Author: Jane Mantzalas is a PhD candidate within the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre. Her research interests are centred around autism in adulthood and improving the mental health and wellbeing of autistic adults. Her PhD thesis “Characterising Autistic Burnout and its Underlying Mechanisms” aims to identify the core features of autistic burnout, how it may impact the lives of autistic people, and what may be done to assist with prevention and recovery.
What is autistic burnout?
Autistic burnout is a state of chronic physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that builds up over time and can severely impact the wellbeing and quality of life of autistic people. Autistic people have talked about autistic burnout for a long time, but research about the condition has only just begun. So far, researchers have learned that periods of autistic burnout can last a long time (weeks, months, or years) and that some people never fully recover. People can be more vulnerable to autistic burnout during developmental transitions (e.g., transition to high school or university) and stressful life events when demands exceed coping abilities. Autistic burnout can often lead to a diagnosis of autism later in life. It is important for healthcare providers to learn more about how to recognise and support autistic people who are experiencing burnout.
What factors can contribute to autistic burnout?
- Coping abilities become overstretched and ineffective.
- The strain and effort of masking autistic traits is a key risk factor for autistic burnout.
- Unexpected changes and sudden disruption to routines.
- Stressful life events (e.g., death of a loved one, divorce).
- Overwhelming sensory stimuli in the environment (e.g., lights, noises, smells).
- Co-occurring conditions such as depression and anxiety, or physical conditions (e.g., chronic pain) can both contribute to and worsen during autistic burnout.
- A lack of autism awareness and acceptance in society which can contribute to bullying, exclusion and trauma.
What are some symptoms of autistic burnout?
- Extreme mental, physical, and emotional fatigue and a lack of energy.
- Executive function problems (e.g., difficulties with working memory and planning tasks).
- Difficulties maintaining attention and focus.
- Reduced tolerance to sensory stimuli.
- A person may seem ‘more autistic’ (e.g., social communication becomes more difficult, or they show more obvious stimming behaviours).
- Difficulties with producing or interpreting speech.
- Social and interpersonal withdrawal and avoidance.
- Loss of previously developed skills (e.g., self-care, cooking, bathing)
- Inability to work or study.
What strategies can people prevent and recover from autistic burnout?
- It is very important to take enough time to rest.
- Using energy management techniques (e.g., ‘spoon theory’ or ‘energy accounting’) to plan and pace daily activities and demands.
- Self-advocacy – setting firm boundaries and saying no to activities that will drain one’s energy.
- Reducing sensory input and overload (e.g., wearing noise-cancelling headphones or sunglasses).
- Improving self-awareness of personal limits and recognising the warning signs of burnout (e.g., more frequent meltdowns or shutdowns, irritability, and fatigue).
- Masking less when it is safe to do so.
- Social avoidance and withdrawal from unnecessary interpersonal communication.
- Having a good support network of family, friends, peers, and colleagues at work or school.
- Controlling factors in the environment where possible (e.g., working from home, removing fluorescent lights, or having a sensory-friendly space to retreat to).
- Maintaining routines and planning for expected changes (e.g., transition to high school).
- Stimming to relieve stress.
- Engaging in favourite activities and special interests (keeping in mind that hyperfocusing on special interests can sometimes contribute to autistic burnout if they interfere with sleep or regular meals).
- Asking for reasonable and appropriate accommodations at work, school, or home (e.g., reduced working hours, modified schoolwork, staying in one’s bedroom during a noisy party).
- Slowly resuming normal activities after a period of burnout to avoid recurrence.
- Increased awareness and acceptance in society to reduce the need for masking and improve supports for autistic people.
You can learn more about autistic burnout here:
Higgins, J. M, Arnold, S. R. C., Weise, J., Smith, P., Pellicano, E., & Trollor, J. N. (2017). Defining autistic burnout through experts by lived experience: Grounded Delphi method investigating #AutisticBurnout. Autism, 1-14. doi:10.1177/13623613211019858
Mantzalas, J., Richdale, A. L., Adikari, A., Lowe, J., & Dissanayake, C. 2021. What is autistic burnout? A thematic analysis of posts on two online platforms. Autism in Adulthood. doi:10.1089/aut.2021.0021
Raymaker, D. M., Teo, A. R., Steckler, N. A., Lentz, B., Scharer, M., Delos Santos, A., Kapp, S. K., Hunter, M., Joyce, A., & Nicolaides, C. (2020). “Having all of your internal resources exhausted beyond measure and being left with no clean-up crew”: Defining autistic burnout. Autism in Adulthood, 2(2), 1-12. doi:10.1089/aut.2019.0079