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Autistic Burnout in Parenthood

Updated: Nov 8, 2023

Autistic burnout is an experience that is only just beginning to gain formal recognition, despite the

fact that Autistic people have been talking and writing about it for years. In fact, an informal poll of our Facebook group showed that a whopping 97% of respondents thought they had experienced autistic burnout (although bear in mind that people are much more likely to respond to polls like this if they have experienced burnout than if they haven't). At the time of writing, there are a total of just 5 formal research studies on autistic burnout, all published in the last 2 and a half years. But if you are Autistic, understanding this phenomenon could make a huge difference to your quality of life.

What is Autistic Burnout?

A 2020 study defined autistic burnout as “chronic exhaustion, loss of skills, and reduced tolerance to stimulus”. A further study in 2021 found that the key characteristics are “exhaustion, withdrawal, executive function problems and generally reduced functioning, with increased manifestation of autistic traits”. Both studies found that autistic burnout is distinct from both depression and occupational burnout. Some of the common signs and symptoms autistic people have described include:

  • Total exhaustion - physical, mental and emotional

  • Everyday tasks become more difficult

  • Sensory sensitivities become heightened

  • Brain fog/slower processing speed

  • Less interest in socialising

  • Finding it harder to communicate

  • Seeming ‘more autistic’ to others

  • More meltdowns/shutdowns than usual

  • Stimming more than usual

  • Feeling overwhelmed

  • Self-harm

  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts you can contact The Samaritans, Papyrus or SHOUT for help. If you are unable to keep yourself safe please call 999 or go to A&E, or ask someone to help you.

What Causes Autistic Burnout?

While everyone’s individual circumstances are different, the cause of autistic burnout can be summed up as too much stress and not enough support over a long period of time. If the demands of life exceed your ability to cope too often and for too long, the result is burnout.

One of the most common causes of stress for Autistic people is masking - having to hide your autistic traits, trying to meet neurotypical standards, and making yourself fit into a neurotypical world without accommodations. Autistic burnout can also follow after a long phase of being extremely busy or a time of change or transition in life.

Autistic Burnout vs Depression

We know that autistic burnout is not the same as depression but what is the difference? To an external observer, they may look very similar: low mood, lack of energy and social withdrawal. There are some features that are unique to autistic burnout, such as increased sensory sensitivities and needing to stim more than usual. In addition, ‘behavioural activation’ (pushing yourself to do things even if you don’t feel like it) has been shown to help with depression but will make autistic burnout worse. However, clinical depression may follow a prolonged burnout, and it is possible to experience both at the same time.

How to Recover From Autistic Burnout

So if you find yourself (or your child) in autistic burnout, what can you do about it? How do you actually recover from autistic burnout? First and foremost, you need rest. Cancel everything that can be cancelled, postpone everything that can be postponed, and allow yourself to step off the hamster wheel of life for a moment. If you’re working, ask your GP to sign you off with stress, or take annual leave.

Secondly, think about how you can regulate your senses. Are there steps you could take to reduce sensory stimuli in everyday life, such as wearing noise-cancelling headphones, earplugs or sunglasses? At the same time, consider what sensory input you find soothing and do more of that e.g. weighted blanket, calming music, dimmed lights. Spending time in nature can be another way to soothe a burned-out nervous system.

Once your energy begins to come back, the next stage of recovery is to spend time doing the things that bring you joy. This can mean spending time indulging in your interests and hobbies - in a restful way - whether that is reading about a subject you love, watching documentaries, spending time doing arts and crafts, or some other interest. This may initially feel selfish and self-indulgent but it is what your autistic brain needs!

Burnout Recovery as a Parent

You may be thinking this sounds wonderful in theory but it’s not practical! So how can you make this work when you are a parent?

Start with a low-demand approach for the whole family, and this will help to reduce pressure on yourself. What this looks like depends on your family’s individual needs and circumstances, but it may include reducing expectations around cooking and eating meals, getting dressed, going out, housework etc. For example, with regard to food, give yourself permission to eat simple, repetitive meals, or perhaps try recipe box kits, to reduce the amount of executive function needed.

It’s also important to ask for help if you can. Arrange more childcare if possible - whether from family/relatives, playdates at a friend’s house or formal childcare such as after-school clubs. Is there someone else who could support you by taking over some of your regular household tasks for a while? Could you hire help such as a cleaner or dog walker?

Not all of us have access to support like this. And when you are in the midst of busy family life, you can’t just drop everything and take weeks of total rest. But think about what you can do to make your life just 1% easier. Take any opportunity to rest even if it’s just for 1 minute. The cumulative effect of small changes will build up over time.

Burnout Prevention

The goal of burnout recovery is not to feel better and then go back to how things were before, as you will only burn out again. You need to make changes to your lifestyle to reduce stress and increase support in the long term, as much as you can.

Begin by identifying your triggers, and remove or reduce them as much as possible. For example, if you know that phone calls are really difficult for you, ask people to text or email you instead. If cooking family meals drains your executive function, figure out ways to make this easier for yourself such as batch cooking (so you cook less often), meal planning, or choosing quick and easy meals that can be prepared in a few minutes.

Next, plan more regular downtime in your schedule. If it helps, literally write it in your diary! If you know you’re going to have a busy day, make sure the next day is quiet. If you have something stressful coming up such as a meeting, plan for recovery time afterwards. This helps to stop stress from accumulating.

In addition, try to notice situations where you are masking. If you can, try and put yourself under less pressure to meet neurotypical standards in those situations e.g. don’t force yourself to make eye contact, and/or allow yourself to use a fiddle toy, wear comfy clothes or noise-cancelling headphones. If you can’t do that, try to reduce the amount of time spent in those situations. If that’s also not an option, allow yourself more rest time afterwards. If you continue to put yourself in those situations without a break, you will continue to burn out.

Finally, set up support and accommodations where needed. This may be formal accommodations e.g. in the workplace, but could also be informal such as accessing peer support.

Autistic burnout is not a sign that you have failed, or that you are letting people down. It is a sign that your needs have not been met for a long, long time. Be prepared that healing from burnout is a slow, gradual process that may take months or even years, depending on how much you are able to implement the suggestions above, and how supportive the people around you are. Burnout is a common experience among Autistic people and that will only change if society changes to be more understanding and supportive of autistic needs.

Zoe is a late identified autistic parent to 2 unschooling neurodivergent children, writing about autistic identity and culture. Find her on Medium and Mastodon

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