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Autistic Burnout and Fatigue - Part 1 of 2

Chronic Mental fatigue is a very serious condition that is quite common in individuals with autism. It's so common that it has its own name in autism circles: "autistic burnout".

In part one of this two part series, I want to look at some of the reasons why autistic burnout occurs and then in the next part I want to look at some of the things that you can do to identify, prevent and perhaps even reverse the effects of burnout .

Image by Olga_Mur from Pixabay

Why is Burnout so common with Autism?

The key factors leading to burnout are anxiety and stress. Other factors, like depression and being overburdened can also play into it. There are good reasons why autistic people are sometimes more likely to suffer from anxiety and stress than others in the same situation. 

This comes down to several autistic traits including issues dealing with other people, issues with change and issues of their own making such as perfectionism or internalizing bad experiences. 

Dealing with People

Autistic people often find great difficulty in tasks that others might consider easy. This is especially true of tasks involving other people because in addition to performing the task at hand, they have to work to "mask" their natural behaviors and expressions - and they have to work much harder to interpret the non-verbal expressions of others. 

Dealing with people, especially groups of people, creates a lot of anxiety as autistic people feel like they have to look everywhere at once in order to follow conversations. It's also common to have to mask differently for different people because not everyone expects the same level of "sanitization". If you're with more accepting people, you can relax and be more "yourself" while with less accepting or newer acquaintances, you need to protect yourself more. A mixed group makes these rules hard to implement.

Dealing with people can become very stressful, very quickly - and for this reason, autistic people often try to avoid events where groups of people are gathered. Constant exposure to groups of people, particularly in the workplace or family home where escape is difficult, can wear autistic people down and can lead to fatigue and burnout.

Being Overburdened

We're all familiar with overburdening in the sense that overloading a pack animal can make it impossible for it to move but in these cases, the overburdening is a weight issue. Overburderning can also be a mental issue. 

For autistic people, places which seem quiet to others can be very "noisy". Autistic people can be very sensitive to different sounds but "noise" doesn't necessarily mean audio. A place with fluorescent lighting or strange patterns on the walls or floor can be visually "noisy", a place with strong smells, such as a candle or perfume shop can also be overpowering. Other types of environments and textures will create havoc with other senses. 

It's very easy for an autistic person to find this kind of "noise" to be too much. It can make it difficult for them to concentrate - or even impossible to function at all. 

While there are ways to deal with these issues which may include special glasses, noise cancelling headphones or simply not visiting these places, not all environments can be controlled. For example, if a roommate starts getting into scents, if noisy and dusty construction commences next door to the home or if the neighbors get a constantly barking dog, there's not a lot that can be done. 

If the burden of "noise" is constant and unescapable, it can lead to burnout. 

Interests and Focus

Many autistics have "better than average" capabilities in areas that align with their special interests. A good example of this is computing. Not all autistic people are great with computers but those who have computing as one of their special interests tend to be exceptionally good. In the workplace, this often leads others to place more reliance and greater workloads on them. It can also result in extra non-technical interactions as companies are keen to put their brightest techs on show or assign them to training and explaining duties. This occurs in all disciplines, not just computing and can create a great deal of added stress. 

One of my friends was forced to leave a job that he loved because he became so good at it that the boss kept sending trainees, clients and other disruptive people to him. He worked well alone but the constant extra people caused him to experience burnout. 

Change Factors

Change is another common cause of anxiety. Autistic people who thrive in the home or school environment can find the changes that come with career and family progression difficult. They may not want to leave the family home or live or work in an unfamiliar environment. Changes in marital or parenting situations and changes in the home and workplace tend to have long-lasting and wide ranging effects, all of which produce anxiety.

Frequent change can put an autistic person into a "permanently anxious" state that will lead to burnout. While change is often unavoidable, it needs to be managed to prevent it from becoming chronic. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can create situations where anxiety increases enough to turn into burnout. 

When we think of PTSD, we usually think of soldiers coming back from a war zone or people subjected to Hollywood-level trauma but the reality is that trauma can come from the smallest of events. 

Perhaps it's easier to look at an example with an animal. If you were to feed your dog at the same time every day and have another person enter the room and remove their bowl quite frequently. You'd start to see the dog becoming guarded and anxious every time that person entered the room - even if there was no food and no bowl. 

This happens with people too. Repeated events such as bullying don't need to be intense or graphic to produce PTSD. For example, a bully who indulges in name-calling on a regular basis could create enough negative feelings and self doubt to create high levels of stress and anxiety in completely unrelated situations. 

Even one-off events can lead to PTSD if they're significant enough. For example, if your child had an obsession with video gaming (something that is quite common in kids on the spectrum) and if there was a break-in where their console and games were stolen, this could become a significant event. 

You may be able to replace the console and the games but the trauma would likely remain. This could give rise to trust issues, difficulty leaving the house (for fear of further theft) and difficulty sharing and relating to others.

Autistic children process things quite differently from neurotypical children. When you're the parent of an autistic child, you need to pay careful attention to how they're processing events to reduce the chance of PTSD. If they grow into adults with PTSD, it's much harder to reverse the effects. 

Next Time

Next time, I want to look at some of the ways that you can identify signs that lead to burnout and fatigue and how you can address some of them. 


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