'The battery is dead': Burnout looks different in autistic adults (posted 2021) (2023)

'The battery is dead': Burnout looks different in autistic adults (posted 2021) (1)

Although understudied, burnout among people with autism has become its own pandemic.

Eric Garcia, a political reporter, struggles with intense bouts of burnout.Credit...Greg Kahn para The New York Times

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ByBeth Winegarner

Tyla Grant, 24, works in advertising full time, is trying to start a nonprofit, and creates regular content for her podcast, YouTube channel, and Instagram. Every now and then she gets so fried she can't talk or get out of bed for days.

Mrs. Grant is also autistic. While most people go through periods of physical, cognitive and emotional exhaustion brought on by prolonged and intense stress, autistic people, at some point in their lives, experience this on an entirely different level. Autistic traits can amplify conditions that lead to burnout, and burnout can make those traits worse. They may become unable to speak or take care of themselves and have problems with short-term memory. This impairs your ability to perform well at work, school, or at home.

“It's the point where there's no more of you left to give. The battery is dead. Tyla left the chat," he said. "Whatever you want from me, you're not going to get it."

The US Centers for Disease ControlDearthat, as of 2017, 2.2% of adults in the United States (nearly 5.5 million people) are autistic. It's almost certainly an undercount; many in the research and autism communities believe that women and people of color are underdiagnosed.

Autistic burnout is a concept already widely accepted in neurodivergent communities, but little formally studied. Research shows that autistic people have a harder time keeping their heads above water, similar to burnout, and some experts offer advice on how to cope.

(Video) Autism Burnout Recovery (5 Tips For Autistic Burnout Recovery)

Autism and mental health.

A wide range of life stressors contribute to autistic burnout,according to a small 2020 studyled by Portland State University researcher Dora M. Raymaker. This includes being forced to hide your autistic traits (often called "masking"), dealing with disabling aspects ofautismand dealing with a world that expects autistic people to perform at the same level as their non-autistic peers.

Survey participants described barriers to support, such as being ignored by others about their experiences and differences, lack of outside support, and an inability to take breaks.

Aside from this study, there are few published articles on autistic burnout, but similar conditions can help fill in the picture. For example, in a 2020 study,20 percent of autistic adultshad been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, compared with just under 9% of non-autistic adults.

Part of this anxiety stems from peer rejection or ostracism for autistic traits, such as a deep interest in a particular topic, the researchers found. Autistic people are also simply more vulnerable to anxiety; they are more sensitive to sensory input and their nervous systems are more likely to react strongly to stress, according to the study.


'The battery is dead': Burnout looks different in autistic adults (posted 2021) (2)

Autistic adults are also more likely to have suicidal thoughts;a 2018 study published in the journal Molecular Autismfound that 72% of autistic adults were at high risk of suicide, compared with 33% of the general population. Numerous studies have found a connection between burnout and suicidal thoughts in non-autistic adults across a wide range of occupations, includingmedicineysurveillance.

According to the study, for autistic people, several factors contributed to their suicidal thoughts, including self-harm and masking, as well as not meeting their support needs.

(Video) Autistic Burnout & Jobs

Burnout can erode independence.

Political reporter Eric Michael Garcia agreed that rest is a key remedy for autistic burnout, and as he's gotten older, he's realized it takes longer to recharge. Garcia, 30, experienced his first prolonged bout of autistic burnout while covering the 2016 election. At first he thought he was working too hard, but debilitating fatigue gripped him for a month.

Soon after, she began to notice autistic people writing about burnout. Many of her coworkers, she said, spend all their energy trying to perform well at work and return home too exhausted to attend to other needs, such as preparing healthy meals, taking out the garbage, or maintaining friendships and relationships.

In his book "We're Not Broken: Changing the Conversation About Autism," Mr. Garcia wrote that when people without autism experience burnout, no one doubts their ability to live independently. But for autistic adults, a state of exhaustion can lead loved ones and medical professionals to question their self-sufficiency and even suggest they move out with the family. Many can remain self-employed if they have an occasional support person or resident who can help with shopping, cooking and bills, she wrote.



Sleep is challenging but crucial.

However, autistic burnout is not a permanent state. One of the best ways to recover from burnout is to rest, especially sleep, according to Amelia Nagoski, coauthor of the 2019 bestselling book "Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Response Cycle." But autistic people have a harder time sleeping because of their neurological differences, according toa 2019 study.

Autistic people are more likely to sleep for shorter periods of time and have lower quality sleep, and are more likely to be night owls, the study found. Research in non-autistic adults shows thatinsomnia is a strong predictor of exhaustion,suggesting a similar link between autistic people with sleep disorders.

Mrs. Nagoski, 44, addressed the sleep problems of autistic people in a recent YouTube video. “That essential thing that is fundamental to well-being is harder for autistic people,” he said. she was diagnosed withautismin 2020 and launched his channel,autistic breakdown, to offer advice and resources to people suffering from the disease.

Allregular sleep hygiene adviceonly apply to autistic people, such as avoiding the windows around bedtime, making sure the room is dark and cool enough, and taking a shower so that your temperature drops afterwards, which tells your body that It's time to sleep. But autistic people need to follow that advice more diligently, and even then, he said, it's "more effort for less result."

Find a social connection that works.

Rest is not the only remedy for autistic burnout. Connecting with others is an important way to alleviate burnout for non-autistic adults, Nagoski said, and it can be helpful. But many autistic people misinterpret social cues, take statements literally, and are uncomfortable with touch.

Nagoski (with her twin sister and co-author Emily Nagoski) recommends 20-second hugs and six-second kisses for neurotypical adults because they release the hormone oxytocin, but "it never worked for me," she said. Instead, she recommends finding community through social media, where the hashtags #reallyautistic and #autisticburnout help people find each other on most major social media platforms.

Mrs. Grant finds himself making compromises when it comes to friendships. When people ask her to spend time with her, she usually refuses to protect her energy. But her autism is already testing her friendships. "Just saying 'no' is not that easy, especially when you're used to saying 'yes' just to keep your friends," he said.

(Video) Autism & Burnout - Autistic vs Neurotypical Burnout

Ultimately, one of the best ways to keep autistic people from burning out will be to increaseAccommodationsin workplaces, schools, hospitals, anywhere they might spend time, Garcia said. Each person with autism may need different supports, such as quiet spaces to work in, longer lunch breaks, alternative lighting, predictable schedules, or the ability to have a support person with them. But there must be adequate motivation for these gaps to change, or autistic adults will continue to burn more intensely than their peers, he said.

Autism is still widely considered a childhood condition, as if these children don't grow up and are still autistic. As more and more people are diagnosed, "there will be more autistic people graduating from college and entering the workforce," Garcia said. Because autistic people have such different needs, "it may be impossible to determine a uniform policy," he said. "But this needs to be addressed."

Beth Winegarner is a journalist, essayist and author, most recently of "A Riff Of One's Own".


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