Autistic Burnout: Coping in Adults With Asperger’s Syndrome

Autistic burnout
There are times when an adult with Asperger’s seems to regress to earlier ways of behaving, a phenomenon knows as autistic regression

In a recent article about coping with Covid-19, the author recalls having spent much of his life hiding his autistic traits in an attempt to fit into a society dominated by neurotypical people. Now isolated from his normal life and support systems by the pandemic, he reflects upon his previous practices of planning and rehearsing conversations before they happened; mimicking the facial expressions, body posture, vocal tones he noticed in other people; and trying to make appropriate eye contact with others, a coping mechanism referred to as masking.

As a result of this constant effort to change the fundamental aspects of who he is, he developed what he described, and is known in the world of neurodiversity, as autistic burnout.

Dora Raymaker, a researcher and writer working to improve healthcare access and quality of life for adults on the spectrum, defines autistic burnout as:

A state of pervasive exhaustion, loss of function, increase in autistic traits and withdrawal from life that results from continuously expending more resources than one has coping with activities and environments ill-suited to one’s abilities and needs.

Autistic burnout occurs when masking no longer works, when someone is undergoing a stressful period, pushing too hard for too long, or trying too hard to fit in. Coping skills that helped a person navigate the world more or less successfully disappear or shut down temporarily. The feeling is one of being asked to continuously do more than one is capable of, without any way of recovering and going to back to normality. Meltdowns are easily triggered. Self-doubts return, worries increase, emotions are unstable and fluctuate quickly and spontaneously. It is as if everything returns to what it was like at an earlier period of intensity and unmanageability, a return to an earlier state, one that some call autistic regression.

Effective Coping Strategies

Adults with Asperger’s and Autism Spectrum Disorder report that one of the primary things that help with burnout is being able to be themselves, that is, behave as they formerly did, engage in their special interests, isolate if necessary, and most importantly reduce their expectations to do things in the same way as neurotypical people.

The idea is give permission to be who you are, not to pretend differently and expect yourself to be anyone else, to recognize that the neurodiversity in you is acceptable and to allow yourself to return to the person you were before the burnout began.

Simply put, the strategies that people have found most successful when faced with burnout involve being able to regain their own acceptance of having Asperger’s or autism, letting go of stigmatizing themselves and finding their way back to who they fundamentally are.

Said differently, trying to act normal, avoiding your Asperger’s behavior, trying to fit it, and going back to masking and camouflaging during those moments of autistic burnout is exactly the wrong prescription and, in many cases, only makes things worse.

The author of the Covid article realized he had mistakenly tried to erase the fact of his autism from his own awareness and the perceptions of people in his life. He is now on a journey to embrace his unique differences and gifts. Instead of hating himself for the person he is, he is focused on accepting all his skills, talents, and behaviors. He is learning to appreciate his mantra, “Everything I’m not makes me everything I am.”

Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Asperger’s psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. To ask a question or schedule an appointment, please call 415-922-1122.

6 responses to “Autistic Burnout: Coping in Adults With Asperger’s Syndrome”

  1. Nelly Jane says:

    Omg I love this burnout description it’s how I am learning to work it but I’ve still not been able to Get around my public meltdowns in the form of argument when I’m triggered by mostly men In my family who want to stir me up & get a reaction . Sometimes I don’t bite if I’m not carrying much stress . At other times I go full head on collision mode . This upsets others in the room like my sister suffering from PTSD ( car accident) . She then blames me & tells me to try harder .. I am overwhelmed by the constant blame response It frustrates & angers me . Trying to educate others about autism & how to help manage these incidents & gain acceptance from as opposed to rejection is a fulltime job that I’d like to resign from .

  2. SamRon says:

    What does one do if the overwhelming point was marriage and young kids?
    Does isolating, taking time for oneself, focusing on work, and lower expectations make things better or make things worse?

  3. JG says:

    Communicating what you feel and need will help, and scheduling regular times to get away, like hiring a babysitter every week on a certain day.

  4. MF says:

    Advice please : Can this describe a high functioning aspie in a new relationship going from full on affection and openness of how great things are to withdrawing without reason and silence? Instead going into the safety of workload (excessive) ?

  5. outerspacenik says:

    I am 72 Australian woman diagnosed late in life with Aspergers Syndrome and ADHD with a life time of trauma starting in infancy. In March 2020 I made a claim to a consumer tribunal about a mechanic who tricked me into buying an old defective second hand car. This has kept me in a constant state of financial hardship because it has required lots of expensive repairs. Because of my ASD/ADHD I did not understand the procedure and went off on a wrong tangent which resulted in my case being dismissed. I appealed in June and spent almost every day for the next five months working on submissions to do with the case. My appeal failed and after a brief hiatus of a couple of weeks which felt like extreme sensory overload, I crashed. I now believe I am suffering from sensory overload. Experiencing extreme anxiety which makes me physically tremble internally. Inability to self-care which I struggle with at the best of times. I am thinking I need to be in hospital where I am given regular meals but I know being in that environment would stress me out even more. I feel like a piece of string that all but one of the filaments has frayed and I am being held together by a single piece that could easily snap and break if any more pressure is placed on it. I had never heard of ‘autistic burnout’ until a couple of weeks ago when a woman I know was telling me about a girl who went to the same school as her daughter who had what sounded like one. She lost all capacity and now some 30 years later and aged in her 50s is still like that and living with her mother who is her carer.

  6. outerspacenik says:

    Correction: I now believe I am suffering from autistic burnout (not sensory overload)

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