Autististic Burnout: What is it and how can you help?

Understanding of autistic people’s experiences is growing every day, and something that is being increasingly spoken about is a distressing state known as ‘autistic burnout’.

Here we look at what it is, the causes and how we can better support our autistic children for a happier future.

Autistic burnout is a chronic and prolonged state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion that can be experienced by autistic people. It is often accompanied by a loss of skills, greater problems with emotional regulation and a reduced tolerance to stimulus. It can typically last over three months and will have a huge impact on every aspect of someone’s day-to-day life, even for the most basic tasks.

Many children first experience autistic burnout during puberty or during transitions in education, such as moving from primary to secondary school or leaving secondary school.

What causes autistic burnout?

Everyone is different but some common reasons include:

  • Masking or suppressing autistic behaviours for a long period of time.
  • Unreasonable expectations from family, school or society.
  • Stress from being repeatedly exposed to environments they are not comfortable with eg. noisy places or social situations.
  • Life changes, such as the loss of someone or a mental health crisis.
  • Poor boundaries or self-advocacy – not being able to take a break or say no.
  • Insufficient support and accommodations for their autistic needs.

How to prevent autistic burnout?

  • Provide the right support and accommodations for their specific needs, both at school and at home.
  • Allow them to unmask comfortably and do things in an autistic way without judgement, e.g. stimming, spending time on special interests and having access to comfort items.
  • Reduce demands – if your child is struggling, allow them more breaks and take time off activities that they may find stressful or draining.
  • Promote self-advocacy – help them to set healthy boundaries and learn when others aren’t respecting boundaries. Learning to say ‘no’ to others is a process that they will need support with.
  • Better understanding – help your child to recognise and act on the early signs of autistic burnout by understanding the patterns of behaviour and feelings. You may need to do this on their behalf.

Supporting a child in burnout

Being in a state of autistic burnout is extremely distressing for a child and their family. It is not something they have a choice about, and it is important to acknowledge and validate their experience. They cannot simply ‘get better’ or ‘try harder’.

Experts believe the best way to support a child experiencing autistic burnout is to reduce external demands as much as possible for as long as they need to recover. This may mean time off school, clubs, sports activities and socialising, and giving them extra help with everyday tasks, like making food, tidying or bathing, even if they were able to do these things before.

By allowing them to decompress in any way they need to, with plenty of time and space with no pressures, they have a better chance of a faster recovery.

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