Guest post by Andréas RB Deolinda, BA, BSc.
Have you ever reached a point of extreme exhaustion that has left you feeling hollow with no desire to move or engage in any form of activity? Burnout can be mistaken for tiredness but, as a general definition, it’s an extreme form of exhaustion that leaves you feeling hopeless and completely shut down.
Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are particularly prone to burnout due to the sensory challenges they experience. Many autistic people mask or camouflage their autistic traits, and do so at the cost to their mental, physical, and psychological wellbeing—making them very susceptible to burnout.
While many are able to eventually regain equilibrium from their sensory overload through adaptive measures, others struggle to find the balance, leading to what is commonly known as autistic burnout.
What does autistic burnout look or feel like?
Autistic burnout is a term often used by autistic adults to describe a state of incapacitation, exhaustion, and distress in every area of life. Some people on the spectrum claim burnout has cost them jobs, friends, activities, independence, mental and physical health, and even pushed them to suicidal behavior.
Autistic burnout is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), meaning some autism experts are reluctant to use the term, but it’s something many clinicians see in their practices regularly.
Dr. Rachel Bédard, a licensed psychologist working with people on the autism spectrum, is one example. She shared some exclusive insight into what burnout is and how it affects people with ASD.
“Autistic burnout can look like extreme fatigue, inability to recover from daily tasks, persistent lethargy, a desire to ‘crawl into a hole’, and sometimes includes the inability to express struggles or ask for help,” said Dr. Bédard. “Sometimes my clients just disappear when they are burnt out, while others I haven’t seen in ages request an appointment to recover.”
A research study by Raymaker, et al. also highlights other characteristics such as chronic exhaustion, loss of skills, and reduced tolerance to stimulus.
Why does autistic burnout happen?
There are several contributors to autistic burnout. Research suggests that life stressors and barriers to, or lack of, support and resources can lead to the condition. These stressors include an overload in sensory stimuli and the cost of masking as a result of the daily challenges in navigating neurotypical society.
Participants in the study also highlighted challenges such as poor health, limited capacity for independent living, and low quality of life as possible causes for experiencing autistic burnout. Another reason cited was a lack of empathy from neurotypical individuals.
“I view burnout as a normal expression of extreme fatigue, rather than a crisis. Normalizing it helps humans feel less reactive and more accepting, allowing them to process what prompted the burnout, and start to recover (rather than feeling isolated and quite odd for having the burnout experience),” Dr. Bédard adds.
What can people on the spectrum do to recover?
Recovering from autistic burnout requires identifying key areas that caused the condition. Research suggests that acceptance and social support, taking a break from expectations, and not engaging in masking are proactive things that have helped people recover.
From her experiences in practice, Dr. Bédard advises: “Recovery can include lots of downtime, engaging in favorite activities, and less social engagement. I also encourage exercise, outside time, sitting in nature, listening to your favorite music, or sitting quietly with a favorite person.”
“Sensory interventions can include compression, sitting in a dark closet specially outfitted for sensory bliss (pillows, quiet, dark), favorite smells, textures, etc. Finally, I suggest personal patience, self-kindness, and a lot of deep breathing,” she concluded.
From this, we can see that having a stable support system is a step in the right direction to not just aid recovery but also validate the experience of autistic burnout.
It’s important that the experiences of autistic individuals are taken into account to determine effective strategies to assist their symptoms, and so risk factors for burnout are identified earlier.
Autistic burnout is not just a state of exhaustion, it can result in complete shutdown and suicidal ideations. It goes without saying that, if you suspect someone you know is at risk, it’s vital to seek immediate medical intervention.
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