Have you ever felt worn out from an overwhelming day and had a hard time forming coherent sentences? I think we all have experienced this very normal consequence of overtaxing our minds and bodies. This is a temporary language skill loss. We just don’t have the resources to do what we are wanting to do. This happens to people on the autism spectrum, too. When it happens to them, though, the consequences can be much more life-altering.
What is Autistic Burnout?
There is not an official diagnosis, or even a lot of literature about this outside of the Autism community. As more adults on the spectrum begin to advocate for themselves, this is ne phenomena we are hearing about over and over. Many remember this happening to them as children, but having no understanding, at the time.
‘Autistic burnout’ is the intense physical, mental or emotional exhaustion, often accompanied by a loss of skills, that some adults with autism experience. Many autistic people say it results mainly from the cumulative effect of having to navigate a world that is designed for neurotypical people.
This definition comes from a great article by Sarah Deweerdt, Autistic burnout, explained. That is a good definition of what it is, but do you know what it looks like?
Potential Symptoms of Autistic Burnout
Loss of skills, such as being less verbal or being less able to make eye contact
Becoming more sensitive to sensory input, such as light and noise
Loss of facial expression
Loss of urinary or bowel continence
All of these symptoms do not need to be present for you or your child to be experiencing burnout. It can look different for everyone. Burnout typically happens from the stress of “camaflouging” or masking autistic traits, coping mechanisms, and behavior to appear more “normal.” During this extremely stressful time in our collective history, the risk is even more pronounced as we are facing unusual stressors.
Autistic Burnout Prevention
As Sarah Deweerdt writes in her article, the best prevention is self-knowledge. Obviously, her audience is mainly adults with autism. How do we address potential burnout in kids? The very first thing we need to do is to provide a safe place where they can relax and be themselves. There will be many places and times when they will be expected to suppress their natural coping mechanisms, like stimming and avoiding prolonged eye contact. We can also begin to assess environments for stressors and provide extra calm, space and patience for disruptive behavior, which could be because of a temporary impulse control skill loss.
Autistic burnout can be temporary, but it has been reported by some to last months and even years. The best medicine here is prevention. Understanding the cost our children pay when asked to mask or endure over-stimulating environments for too long, will not only increase our empathy but also our ability to potentially avoid burnout in our children.
If your child has shown a recent loss of skills, it could be burnout or something more. This is definitely a situation that warrants a visit. Give us a call and we can help you with the next step.