When you’re constantly trying to “mask” who you are from the world, as is often the case for autistic people, burnout may hit differently.
Lately, your mind is shutting down. You feel like you’re moving through molasses. All you want is to curl up into a hole and take a nap for an hour — or, you know, a year.
Autistic burnout, sometimes called autistic regression, can be a jarring experience if you don’t understand what’s happening.
Thankfully, with the right resources and social support, this feeling doesn’t have to last forever. You’re not alone in this, and recovery is possible.
Neurotypical and neurodivergent
“Neurotypical” means someone has typical developmental, cognitive, or intellectual abilities. It can be used in the context of a nonautistic person, but may also be used in regard to other conditions, like learning disorders or ADHD.
In contrast, “neurodivergent” generally describes atypical developmental, intellectual, and cognitive abilities. It may also refer to atypical behaviors.
Research shows that autistic burnout is different from depression, as well as the burnout neurotypical people experience.
This phenomenon has made the rounds on online communities and social media with its very own hashtag — #AutisticBurnout — yet it still hasn’t made much of a dent in academic literature.
But as experts dig deeper into autism, that’s beginning to change. Recent
- chronic exhaustion
- losing skills
- lowered tolerance for stimuli
“Because autistic burnout is not in the DSM-5 (nor is neurodiversity), some professionals are reluctant to use the phrase, but autistic burnout is a real phenomenon that my clients tell me about regularly,” says Dr. Rachel Bédard, PhD, a writer for Autism Parenting Magazine and licensed psychologist practicing in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Autistic burnout is a natural expression of extreme fatigue, Bédard continues.
“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,” she says.
Is burnout the same as sensory overload?
Autistic burnout is different from overload, though some symptoms can overlap.
While an overload may be addressed with a change in environment or a quiet moment, burnout often requires more significant changes to your lifestyle and time to heal.
It’s also pervasive, affecting every area of your life, like work, home, and school.
Everyone experiences autistic burnout differently, but one sign certainly stands out above the others: sheer exhaustion.
“Autistic burnout can feel like all the energy is just gone,” says Sharon O’Connor, a licensed clinical social worker and autistic psychotherapist who specializes in anxiety and neurodiversity in New York City.
“When we’re in a burnout, even normal everyday tasks can feel difficult or insurmountable,” she says.
What it may look like in children
Signs of burnout in autistic children may include:
- decreased vocabulary
- emotional volatility
- increased stimming
- reduced eye contact
- withdrawal from activities
What it may look like in adults
In autistic adults, signs of burnout may include:
- emotional dysregulation
- decreased self-care
- increased frequency of autistic traits
- low motivation
How it may feel if you have it
If you’re going through autistic burnout, you may experience:
- extreme lethargy
- inability to ask for help
- memory issues
- loss of words or selective mutism
- reduced executive functioning (e.g., staying organized, making decisions)
- trouble bouncing back from daily tasks
- suicidal thoughts
If you’re considering self-harm or suicide, you’re not alone
If you’re having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can access free support right away with these resources:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call the Lifeline at 800-273-8255, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
- Crisis Text Line. Text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
- The Trevor Project. LGBTQIA+ and under 25 years old? Call 866-488-7386, text START to 678678, or chat online 24/7.
- Veterans Crisis Line. Call 800-273-8255, text 838255, or chat online 24/7.
- Deaf Crisis Line. Call 321-800-DEAF (3323) or text HAND at 839863.
- Befrienders Worldwide. This international crisis helpline network can help you find a local helpline.
The exact reasons for autistic burnout may differ.
Yet autistic people experience burnout in a way similar to their neurotypical peers: when external expectations surpass internal abilities to satisfy them, says Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, a psychologist in Chicago.
“Many of the coping methods taught to autistic persons revolve around social camouflage or the process of concealing autistic traits,” Lombardo says.
“For some, this may imply suppressing habitual actions or speaking habits. While these approaches can be an efficient crutch for passing as neurotypical, they can psychologically impact [you],” she says.
According to a 2019 article published in the journal Autism, 70% of autistic adults feel compelled to “camouflage” in public.
Over time, all this effort to constantly self-monitor and mask your mannerisms, words, and behaviors can take a significant toll and drain your batteries — which may lead to burnout.
Long-term, low-level interactions
Another reason you may feel exhausted is that you’re required to participate in long-term interactions that don’t offer much relief, like socializing at work.
Though they may be “lower-level” interactions, says Lombardo, they can deplete your energy.
Barriers in getting adequate support
- being told burnout is your own fault
- hearing that it happens to everyone
- getting dismissed when you ask for help
When things are shifting all the time (hello, post-2020 world), it can contribute to your sense of exhaustion.
Whether you’re changing jobs, schools, homes, or trying to keep up with ever-changing social rules, adjustments can use up your “spoons” more quickly.
Autistic burnout may feel confusing and overwhelming, but recovery is possible.
It’s time to get a little ruthless with your schedule and commitments. If something isn’t 100% necessary, take it off your calendar for the near future.
Your new goal is to try to find as much downtime as you can, with fewer extracurriculars, work projects, and social events.
Participate in soothing activities
The idea is to participate in more hobbies that you enjoy, or those that promote a sense of relaxation — the things you might normally brush aside in your busy schedule.
You may find it recharging to:
- spend time in nature
- practice a calming visualization
- listen to music
- sit in silence with someone you love
“These can include compression, sitting in a dark closet specially outfitted for sensory bliss (pillows, quiet, dark), favorite smells, or textures,” Bédard says.
Noise-canceling headphones may also help you feel more grounded.
If you can’t sleep, rest
Autism can sometimes make sleep a challenge. Even if you’re not feeling tired, try to spend at least 8 hours a night in bed.
During this time, try to avoid watching the news or scrolling on social media. Instead, curl up with one of your favorite books or movies.
“Try to be as gentle with yourself as possible,” O’Conner says. “If there are some things you can’t do, or have to say ‘no’ to right now, that’s OK.”
- ability to “unmask”
- social support and acceptance
- time off from work or responsibilities
- lowered expectations
What about my child?
Autistic children may have a hard time communicating what they’re feeling.
“To help a child recover from autistic burnout, try to remove demands wherever possible,” O’Connor says. “Increase sensory supports and understand that they may need more time alone to recharge.”
You may also find it useful to visit a psychologist who specializes in autism in children.
Autistic burnout is a natural response to stressful circumstances.
It indicates that you need downtime, fewer responsibilities (at least for now), and an opportunity to have a genuine heart-to-heart with loved ones about how you’re feeling.
If your experience is hard to put into words, consider working with a trained therapist as a next step. They’ll help you learn how to ask for help, set boundaries around your energy, and reach out for support when you feel the exhaustion coming on.
Remember, there’s nothing wrong with you. Autistic burnout can happen to anyone. You’re not alone in this, and recovery is possible.