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Autistic Burnout: Why It Happens and How to Prevent a Full Shutdown

Autistic burnout is a real challenge faced by many kids and adults on the autism spectrum, including both children and adults. It’s a state of exhaustion—feeling completely drained physically, emotionally, and mentally—triggered by overwhelming environmental demands. Autistic burnout often leads to a shutdown state, which can be hard to come back from.

The Sachs Center is here to unravel the complexities of neurodiversity and offer support. Let’s explore together, gaining insights into autistic burnout: what it is, why it happens, and how to prevent a full Autistic shutdown. Our goal is to empower autists (autistic folks) and their support systems, providing a clearer understanding of this exhausting experience.

What is Autistic Burnout?

Autistic burnout isn’t just fatigue; it’s a profound state of exhaustion that emerges when an environment becomes overwhelming for someone on the autism spectrum. If you’ve never experienced autistic burnout, you can imagine it as feeling utterly depleted, both in body and mind. If it happens frequently, this emotional and physical drain can negatively impact daily functioning and cast a shadow on one’s overall quality of life.

Symptoms of Autistic Burnout

autistic burnout represented by burnt matches that spell the word mind

The signs of autistic burnout can vary from person to person, but some common manifestations include:

  • Extreme Fatigue and Exhaustion: Overwhelming exhaustion that goes beyond typical tiredness
  • Cognitive Difficulties: Struggling more than normal with concentration, memory, and executive functions
  • Heightened Sensory Sensitivities and Sensory Overload: Hypersensitivity to stimuli such as lights, sounds, or textures
  • Social Withdrawal: isolating oneself from social interactions more than usual
  • Communication Struggles: Increased difficulty in verbal and non-verbal communication, leading to (more) social fatigue and withdrawal
  • Mood Changes: Shifts in mood, including heightened irritability, anxiety, or depressive symptoms
  • Reduced Coping Abilities: Difficulty dealing with stressors and triggers that were manageable before
  • Changes in Sleep Patterns: Trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or changes in the overall duration and quality of sleep
  • Loss of Skills: Regression in previously acquired skills or abilities
  • Physical Symptoms: Headaches, digestive issues and stomachaches, and muscle tension

What is Autistic Shutdown?

Autistic shutdown refers to a reactive state experienced by those on the autism spectrum, often in response to Autistic burnout. It’s a period during which an autist may withdraw or become non-verbal due to the challenges they’re facing. Autistic shutdowns can vary in duration and intensity, and they’re characterized by a notable reduction in social interaction, communication, and sometimes, an apparent withdrawal into oneself.

What Causes Autistic Burnout?

An autistic man is on the verge of burnout and shutdown after getting stressed

Autistic burnout and subsequent autistic shutdown can be triggered by a variety of factors, including:

  • Sensory Overload: People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have heightened sensory sensitivity, which means they can become easily overwhelmed by loud or sudden noises, bright lights, and other sensory stimuli. This constant bombardment of sensory information can lead to overstimulation and burnout.
  • Social Demands: Social interactions pose a unique challenge for autistic individuals, who may feel compelled to conform to neurotypical social norms. Navigating these expectations can be exhausting, acting as a key contributor to burnout.
  • Masking: Many autistic adults and children adopt masking behavior to camouflage their autistic traits and blend in with their neurotypical peers. This act of concealing one’s true self can take a toll on mental and emotional well-being, paving the way for burnout.
  • Executive Functioning Demands: Like other neurodiverse groups, autistic people often grapple with executive dysfunction. Tasks involving cognitive skills such as planning, organizing, and decision-making can be particularly overwhelming, serving as catalysts for autistic burnout.
  • Changes in Routine: Routine and predictability are often lifelines for those on the spectrum. Disruptions to their established routines can be jarring, acting as a potent force in triggering burnout.
  • Stressful Life Events: Just like anyone else, people with ASD can experience stressful life events such as job loss, relationship problems, or financial trouble. These events can significantly contribute to burnout.

Understanding these triggers is crucial in developing strategies to navigate and mitigate the impact of autistic burnout. Let’s explore how to empower and support individuals on the spectrum amidst these challenges.

Navigating Autistic Burnout: 6 Practical Coping Strategies

If you find yourself on the verge of autistic burnout, taking proactive steps to cope is crucial. Here are six strategies tailored to empower and guide you through the process:

an autistic woman on the verge of autistic burnout and shutdown uses headphones to help with sensory overstimulation

1. Take a Break.

The first – and most important – step in coping with autistic burnout is granting yourself a break. Whether it’s a day off from work, canceling plans, or simply dedicating time to relax and recharge, it’s essential to listen to your body and give yourself the time and space you need to recover.

❤️ Friendly Reminder: Taking this time is not a display of laziness but a necessary act of taking care of yourself.

2. Practice Self-Care.

Self-care is crucial for managing autistic burnout. This can include activities like taking a bath, going for a walk, or engaging in a hobby you enjoy. Remember to prioritize your own well-being and dedicate time for activities that bring you joy and relaxation.

3. Ask for Support.

It’s okay to ask for help! Whether confiding in a trusted friend, family member, or seeking professional guidance from a therapist or counselor, reaching out can make a significant difference. If you’re considering professional help, ensure they have experience working with neurodivergent patients, like the experts at Sachs Center, who can offer tailored coping strategies.

4. Set Boundaries.

Setting boundaries can be hard, but it’s necessary if you’re trying to prevent burnout from occurring in the first place. Learn to say no to social events or tasks that could overwhelm or overstimulate you. Define limits that safeguard your mental and emotional space.

Remember: Prioritizing your well-being is not just acceptable—it’s essential.

5. Practice Sensory Regulation.

To manage autistic burnout caused by sensory overload, start with practical sensory regulation techniques. For example, you could use noise-cancelling headphones to drown out overstimulating noises, take breaks in a calm and quiet space, or consider using fidget toys to help regulate sensory input. These simple practices provide effective tools, fostering a balanced sensory experience to ward off burnout and enhance your daily routine.

6. Seek Accommodations.

If you’re experiencing signs of autistic burnout in your work or academic setting, we recommend exploring the available accommodations and tailoring them to your needs. Advocate for flexible work hours, a quiet workspace, or scheduled breaks.

Initiating a discussion about these accommodations not only recognizes your unique challenges but also cultivates an environment that prioritizes the well-being of all neurodivergent individuals.

How to Prevent Autistic Burnout and Autistic Shutdown

While knowing how to cope with autistic burnout is essential, it’s equally crucial to take preventive measures. Here’s how to prevent autistic burnout and autistic shutdown from starting — or getting worse.

Stop autistic burnout and shutdown; image shows a line of matches, with some burnt and some not burnt.

1. Practice Self-Awareness

Being aware of your own needs, triggers, and limitations is crucial in preventing burnout. Pay close attention to your emotional and physical state, and take breaks when you need them. It is also important to recognize your own triggers and take steps to avoid them.

Try keeping notes in your phone on what those triggers might be.

2. Communicate Your Needs

Self-advocacy is key if you’re neurodivergent.

Effectively communicate your needs to those in your immediate circle. Whether it’s seeking workplace accommodations or explaining to friends and family why breaks are crucial, clear communication plays a pivotal role in preventing burnout.

3. Create a Sensory-Friendly Environment

Tailor your surroundings to be sensory-friendly, mitigating the risk of sensory overload and burnout. Diminish harsh lighting, minimize background noise, and designate a quiet space for retreat when needed.

By crafting an environment that aligns with your sensory needs, you create a protective shield against potential burnout triggers.

4. Practice Mindfulness

Integrate mindfulness techniques into your routine to combat stress and preclude burnout. Whether through deep breathing exercises, meditation, or yoga, mindfulness empowers you to manage stress proactively.

Embrace these practices to cultivate a resilient mindset and deter the encroachment of burnout.

Conclusion

In conclusion, autistic burnout is a pervasive challenge for people with ASD. It causes a state of profound exhaustion, triggered by overwhelming environmental demands. This complex experience not only affects physical and emotional well-being, but can lead to the elusive and challenging state of autistic shutdown. The Sachs Center stands as a supportive guide, unraveling the intricacies of neurodiversity to empower autists and their support systems.

Understanding the symptoms and causes of autistic burnout and shutdown – including sensory overload, social demands, and disruptions in routine – can help you develop effective coping strategies. You should take proactive steps – such as taking breaks, practicing self-care, seeking support, setting boundaries, and incorporating sensory regulation techniques. Additionally, preventing burnout and shutdown involves self-awareness, clear communication of needs, sensory-friendly environments, and mindfulness. Through these efforts, we can all foster an environment that recognizes and prioritizes the well-being of neurodivergent individuals, ensuring they receive the support and understanding they need.

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