Feeling the strain: autistic burnout explained

Feb 17, 2021

6 mins

Feeling the strain: autistic burnout explained

“I inexplicably went dark and shut down for about six days. I was unable to work, was exhausted, and felt anxious and overstimulated by the sounds around me. I knew I was experiencing autistic burnout.”

Katie Durden, a 35-year-old software developer, has been blind since she was four years old and recently came to know that she is autistic. She has been experiencing bouts of autistic burnout for two and a half years during which she has trouble focusing, fails to execute her daily activities, and engages in stress stims such as foot tapping and head banging. But what exactly is autistic burnout and how does it differ from regular burnout?

Autistic burnout is a common phenomenon among autistic adults. It involves an overwhelming sense of mental and physical exhaustion accompanied by an inability to work, loss of cognitive skills, increased meltdowns, and difficulty in coping with sensory overloads. The length and severity of burnout are highly personal—for some, it can take months to recover whereas for others it is a much shorter, more frequent occurrence.

“You really can’t do anything, you have a real loss of function,” said Rebecca Jackson, 37, an education consultant in Yorkshire, England. Jackson was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in September 2020 after experiencing severe burnouts. “The first time I had a really severe episode of burnout was two years ago. I was so physically and mentally unwell that I couldn’t work for several months. I tried working full-time recently and burnt out again,” she said

What causes autistic burnout?

An estimated 5,437,988 (2.21%) adults in the United States have ASD. According to the CDC, “symptoms of ASD include problems with social communication and interaction, and restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests. People with ASD may also have different ways of learning, moving, or paying attention.” Autistic traits can amplify the conditions that lead to burnout, and burnout can cause these traits to worsen.

“Autistic traits can amplify the conditions that lead to burnout, and burnout can cause these traits to worsen.”

Dora M Raymaker is a research assistant professor at Portland State University’s Regional Research Institute for Human Services and associate editor of the journal Autism in Adulthood. Her research shows that besides repetitive episodes of anxiety and depression, another main cause of burnout is repressing or camouflaging autistic behavior.

Autistic adults spend a lot of time trying to hide their ASD characteristics to fit into the neurotypical world. The excessive mental effort that this requires can become too much, explains Dr. Alan Robinson, an engineer in Portsmouth, England. “To fit in with the rest of society and our workplace, we tend to hide our autism,” he said. “We do this by avoiding eye contact or engaging in scripted conversations that don’t reveal our autistic symptoms. This places a lot of load on the brain and is one of the main reasons many of us experience burnout.”

Robinson was diagnosed with autism at the age of 53. He found it hard to work for several months due to autistic burnout. “I was off work for, like, six months. I experienced acute anxiety and couldn’t string a sentence together. It took about a year for me to be as productive as I was at work before the burnout,” he said.

Autistic burnout and professional burnout: what’s the difference?

The symptoms of autistic burnout might be similar to professional burnout, according to Amanda Dunagan, a speech-language pathologist at the St. Mary Medical Center in California. However, the biggest difference is how an autistic burnout is dealt with. “With professional burnout, maybe a break from work would help the person recuperate. However, someone experiencing an autistic burnout is almost having a ‘burnout on life’ and hence the ability to improve may be more difficult,” said Dunagan.

ASD symptoms, such as sensory issues, also become more intense during an autistic burnout, explains Dunagan. Meanwhile, during a professional burnout people mainly experience a lack of effectiveness and enthusiasm for their jobs.

Severe burnouts can lead to an autistic diagnosis in adults. This is what happened to Jackson: “Autism has been with me all my life but I only discovered it after repeated burnouts. So it’s like I only just received the user manual for my brain. On one hand, I was really relieved because now I have a label and a language to explain my problems to my friends and colleagues. But also, I was really angry because I wish I had been diagnosed earlier.”

How to manage an autistic burnout

Autistic adults spend their lives trying to meander through a world made for neurotypical people, which results in frustration. Recuperation often involves the need to spend time alone. Bethany Black, 42, a stand-up comedian, actor, and writer based in Lancashire, England, knows this feeling well. “I am absolutely unsuited to do a 9-5 job. I got fired from 13 jobs in a year because I just couldn’t do it,” she said.

Black was diagnosed with autism at the age of 38 and continues to experience repetitive stints of burnout. “In stand-up, if I end up working six nights a week in a row, doing more than two tasks a day, a lot of that time before and after will be spent sitting in my car alone. I need that time to recover from all the mental exhaustion I experience having to socialize with people,” she said.

Many people, including Robinson, use self-help techniques to calm down when the signs of burnout approach. “One of the first signs of me getting very anxious is when my thighs start to feel restless. I press them hard and I feel a bit better,” said Robinson. Going for a walk in the dark and writing down his thoughts also helps him.

For many autistic adults, the pandemic has proved an additional challenge with respect to getting professional medical help with burnout. Black, being located in England has access to their National Health Services, the socialized health system in the UK. Americans’ don’t have the same access to health care. In the UK, they have access to a specialized therapist, but this can take as long as 18 months due to the recent pressure on the NHS.

“[In the UK], you can get social service support if it’s an emergency case and autistic people are entitled to six weeks of mental health service in times of need. But most therapists aren’t trained in autism,” said Black. “They tend to offer a ‘quick fix’ technique that doesn’t work. The NHS then directs us to private practitioners who are not only expensive but also have long waiting lists.”

How employers can help

There are several ways that companies can help autistic employees, and in doing so, reduce the likelihood of burnout.

1. Encourage staff to get informed

According to a recent YouGov poll in the UK, employers’ attitudes towards autistic adults are slowly improving, but two-thirds worry about getting the support they give to an autistic employee wrong.

Speech-language pathologist Dunagan explains that employers and staff should be encouraged to find out more about autism. “Encouraging all staff to understand the diagnosis would prevent autistic employees from masking their symptoms—a key cause of autistic burnout,” she said.

Jackson’s colleagues have received neurodiversity and autism awareness training. “It’s important for my colleagues to understand my burnout warning signs. Autistic individuals might not notice their sensations or emotions sometimes. So actually, it is helpful when my colleagues at work notice my cheeks turning red and realize that I’m approaching a burnout before I do,” she said.

2. Invest in actively recruiting autistic employees

In summer 2021, as part of a commemoration to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Biden administration announced its intention to significantly increase the employment rate of adults with autism. The White House touted several strategies to make the government a model employer for people with disabilities. However, studies estimate a staggering 50-75% of autistic adults in the U.S. are unemployed or underemployed. Nearly 50% of 25-year-olds with autism have never held a paying job, despite having the skill sets and expertise to excel in the workplace.

Many companies are trying to change this, including Auto Trader, which won the National Autistic Society’s first Autism Friendly Employer award in 2019. The company reviewed its recruitment process, trains staff in how to interview autistic candidates, and offers contracts that give time off when needed.

3. Create an autistic-friendly work environment

Simple measures, such as keeping the workspace tidy and having a separate quiet room, can support autistic employees immensely. Durden explains that providing items such as earplugs could help too. “I am overwhelmed by the sound. I would experience burnout very fast if forced to be in a noisy environment like the office,” she said. “My company lets me wear headphones while working.”

4. Offer flexible work contracts

Robinson also embraces the idea of working remotely. “Due to the pandemic, businesses have realized you can work from home, and autistic adults have been asking for this for years. My mental health has improved because I’m not having unexpected conversations or scripted conversations by my desk. So that is brilliant,” he said.

Most autistic adults struggle to work full-time after a burnout and Jackson thinks it is important to challenge company culture and find a solution. “Autistic burnouts at work are treatable, but understanding and accepting that autistic people cannot always work full-time needs to be acknowledged. A four-day week might help. Companies need to adapt to our needs,” she said.

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