Autistic Burnout: An Often-Misunderstood Element of Autism

A young woman sits and watches hot air balloons drifting across the horizon.During an autistic person’s life, there may be times when they seem to lose skills or show more obvious signs of autism. For example, a toddler who had a vocabulary of a dozen words may stop talking altogether. A social teenager may find it harder to make appropriate eye contact or take turns in conversation, despite having learned these skills as a child.

This phenomenon is called autistic burnout (or autistic regression, depending on the source). Autistic burnout can be very distressing for the autistic individual and their family, especially if they don’t know what is happening. However, it is important to note that autistic burnout is not necessarily an omen of permanent regression or skill loss. Recovery is possible.

What Is Autistic Burnout?

Autistic burnout can happen at any age, but it usually occurs at major transition points in life, such as toddlerhood, puberty, or young adulthood. Any period in which a person experiences lots of changes or stress can prompt an episode of burnout.

Very young children with burnout often lose language skills. Some children may forget a chunk of their vocabulary but still retain a few words. Others may stop making sound entirely and resort to physical gestures to communicate. Autistic children may also quit early social behaviors such as responding to their own name or looking at caregivers’ faces.

Older autistic people are able to communicate their experiences with burnout in a way toddlers can’t. Adults have reported symptoms such as:

  • Increased sensitivity to sensory stimuli, such as fluorescent lights or scratchy clothing. The person may need to stim more often to compensate.
  • Emotional and physical exhaustion. This can keep people from engaging in self-care tasks such as meal preparation.
  • Difficulty making decisions, switching between tasks, and other executive functioning skills.
  • Speech issues: these can range from forgetting words to being unable to speak at all.
  • Reduced social skills. As an individual’s cognitive resources are stretched thin, they may display more stereotypical autistic body language or speech patterns.
  • General memory issues.

There are no diagnostic criteria for how many skills need to be lost in order to qualify as autistic burnout. The severity and duration of symptoms can vary widely between individuals. One individual can even have varying levels of burnout at different points in life.

Why Does Autistic Burnout Happen?

Like other types of overwhelm, autistic burnout occurs when life’s challenges exceed a person’s resources. Perhaps a person is undergoing a stressful life transition or they may have been pushing themselves too hard for too long. Regardless, the coping mechanisms they had been using are no longer enough. Certain skills and abilities “shut down” temporarily as the brain recovers. The brain may take a while to remember these skills as the person adapts to their new situation.

Research into autistic burnout is still a relatively new field, so science has not found a definite answer as to why autistic brains react this way. One theory is that autistic people tend to have high levels of neuroplasticity. In other words, autistic brains may find it very easy to create new connections between nerve cells. Neuroplasticity may contribute to some autistic people’s exceptional problem-solving abilities. However, the brain may sometimes redirect its resources away from certain skills as it develops new solutions to problems, taking those abilities temporarily “offline”.

It is important to note that autistic burnout is not a conscious behavior. An autistic individual is not ignoring social norms or neglecting work simply because they are tired. They cannot “willpower” their way back to their old level of functioning. In fact, autistic burnout is often caused by people working too hard to appear “normal”.

Masking

Although public understanding of autism has improved in the last few decades, the autistic community still experiences severe stigma. Much of modern media persists in depicting autistic people as “emotionless”, “self-absorbed”, and other stereotypes. Furthermore, autistic children are at higher risk of being victims of filicide, or murder by their parents. Yet when these crimes come to light, news outlets may depict the murders as “caregivers forced into a desperate situation” and their victims as “burdens” (assuming the victims are discussed at all).

Many autistic people are taught from a young age that they must “mask” their autism in order to be accepted in society.Many autistic people are taught from a young age that they must “mask” their autism in order to be accepted in society. For example, parents may insist that a child must hug their relatives in order to show affection, even if the pressure from hugs is painful to them. If the child resists, they might be accused of being “stubborn” or “selfish.” The parents and relatives may refuse to try alternative greetings such as high-fives. The child then learns their own needs are less important than others’ social preferences.

Masking often takes an exceptional amount of cognitive and emotional energy. Some autistic people consciously monitor their body language and tone of voice as they talk. Others become hypervigilant for signs that they have accidentally upset someone. For some autistic people, even being in a bright, loud, or crowded place can be draining.

Some people become so good at masking that their autism diagnosis is rescinded, and they lose necessary support. Others are not diagnosed at all and do not learn about their autism until they burn out. As people age, their stamina may wane, reducing their ability to mask for long stretches of time and making burnout more likely.

Myth of Sudden Autistic Regression

Autistic burnout is sometimes called autistic regression, especially when referring to infants and toddlers. An estimated 30% of autistic toddlers will experience regression, likely because their brains are developing so rapidly and are thus under a lot of strain. Some people have mistakenly blamed vaccines for causing regression in toddlers. However, regression often begins in the first year of life, before the child is given vaccines.

Multiple studies show children often exhibit signs of autistic burnout long before the parents first notice them. For example, an infant might show signs of social regression, such as a lack of eye contact. The parents might not notice these signs because they are intermittent or subtle. Often the parents don’t realize there is cause for concern until the child shows difficulties with language. The symptoms of burnout may seem sudden to parents, but they are actually part of a gradual progression.

Toddlers who experience autistic burnout are more likely to have a co-occurring intellectual disability. However, people who experience burnout in early childhood can also grow up to have average or even exceptional IQs. Just because a child has had a disruption in their development does not mean they have lost these skills forever.

Recovering from Autistic Burnout

There is limited research on recovery from autistic burnout. An autistic person’s abilities will often come back, but some skills may take longer to return than others. Some skills may not return to the level they were at before.

A person’s prognosis depends on a lot of factors. For example, a teenager who experiences burnout due to a temporary stressor may have briefer, milder symptoms than a middle-aged person who has forced themself to mask for over 30 years. People who push themselves to the point of burnout year after year are likely to have more severe skill loss than those who have a one-time episode and get immediate support.

If you are a caregiver of an autistic child, it is highly recommended that you visit a child psychologist. Early therapeutic interventions can improve a child’s long-term abilities to communicate and cope with stress. A mental health professional can also help you create a home environment that matches your child’s sensory needs. You may also wish to see a family therapist to discuss any concerns you may have about the future.

If you are an adult experiencing autistic burnout, you may benefit from individual therapy. A therapist can help you advocate for your needs with coworkers, friends, and family members. A therapist can also teach you meditation and other coping skills for stress. If you have clinical anxiety or depression (many autistic people do), therapy can treat those diagnoses.

While recovering from autistic burnout, it is important to be patient with yourself. It can be frustrating to lose access to skills, but remember that this is not your fault. During this time, it may help to schedule breaks throughout the day to relax. If you have a special interest or stim that calms you down, feel free to use those as much as you need to. Don’t be afraid to ask friends and family for help as you are recovering.

References:

  1. ASAN anti-filicide toolkit [PDF]. (2019). Autistic Self-Advocacy Network. Retrieved from http://autisticadvocacy.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/ASAN-Anti-Filicide-Toolkit-Complete.pdf
  2. Backer, N. (2015). Developmental regression in autism spectrum disorder. Sudanese Journal of Paediatrics, 15(1), 21-26. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4949854
  3. Barton, J. (2019). Autistic burnout or regression: Individuals on the autism spectrum [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.scsha.net/assets/handouts/Austic%20burnout_SCSLHA_2019.pdf
  4. Dobbs, D. (2017, August 2). Rethinking regression in autism. Spectrum. Retrieved from https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/rethinking-regression-autism
  5. Kim, C. (2013, December 19). Autistic regression and fluid adaptation. Retrieved from https://musingsofanaspie.com/2013/12/19/autistic-regression-and-fluid-adaptation
  6. Roberts, W., & Harford, M. (2002). Immunization and children at risk for autism. Paediatrics Child Health, 7(9), 623-632. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2796520
  7. Ruggieri, V. L., & Arberas, C. L. (2018). Autistic regression: Clinical and aetiological aspects. Revista de Neurologia, 66(1), 17-23. Retrieved from https://europepmc.org/abstract/med/29516448

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  • Jeff Y

    Jeff Y

    August 11th, 2019 at 7:29 AM

    Thank you for publishing this. It explains a lot.

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