continues to function during burnout – eg. their duties as a parent or carer – but other everyday functions have to be ‘turned off’. Communication may deplete, sensory overload is common, self care skills (perhaps including seemingly simple things like taking care of one’s appearance) become of less importance – essentially, this computer’s operating system is shutting down, so only the essential tasks remain ‘on’. In autistic burnout, the individual may become withdrawn, their voice may become more monotone due to the sheer effort of communicating (some autists may even become non verbal), and they are likely to be very sensitive to sensory input. Many autists experience anxiety, symptoms of low mood, dysthymia or depression during their lives, and during burnout, these conditions could well resurface.
How long does autistic burnout last?
Autistic burnout may last days, more likely weeks, and perhaps a couple of months. Anyone in more longer term burnout than this would likely need a great deal of support in their lives, to become strong and well again. (Severe levels of total burnout are likely to be linked to some kind of large-scale life milestone, or occurrence – the individual would likely not be able to continue to go to work, or stay their place of education, until they recover sufficiently.)
So here’s our take on autistic burnout. Treat lower level autistic burnout as something akin to a migraine. Would we expect someone with a migraine to go to work, merrily do the shopping, look their best and casually chat about trivia? No, they would likely head to bed, and rest.
Burnout is a physiological symptom of system overload. The individual generally needs time to recuperate in a low-demand environment, with as few challenges in the areas of communication, sensory triggers and socialisation as possible.
How is autistic burnout avoided?
Autistic burnout may be avoided by knowing yourself (as an autist), knowing what triggers you, how often you must rest or have social downtime, reducing social activities when you’re feeling sensitive, using self care tools like headphone time when you need to recalibrate…. and removing things or people from your life that deplete your energy bank, rather than fill it up.
In children who don’t yet have this level of self awareness, reducing demands, allowing the child choices in their decision making, reducing socialisation and sensory triggers, and generally allowing rest or down time could be beneficial. (With liaison with their educators.)
Individuals in more severe stages of burnout could need all of the above, as well as talking therapies, health and nutritional support, and the support of any education or work places, to allow the autist to recover and plan any return.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter! Why not read another of our blogs on autism – this one focusses on communication…
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Conditions / Disorders; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. Please share our articles if you find them useful!
Also published on Medium.