Many individuals, especially women, with high-functioning autism receive a diagnosis after going through autistic burnout and having a neuropsychological evaluation. As with many things regarding autism and neurodiversity, autistic burnout is often misunderstood. So, today I want to take a moment to discuss autistic burnout in more detail.
What is autistic burnout?
Autistic burnout is a relatively common experience that many high-functioning adults with autism experience when they go to extensive lengths to mask their autistic traits and fit into the neurotypical world around them. After pushing away their emotional and physical reactions to uncomfortable sensory stimuli, their body and mind become overwhelmed and they shut down. Oftentimes, this causes a loss of skills as well.
Bear in mind that autistic burnout and the events that trigger it are unique to the person experiencing it. However, there are some common hallmark behaviors that indicate autistic burnout. Some common signs of autistic burnout include:
- Feeling like you can no longer cope
- Depressive symptoms: feelings of worthlessness, sadness, loss of interest in things you used to enjoy, etc.
- Regression in skills you once possessed (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, stemming, etc)
The Difference Between an Autistic Meltdown and Autistic Burnout:
In many ways an autistic meltdown mimics burnout. However, it primarily happens during childhood and it does not last for long. It can be internal where an individual retreats inside their mind to cope with distress and possibly become nonverbal or withdrawn. Or it can be external and includes aggressive behavior, agitation, or extreme emotional responses. Furthermore, autistic meltdowns happen to individuals on the autism spectrum with any level of cognitive ability.
But, the major difference between an autistic meltdown and burnout is that burnout is usually longer lasting. In some cases, it can last for weeks or even months. I have known individuals who have had to quit their jobs or school or go on medical leave because they are so worn down. In many ways experiencing autistic burnout is like riding a wave. Once you’ve caught the wave, you just have to ride it out.
What to do when you realize something isn’t right…
Many individuals with autism, especially high-functioning women with autism, do not get diagnoses until later in life. They may realize they are different, or feel like an alien from another planet, but they’re not sure why. So, when autistic burnout occurs, they often don’t know what’s happening. It can be extremely frightening to them and the people who love them. I have had individuals tell me that they locked themselves in their room and refused to talk to others. Or they had to lay in a dark space and were unable to move because all stimulus was too much. Sometimes, they report trying to cope in other potentially dangerous ways such as drinking, smoking, or self-injurious behavior. Even though they want to cry for help, they can’t.
If you are experiencing autistic burnout, then allow yourself some time to re-boot. Your brain has gone offline and your body has followed suit. Pushing yourself further is to no avail. Give yourself some compassion and understanding during this difficult time. Temper your expectations for yourself and do things that make you feel relieved or happy. This may be spending time with your special interest, or simply shutting yourself off from any stimulus.
Then, when you’re ready, reach out for support from a mental health professional. If you have yet to receive a formal diagnosis, it may be time to consider a neuropsychological evaluation. Or perhaps your autism therapy plan needs to be adjusted. Maybe, you’d benefit from being connected with other neurodiverse individuals in an autistic support group so you can talk about the experiences you’ve had with people who will really get it.
Prevention is Key for Autistic Burnout
When you’ve recovered from autistic burnout, I would encourage you to consider preventative measures. Think about what you can do, or what systems you can put in place in your life to lessen the frequency or severity of these episodes.
Think about when and why you felt like you had to mask your autism? Did you feel unsafe? Were you worried about being judged or shamed? Did you feel invalidated or misunderstood? Then, I want you to think about possible supports you could use if you were in the same situation or a similar situation where you felt immense pressure to fit in. Perhaps, you could offer other’s a mini-disclosure to help them understand you better. Or you could talk to your supervisor at work about accommodations to use when you feel overwhelmed. Perhaps, you need to rethink your routine and your schedule to allow more time for self-care. Or maybe, you need to learn how to stand up for yourself and advocate to get your needs met.
Help and Support is Available for Individuals Experiencing Autistic Burnout
Please know that you’re not alone and help is available to help you overcome the challenges associated with autistic burnout. One powerful source of support is autism therapy. If you are looking for autism therapy services in California, our therapists would be honored to speak with you about the ways we can help. Each member of our autism therapy team has extensive training in neurodiversity and specializes in helping clients with high-functioning autism. So, we know a lot about autistic burnout and masking, and we know how to help you feel better.
Begin Online Autism Therapy in California:
If you’re ready to begin autism therapy services and looking for a therapist in California, we encourage you to reach out to our autism therapy clinic to discuss our services and the ways we can help you achieve your unique goals. Right now, due to COVID-19, we are offering all our therapy services via online therapy. To begin autism therapy in California, follow these steps:
- Contact us for a free phone consultation using this link. You will meet with our care coordinator.
- Like us on Facebook. On our page, we post useful information about our practice
- Sign up to receive our newsletter.
Autism Therapy Services offered at Open Doors Therapy:
Our autism therapy clinic located in the South Bay Area serves teens and adults on the autism spectrum. We help high functioning individuals who identify as having Aspergers, high functioning autism, undiagnosed ASD traits, and their families.
Right now, we are providing all our autism counseling services online. Our autism therapists offer a variety of counseling services including individual counseling for autistic teens and adults, parent counseling, and group therapy. Also, we run several different social skills groups for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, gifted youth & caregivers, neurodiverse adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, a summer social skills college transition training program for youth transitioning to college, teens & caregivers, and a mothers group. Contact our autism therapy office for more information on our services or to schedule a consultation.
About the Author
Dr. Tasha Oswald is a trained developmental and clinical psychologist. She is also is the founder and director of Open Doors Therapy, a private practice specializing in autism therapy services in the South Bay Area, near San Francisco, CA. Dr. Oswald specializes in helping neurodiverse teens and adults and facilitating social skills groups.