Although adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have been experiencing and discussing autistic burnout for many years, the concept of autistic burnout is relatively new to the academic community. Autistic burnout is defined as: “A syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic life stress and a mismatch of expectations and abilities without adequate supports. It is characterized by pervasive, long-term (typically 3+ months), exhaustion, loss of function, and reduced tolerance to stimulus.”
Since the first publication about autistic burnout in 2020, more research has aimed to better understand and characterize this burnout. In this article, we aim to highlight characteristics of autistic burnout, how to differentiate burnout from depression, and discuss ways to prevent burnout.
Characteristics of Autistic Burnout
Autistic burnout may occur due to a range of stressors, including high expectations (e.g., at work or school, or even from family), masking (i.e., working hard to not exhibit ASD traits and behaviors), living in a neurotypical world that is unaccommodating, and life changes and transitions. Although life changes and transitions are stressful for most people, those with ASD may experience even greater difficulty being flexible and adjusting to change. Consequently, people with ASD have described experiencing autistic burnout during puberty, after graduating from high school, transitioning from school to work, and after the death of a loved one.
Autistic burnout can have a negative impact on people’s lives, including:
- Loss of skills (e.g., reduced executive functioning abilities, decreased self-care skills and adaptive behaviors)
- Decreased tolerance to sensory stimuli
- Chronic emotional, physical, and/or mental exhaustion
Autistic Burnout versus Depression
Compared to neurotypical individuals, people with ASD are 4 times more likely to experience depression in their lifetime. Autistic burnout and depression can have overlapping features, including difficulty concentrating, lack of motivation, social withdrawal, fatigue, and increased emotional sensitivity. Although symptoms of depression and autistic burnout can overlap, it is important to distinguish between the two given that treatment approaches differ.
Depression can include persistent low mood, loss of pleasure in activities/interests, changes in sleep patterns, and suicidality. Depressive symptoms can be treated with behavioral activation, cognitive reframing, and even psychotropic medication. In contrast, these traditional approaches to treating depressive symptoms may worsen symptoms of autistic burnout. As previously mentioned, autistic burnout includes a loss of skills, decreased tolerance to sensory stimuli, and chronic exhaustion. Consequently, people experiencing autistic burnout may benefit from rest, unmasking, more time with their special interests, as well as time alone and away from sensory stimuli.
Ways to Reduce or Prevent Autistic Burnout
There are also many factors that can help prevent or reduce autistic burnout, including:
- Acceptance and social support: seeking support from family, friends, community
- Formal supports: mental health treatment, accommodations
- Reduced load: social withdrawal, time for breaks, setting boundaries
- Self-advocacy: asking for help, early recognition of burnout
People with ASD have been experiencing and discussing autistic burnout for years. However, autistic burnout has only recently been recognized and conceptualized within the academic community. Autistic burnout can be triggered by a range of life stressors, especially life changes and transitions. Autistic burnout is characterized by chronic exhaustion, decreased tolerance to sensory stimuli, and loss of skills. Although autistic burnout has some overlapping features with depression, it is important to distinguish between the two because there are different treatment approaches. Moreover, factors that can help reduce or prevent autistic burnout include social support, formal supports, reduced load, and self-advocacy.
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Higgins, J. M., Arnold, S. R. C., Weise, J., Smith, P., Pellicano, E., & Trollor, J. N. (2021). Defining autistic burnout through experts by lived experience: Grounded Delphi method investigating #AutisticBurnout. Autism, 1-14, 2356–2369. https://doi.org/10. 1177/13623613211019858
Hudson, C. C., Hall, L., & Harkness, K. L. (2019). Prevalence of depressive disorders in individuals with autism spectrum disorder: A mmeta-analysis. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 47(1), 165–175. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-018-0402-1
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, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.1089/aut.2021.0021
Mantzalas, J., Richdale, A. L., Dissanayake, C. (2022). A conceptual model of risk and protective factors for autistic burnout. Autism Research, 15(6), 976-987. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.2722
Raymaker, D. M., Teo, A. R., Steckler, N. A., Lentz, B., Scharer, M., Delos Santos, A., Kapp, S. K., Hunter, M., Joyce, A., & Nicolaidis, 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), 132–143. https://doi.org/10.1089/aut.2019.0079