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autistic burnout

A few days ago, I woke up with flu-like symptoms: headache, fatigue, muscle aches, and nausea. No, I didn’t have Covid. Unfortunately, these symptoms are commonplace for me. They’re part of a phenomenon known as Autistic Burnout.


What Is Autistic Burnout

Because AB is poorly understood by medical professionals, there isn’t a strict definition. The following is how I define it: Autistic Burnout is a deep mental and physical fatigue caused by prolonged exposure to Negative Sensory Input.


Negative Sensory Inputs

Autistic people are highly reactive to things that affect our senses such as: bright lights, loud noises, harsh smells, and scratchy clothing, just to name a few. These are Negative Sensory Inputs.

While the list of NSIs can vary widely per individual, a general rule is that too many of these inputs, at some point, will cause burnout to occur.

Stress, any and all forms of it, is an NSI. Autistic people who live stressful lifestyles often suffer from chronic burnout.


What Does AB Look Like?

Like NSIs, the ways burnout manifests itself depends on the person. Some autistics experience severe physical pain. Others lose the ability to talk or communicate coherently. For me, burnout feels like I’ve been shot out of a howitzer.

The one common trait of burnout is a degradation–at least to some extent–of Executive Functioning, (a series of cognitive functions that control decision making, short-term memory, problem solving, and more). 

During burnout, it’s not uncommon for me to stand in front of my bathroom mirror, toothbrush in one hand, toothpaste in the other, and think, what the hell am I supposed to do with these?


Autistic Burnout In Children

Most cases of burnout are associated with autistic teens and adults because the sudden decrease of communication and cognitive processing is starker in older autistic individuals who have demonstrated a certain measure of proficiency in those skill sets. 

When autistic children experience inexplicable regressions in Executive Functioning, parents, caregivers, teachers, and therapists often assume these children are simply being “difficult,” “unruly,” or “inattentive.”


Signs Of AB In Children

Unlike autistic adults, children almost never possess the vocabulary and interoceptive wherewithal to fully recognize and articulate that they are going through burnout. However, they will attempt to communicate their disposition. Here are some of the forms that communication can take: 

  • Refusal to attend school
    • Schools are often barrages of Negative Sensory Inputs. Fluorescent lights are harsh. Children are loud. Classrooms are often either fiercely cold or warmer than Hell’s front porch.
  • Meltdowns
    • Autistic people meltdown when we are utterly overwhelmed by the same NSIs that cause burnout. During burnout, autistic people, especially children, can’t efficiently buffer these inputs, making meltdowns more likely.
  •   Regression In Acts of Daily Living
    • Things like feeding, bathing, and dressing oneself might become difficult to impossible for an autistic child dealing with burnout.
  • Stimming
    • Since stimming is self-regulating, and children in burnout are in a state of extreme dysregulation, an increase in stimming is almost always an observable sign of burnout. 

Can Burnout Be Cured?

Yes and no. Like a cold or a stomach bug, the symptoms can be treated, but the condition needs to run its course. 

Treating burnout starts with removing or at least limiting the NSIs which triggered it. Next, should be the inclusion of Positive Sensory Inputs. Positive inputs can include water beads, shaggy surfaces (carpet), and stimming. Like stimming, these inputs help regulate us.


The Sieve And The Sand

Think of sensory regulation as sand inside a sieve. As autistic people go through our day, dealing with mass transit, uncomfortable school desks, and blaring car horns, sand falls through the sieve. 

As we self-regulate to get through the day, stim, play video games, watch videos on YouTube, the sieve is refilled. This new sand is damp, and as the dry sand continues to slip through the sieve, the ratio of dry-to-damp sand shifts. 

Soon only damp sand is left. What happens when you coat a sieve with damp sand? It clogs. Now, the sieve needs to be cleaned and filled with fresh, dry sand. 

That’s Autistic Burnout. 

The key to reducing burnout is maintaining enough dry sand to keep the sieve functioning properly. For that, the Negative Sensory Inputs which drain the sand must be managed.


Managing Burnout

AB is an unpleasant experience for everyone involved but through proactive parenting (for caregivers) and proactive self-regulation (for autistic adults) incidents of burnout can be mitigated.



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