Autistic Burnout as an Autistic Adult With Responsibilities

by | Jan 20, 2023 | Autism, Burnout, Self-Care

Forward, Together with western tidewater community services board

Autistic burnout can impair every aspect of life, including the ability to accomplish everyday tasks. Burnout can be disabling, and can last for months at a time, is especially problematic for autistic adults who need to go to work or school, manage their finances, care for themselves and their families, and generally get through life. So, how can autistic adults going through burnout continue to function – and how can they prevent burnout in the first place?

What is Autistic Burnout?

Autistic burnout is the “intense physical, mental or emotional exhaustion” that many autistic individuals experience at some point. It can often be accompanied by a temporary loss of skills. That means that something the person could do fine before might now be difficult or impossible for them to do. This loss of skills often lasts for as long as the burnout does. Many autistic people say burnout is the result of having to navigate a world that is designed for neurotypical people.

Dr. Tasha Oswald, a licensed psychologist specializing in neurodiversity, says autistic burnout is relatively common among autistic adults, who often “go to extensive lengths to mask their autistic traits and fit into the neurotypical world around them.”

Dr. Oswald goes on to say that while the experience is unique to each person, there are certain common behaviors that often indicate autistic burnout.

Some common signs of autistic burnout include:

  • Feeling like you can no longer cope
  • Exhaustion
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Regression in skills (speech, cognitive skills, executive functioning skills, self-control, etc.)
  • Social withdrawal
  • Increased sensitivity to stimuli
  • Increase in “common” autistic behavior (self-soothing behavior, repetitive behavior, stimming, etc.)

Shannon Ashley, an autistic adult and writer for Medium.com, describes burnout as an uncomfortable loop:

“When I have autism-related burnout, my mind won’t stop feeding me negative thoughts: I feel like a jerk. I feel tired and overwhelmed. But I also worry I’m too stubborn. Lately, I feel inept at skills I can usually handle with less stress.”

The Five Phases of Autistic Burnout, According to an Autistic Adult

While autistic burnout is different for everyone, neurodiversity consultant and blogger Bibi Bilodeau has noticed five distinct phases of autistic burnout in her own experiences:

1. Optimism

Bibi says that when starting a new project, she feels excited, energetic and positive.

2. Intense Resolve

After settling into a daily routine, the initial excitement and drive starts to go away. She starts to have feelings of apprehension and is more aware of physical and sensory discomforts, but is determined to continue.

3. Stressed Out

Bibi describes this phase as:

“General nerves progress into anxiety as I struggle to stay grounded in my routine and tackle mounting tasks. I am irritable to any slight changes in plan and environments; seemingly small disturbances, like an unexpected phone call or bright lighting, can worsen my deteriorating mood. My thoughts are rapid and increasingly negative; my breathing is quickening and shallow. In social situations I can feel my heart rate rising when addressed directly, or questioned about what I am doing. I am starting to resent the hobbies and people I usually appreciate, yet I am having trouble relaxing when alone in my own space. While my mind knows what it wants to be doing, my body feels too heavy to do it.”

4. Burnt-out

Exhaustion and anxiety takes over, and she feels paralyzed when faced with the majority of her tasks.

5. Chronic Burnout

Bibi says that by the time burnout has become chronic, her mental and physical health are suffering, morale is low, and her attitude has become pessimistic. She says:

“Without an intervention or complete change in routine, I am likely to continue existing in this state of burnout until my health is further compromised. I may need to seek out professional help to disrupt the burnout cycle.”

Burnout in Autistic Adults

Autistic burnout is hard enough for children – it can cause them to fall behind in school, neglect building relationships, and to lose interest in the things that make them happy – but it’s even more difficult for adults, who have responsibilities to manage. Tyla Grant, an autistic adult, says burnout is “the point at which there’s no more of you left to give. The battery’s dead. Tyla’s left the chat…Whatever you want from me, you’re not going to get.”

Eric Michael Garcia, political reporter and author of We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation,” notes that many autistic adults spend all of their energy trying to get through the day and “come home too exhausted to tend to other needs, such as cooking healthy meals, taking out the trash or sustaining friendships and relationships.”

What’s worse is that burnout can affect autistic adults’ independence. When neurotypical people experience burnout, says Eric, “no one doubts their ability to live independently. But for autistic adults, a burnout state can lead loved ones and medical professionals to question their self-sufficiency, and even suggest they move home with family.”

Forgoing taking out the trash or eating healthy for a little while can certainly have a negative impact, but what about when you go to school, have a demanding job, or have a family to care for? You can’t just stop handling those responsibilities, so what do you do when you’re experiencing burnout?

Preventing Autistic Burnout

A few ways autistic individuals can prevent burnout include:

  • Managing energy levels – When you schedule your time for work or school, social or recreational activities, and everything else, make sure to include time to rest and recharge. This might include spending time with family or friends, enjoying your hobbies, or simply getting enough rest and relaxation
  • Factoring in time when you don’t have to mask – Masking all day, every day is what leads to autistic burnout for many people. If you don’t feel comfortable stimming at your desk at work, for example, schedule a few minutes each day or as needed to stim in privacy. If you find it stressful to work to “fit in” with your neurotypical colleagues, you might want to consider opening up the dialogue about neurodiversity and why the way you communicate might be different from what they’re used to
  • Reducing Expectations – Many autistic people feel a lot of pressure to succeed or to prove themselves, but if you feel that some of the demands placed on you are unmanageable, it’s ok to discuss it with others, and to get the support you need

This burden shouldn’t fall just on autistic people. Neurotypical people have a responsibility to do what they can to make accommodations for the neurodiverse population, who struggle to function in our world, which so often ignores and excludes them and their needs.

Some ways we can help autistic people avoid burnout include:

  • Educating ourselves and others – Helping neurodivergent people starts with education. Open your mind and learn what you can about autism and neurodivergence – and share what you’ve learned with others
  • Making accommodations – If you’re an employer, human resources professional, teacher, or even just an employee, student or member of an organization, start the conversation about accommodations for the ND population. Even small accommodations, like noise-canceling headphones, extra breaks, dim lighting or more time for tasks, can help autistic people to perform better at work or in school, and to avoid burnout
  • Accepting autistic people for who they are – We can make life a whole lot easier for autistic people by recognizing their unique experiences and needs and by accepting them for who they are

5 Ways to Get Through Autistic Burnout

1. Rest

One of the best ways to help with burnout is to rest, particularly to get more sleep, according to Amelia Nagoski, autistic adult and co-author of “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Response Cycle.” But one study found that autistic people often have a harder time sleeping because of their neurological differences. The study found that autistic people are more likely to sleep for shorter periods of time and experience lower-quality sleep, making it that much harder to recover from burnout.

About sleep and burnout, Amelia says:

“This essential thing [sleep] that is fundamental to wellness is harder for autistic people.”

While getting quality sleep is harder for autistic people, the following tips may help if you’ve been having trouble sleeping:

  • Avoid screens near bedtime, and use blue light filters whenever possible in the evening hours
  • Make sure the room you sleep in is a comfortable temperature for you
  • Avoid exercise near bedtime
  • Try to wind down with a book, herbal tea, or sleep-promoting supplements like melatonin, lavender or ashwagandha.

2. Find Social Connection That Works for You

Autistic individuals can find social connection with all types of people, but some find it easier and more fulfilling to connect with other neurodivergent people. Many autistic teens and adults are finding others like them through social media, using hashtags like #ActuallyAutistic and #AutisticBurnout. Being able to talk to someone who’s gone through the same thing you have and experiences the world more like you do can be a great comfort, especially when going through burnout.

3. Decrease and Minimize Obligations

Jane, an autistic adult and the blogger behind “Autistic Jane,” talks about the way she personally works to overcome burnout in her blog post “Things I’m Doing to Recover from Autistic Burnout.” Number one on her list is decreasing and minimizing obligations. While completely avoiding all obligations is unrealistic, most people can reduce their number of obligations or, at the least, the amount of energy they have to contribute to them. You can do this by delegating work or personal tasks to colleagues, friends, partners, or other family members. You can also rid your life of the things you’re doing that aren’t strictly necessary. You might love attending your monthly book club, but if trying to finish a book and then gathering with others to socialize and discuss the book just seems like too much at the moment, it’s ok to take a step back for a month or two, or for however long you need.

4. Stim

Many autistic people use stimming to self-regulate. When neurodivergent people are experiencing overwhelm, whether it’s sensory, intellectual, or emotional, stimming – self-stimulatory behavior usually manifested as repetitive body movement – can help them to cope with uncomfortable or stressful situations. It’s not always easy for autistic adults navigating a neurotypical world to stim when they need to, but participating in stimming activities like tapping fingernails, humming, or moving body parts or the entire body can help to relieve stress, anxiety, fear, or boredom. For many autistic people, regular stimming can help to prevent and reduce burnout. 

5. Reduce and Manage Stress

Adults have responsibilities they can’t avoid, especially when others depend on them, but if you have a way to reduce the stressors in your life, for example, by delegating tasks to someone else, take advantage of it. If you don’t, focus on managing your stress.

Some ways you can manage stress include:

  • Setting Priorities – When it just seems like too much, prioritize your to-do list. What has to be done today? – And what can wait?
  • Showing Kindness to Yourself – At the end of the day, focus on what you got done – not what you didn’t get done.
  • Managing Stress with an Outlet – Relaxing activities like yoga, meditation, or anything you find relaxing can help when you’re feeling stressed.
  • Taking Care of Yourself – Simply taking care of yourself – getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly can help to battle stress.

We’re Committed to Serving the Neurodivergent Community

Our mission is to provide quality, recovery-oriented care to all of our community members. We strive to promote equity by providing specialized services for autistic and other neurodiverse individuals, including mental health counseling for autistic adults.

Related: Why Should Adults with Autism Choose a Therapist with a Background in Neurodiversity?

If you or someone you care about could benefit from mental health counseling or any of the other services and supports we offer for autistic individuals and their families, make an appointment for same-day access online, or by calling us at 757-758-5106.

Let’s move forward, together.

WTCSB Services

We provide integrated services and relief for multiple mental health needs, support for individuals with developmental disabilities, and substance abuse help.

Same Day Access

Our exclusive Same-Day Access to care and 24/7 crisis intervention means our caring team of clinicians and counselors are always within reach.

Who We Are

Western Tidewater CSB is the leading authority in mental health and developmental services in Franklin, Suffolk, Isle of Wight County, and Southampton County. Learn more about what truly sets us apart.