By: Kenzie Davis M.A. LMFTA
April is the time when a beloved community gets recognition and acknowledgment for their lifestyle and uniqueness. It’s World Autism Month! When we think of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), most statistics and research is around toddlers and school-aged children. However, time stops for no one and these children become adults. These adults have relationships, jobs, and a host of other external stressors that vie for their attention. As these adults maneuver through this neurotypical (individuals who have typical brain development and functioning) world, it may become more and more challenging for them to perform their daily tasks. If left untreated, this can soon develop into Autistic burnout.
The textbook definition of ASD is a neurological and developmental disorder affecting communication, learning, and behavior. It can be diagnosed at any age. As we have learned, autism is not a black and white disorder. Some people possess various combinations of symptoms or various degrees of intensity. It is a spectrum of traits and characteristics. Just know, no two autistic people present the exact same. An important aspect of ASD is stimming. Stimming is a self-stimulated action that helps the person cope with the situation at hand. Everyone does this in some form, but it is usually associated with autism. Stimming is usually a repetitive body movement or noise. Stims most people may be familiar with are hand flapping, fingernail biting, hair twisting, cracking knuckles or joints, fidgeting, etc.
Autism burnout has recently been uncovered within the last 5 years by researchers. It is defined as intense physical, mental, or emotional exhaustion, causing distress in every area of life often accompanied by a loss of skills and reduced tolerance to sensory stimuli. Common signs of autistic burnout may include: increased meltdowns, loss of skills, quickly overstimulated, total exhaustion, digestive issues, feeling down, memory loss, not getting things done, increased anxiety, or reduction in executive functioning. For example, an autistic woman who usually has strong verbal abilities may suddenly find herself unable to speak.
HOW DOES IT HAPPEN
Autistic burnout is the consequence of the cumulative effect of having to navigate a world that is designed for neurotypical people. The ASD community is subjected to constant sensory overloads with the expectation to push through and continue functioning. Continuously coping with overwhelming sensory input creates exhaustion for this community. Autistic people cope with their surroundings by masking. Masked behavior is an unconscious act of altering autistic traits to mimic those of neurotypical people around. For instance, it can be pre-preparing scripts for small talk interactions, forcing yourself to make eye contact, imitating gestures or facial expressions, or suppressing repetitive behaviors. These strategies are survival mechanisms, as they can help autistic people in their jobs and relationships, but require immense effort. When people feel they have to “pass” as “normal”, they compensate for autism characteristics by spending a lot of time and energy through masking or camouflage.
HOW TO BOUNCE BACK
Self-awareness is key. Monitor when negative feelings begin to emerge such as resentment, inattentiveness, or being overwhelmed. Bring awareness to those things that trigger these emotions to come about. Next, create a toolkit! What are the ways you best like to relieve stress or to make yourself calm? Do these things to combat your negative emotions.
Another important aspect of recovering is to focus on basic needs. Get back to preparing a well-balanced meal. Spend time exercising or being outdoors in nature. Try to structure your nighttime routine to get at least 7 hours of sleep. Take a break from society and expectations. Take time away from high demand/stress activities. Inform your supervisor/professor when your workload is becoming unmanageable. Ask your job for accommodations to take breaks throughout the day or for a leave of absence. Lastly, during this time away unmask. That means do what feels right, listen to your body. Don’t judge yourself, and stim as much as you want!
Burnout can happen to anyone, however being autistic increases the likelihood of this happening. Burnout usually comes on due to sensory overload, masking, dealing with social situations/expectations, suppressing stimming, and change in routine. Autistic burnout is usually manifested through depressive-like symptoms, physical headaches, loss of skills, increased meltdowns, and increased sensory sensitivity. To prevent burnout it is important to be aware when you begin feeling overwhelmed, take time off to rest, dismiss unhealthy expectations or goals present, and unmask! Remember self-awareness is key.
Lean into and love your autistic facets unconditionally.
Dedicated to my nephew ❤️