Is your adult autistic child anxious, stressed, struggling to keep their job, and exhausted no matter how hard they try? They might be in autism burnout. Read on to understand what autism burnout is and how to avoid it for yourself or an autistic person you love.
What is autism burnout?
Autistic burnout is total exhaustion, repeated meltdowns or shutdowns, a loss of skills and function, and minimized tolerance to stimuli lasting more than three months. Burnout can last for a few months or for years.
Autism burnout is unique to autistic people and nothing like non-autistic burnout. It is a serious condition, since neurotypical society functions from people contributing economically.
Other terms used for autism burnout include autism regression and autism fatigue.
What causes autism burnout?
Lack of proper accommodations and the struggle to fit into the neurotypical box society is built on forces autistic people to mask. Masking, or camouflaging, autism is a trauma response autistic people start doing in childhood because fitting in is a survival instinct.
Autism “treatment” like applied behavior analysis (ABA) aims to decrease the way autism appears in children. Instead, ABA therapy teaches autistic children to ignore their needs and hide who they are so you will love them. This is masking.
Autistic people cannot meet you halfway
Non-autistic people may give 100 percent of themselves on their best days and 75 percent of themselves on their worst days.
High-masking autistic people are giving 200 percent of themselves on their best days (masking requires more effort) and 100-150 percent of themselves on their worst (non-masking) days.
Non-autistic people have the privilege of giving less of themselves when they don’t feel like it, without any issues. Autistic people do not have that privilege, as giving anything less of 200 percent has serious consequences.
Most non-autistic people prefer when they can’t tell someone is autistic because autism stigma relies on their discomfort.
Moreover, autistic people are often asked to meet [non-autistic people] halfway, which is insulting due to there not being a balance to begin with. The non-autistic person’s halfway is 50 percent, but the autistic person is having to put forth 250 percent to meet halfway on the days they only feel 80 percent.
Non-autistic and autistic people will never meet each other halfway, because it is mathematically impossible. Non-autistic people will always have an advantage.
This contributes to masking.
Autism burnout is the cost of masking autism or passing as a non-autistic person.
Symptoms of autistic burnout
Autism burnout symptoms vary, but include:
- multiple meltdowns in a short amount of time, or a meltdown that feels like it lasts for days/weeks/months
- multiple shutdowns or non-speaking episodes; talking feels exhausting
- inability to properly articulate your thoughts, comprehend language like you used to, access the same vocabulary
- increased speech impediments, like stumbling over your words or constantly saying the wrong words
- not remedied by any kind of treatment, including medication, therapy, self-care, rest, vacation, etc.
- inability to mask or hide your autism
- increased executive dysfunction
- brain fog
- chronic fatigue
- increased anger
- lack of motivation
- loss of skills and general functionality (also known as regression)
- increased self-regulatory behaviors due to over-stimulation
- inexplainable physical pain
- no sense of identity/depersonalization from masking
Don’t confuse autistic burnout with depression
Depression may occur with autistic burnout, but one does not beget the other. In undiagnosed autistic adults, it looks like severe depression and possibly even addiction (sensory seeking behavior). Non-autistic people do not understand autism burnout and will misdiagnose it as depression or addiction, considering no link to autism, because they are not autistic themselves.
Autistic burnout will NOT get better with medication or behavioral therapy, such as CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy).
It will get worse and increase shame.
The key question everyone should be asking when trying to determine whether it’s depression or autism burnout is:
“Do they feel hopeless and helpless, like there is no hope for anything better than this?”
Depression is feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. It feels like there is no way out and never will be a way out.
With autistic burnout, you don’t feel that kind of hopelessness. You just aren’t motivated or have the energy. You want to do something, but your body says no.
Autism burnout: my experience and what it feels like
I called in to work two days in a row before I quit my job because I was so ashamed and felt suffocated. My store manager put me on a personal leave, but I had meltdowns every time I tried going back to work. I wanted to work, but I just couldn’t.
There might also be a lot of anger at society because you start realizing that you’re only in this situation because society refuses to accept you as you are. The worse autism burnout gets, the less you are able to mask.
Autism burnout feels as though you are trapped in a glass box that you can’t get out of without being yourself, but will fall back into if you are yourself. It is a state of complete exhaustion, coupled by a loss of skills and inability to do anything.
I didn’t do anything but watch TikTok, sleep and play with kittens for an entire month — and I was still exhausted. I tried going back to work after my leave twice and could not function at all.
Simply put, the battery is dead. You can’t use a phone with all of your apps when the battery will only charge up to 25 percent.
How to recover from autism burnout
Autism burnout and its recovery might last for years. Reducing obligations, resting and focusing on oneself is the best way to recover from autism burnout. Not every autistic person has the privilege of doing this without falling into the red.
Burnout is not valid under FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act). A supportive therapist might assist with getting accommodations, but most Equal Opportunity Employers (EOEs) will actively try to get it thrown out, creating more stress than it is worth.
Unmasking is a vital part of recovering autism burnout as well, and it might not be safe for an autistic person to do that. Once an autistic person removes the mask and embraces their autism, it cannot be put back on.
The autistic person might fall into an identity crisis as well, trying to figure out what was the mask and what was actually them.
If your autistic loved one is living independently and struggling to pay their bills or keep their home clean, they may be experiencing autistic burnout.
Look for ways you can support them instead of judging them, because they are already feeling the shame of not fitting into society. They landed in this situation as a direct result of being raised to not embrace their autism and having their autistic-specific needs met — not because of bad choices.
Autism burnout is a constant state of emotional distress. There are no signs a meltdown will occur, because you’re always on edge. The battery is dead, so too the usual functioning capabilities.
Is an autistic person you love dealing with autism burnout? Share about it in the comments below.