Many autistic adults report experiencing burnout – a state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion caused by excessive stress. However, autistic burnout remains poorly understood and recognised. In this blog, I’ll explore what autistic burnout is, what causes it, and most importantly – how we can cope with it.

What is Autistic Burnout?

Definition and Common Symptoms

Autistic burnout is a collapse of coping skills in response to exceeding one’s ability to handle stress. It often emerges after someone has spent significant time and effort trying to fit in and mask their authentic self.

Common symptoms include:

  • Loss of previous skills and abilities
  • A marked decrease in social motivation
  • Increased difficulty tolerating sensory input
  • Heightened anxiety and emotional dysregulation
  • Withdrawing from others for self-protection

These reflect the autistic person’s loss of capacity to regulate themselves while trying to meet unrealistic demands.

Many factors can contribute to autistic burnout, but experts agree the root cause is cumulative stress from trying to fit into a society not built for autistic people.

Suppressing natural autistic mannerisms and forcing oneself into overwhelming environments depletes mental resources. Over time, attempting to constantly pretend leads to complete exhaustion.

Spotting the Signs of Burnout

For autistic individuals and their loved ones, it’s important to know the key signs that burnout may be developing:

Changes in Sensory Tolerance

Previously tolerated sensory input like lights or sounds may suddenly feel intolerable. New sensitivities may also emerge.

Loss of Skills/Abilities

An autistic person may mysteriously lose abilities like being able to verbally communicate or complete familiar tasks.

Decreased Social Motivation

Whereas an autistic person once had some degree of social interest or capacity, they may suddenly lose all desire for social interaction.

Withdrawal and Isolation

Pulling away from social connections and avoiding others is very common with autistic burnout.

Increased Meltdowns

Small things lead to intense emotional reactions, reflecting depleted inner resources.

Causes and Triggers of Burnout

Understanding what contributes to autistic burnout is key to prevention. Some of the most common causes include:

Heavy Masking/Camouflaging

Constant effort to hide natural autistic mannerisms and force normative body language/facial expressions is exhausting.

Sensory Overload

Too much exposure to intense sensory environments like bright lights, noise or crowds drains mental energy.

Excessive Social Demands

Social interactions require substantial effort for autistic people, so constantly ‘performing’ socially is fatiguing.

Lack of Authentic Support

Without accommodations, validation and space for authentic self-expression, an autistic person must constantly fight to fit in.

Strategies to Cope with Burnout

If you or a loved one experiences autistic burnout, here are some crucial strategies to manage it:

Allow Time for Full Recovery

Burnout requires a major reduction in demands and complete rest to recover depleted inner resources. Don’t rush back into normal activities.

Identify and Reduce Stressors

Take stock of which situations trigger overload, anxiety or exhaustion and limit exposure to them. Say no to non-essential demands.

Ask for Accommodations

Make formal requests for modified job duties, reduced work hours or other structural changes to reduce demands.

Build Sensory Friendly Spaces

Have safe places to retreat to when feeling overwhelmed, with comfortable sensory options like soft lighting or silence.

Connect with Other Autistic People

Peer support can validate struggles and share burnout coping tips. But communicate limitations on social time/energy.

Preventing Autistic Burnout

While you can’t always avoid burnout, some habits can reduce the likelihood it occurs:

Balance Energy Expenditures

Don’t overcommit socially or take on too many responsibilities without downtime to recharge.

Prioritize Self-Care

Listen to your needs and make self-care like adequate sleep, healthy food and stimming a daily priority

Maintain Support System

Have allies who ‘get it’ and can detect overwhelm before it turns into full burnout.

Accept and Assert Your Needs

Be open about your authentic challenges and differences. Say no to situations you know will deplete you.

Foster Self-Awareness

Learn your warning signs of approaching meltdowns or shutdowns so you can act preventatively.

While awareness of autistic burnout is still emerging, the most important step is acknowledging it is real. With a greater understanding of its causes and warning signs, we can develop individual and collective strategies for prevention and coping. Our ultimate goal must be helping autistic people maintain their health while being able to express their authentic selves.