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.

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 research broadly defines autistic burnout as:

  • 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.

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
  • irritability
  • low motivation

How it may feel if you have it

If you’re going through autistic burnout, you may experience:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • 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

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.

Camouflaging

“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

In a 2020 study, participants reported that the inability to receive support for their needs contributed to a sense of burnout. This included:

  • being told burnout is your own fault
  • hearing that it happens to everyone
  • getting dismissed when you ask for help

Frequent changes

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.

Remove obligations

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
  • exercise
  • draw
  • listen to music
  • journal
  • stretch
  • sit in silence with someone you love

Sensory interventions

“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.

Practice self-compassion

“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.”

Research shows that people experiencing autistic burnout report a lack of empathy from neurotypical people, but some things that help include:

  • ability to “unmask”
  • social support and acceptance
  • time off from work or responsibilities
  • lowered expectations

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.