Dora Raymaker is a researcher, writer, and artist based in Portland, Oregon. She is co-director of the Academic Autism Spectrum Partnership In Research and Education (AASPIRE) with Christina Nicolaidis. AASPIRE is currently running a pilot study on autistic burnout and suicidal behavior. Autistic people have often talked about burnout, and it emerged as a major theme in their previous study on autism and skilled employment, but up to now, it has received limited attention from researchers.
Fergus Murray interviewed Dora for Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism.
FM: Could you summarise what autistic burnout means to you?
DR: The question evokes for me the impacts of autistic burnout on my own life, like “it means feeling my abilities and successes slip away and being powerless to stop it…”
But I think it is more asking, “how would you define autistic burnout?” I think that’s an important frame for the rest of the conversation. We’re still a finalized-analysis away from coming up with a definition grounded in research, but a fair start at an operational definition might be, “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.” In other words, autistic burnout is the result of being asked to continuously do more than one is capable of without sufficient means for recovery.
FM: There has so far been very little research on autistic burnout, although it is something autistic people have been talking about for a long time. Why do you suppose that is?
DR: Autism research, until fairly recently, has been mostly directed by non-autistic researchers, professionals, and family members whose priorities may be different from, or not fully inclusive of, the priorities of autistic people. Add on top of that a still-pervasive medical model of autism in the research world (disability as a disease to be cured, rather than disability as a divergence to be supported) which makes it even harder to get through the barriers between what we’ve been talking about wanting and what autism research is actually examining. This is a complicated topic I could probably spend the whole interview on, so I’ll stop my geekery about it there, LOL.
Anyway, I’m hopeful that we’ll have more research about autistic burnout (possibly disability burnout?) in the future. Autistic people have more voice in research than we used to, from the policy level to the participant level. Also I’m anticipating the surge of work into connected topics, such as camouflaging and mental health, will bring autistic burnout more into the awareness of the research community.
FM: How do you see the relationships between burnout and other experiences often reported by autistic people—meltdowns, shutdowns, sensory overwhelm, and catatonia?
DR: These other experiences are distinct states from burnout, but people report experiencing them far more often when also in a state of burnout. If we consider autistic burnout as a reduction in resources to cope with activities and environments that were already difficult—including by camouflaging and all the negative consequences of that—then it makes sense that a person would be left with less ability to tune out sensory stimulus, breathe through their trauma-reaction, or otherwise avoid the triggers for these other states. Nearly everyone we’ve spoken with in our research cited increased instances of these experiences as a consequence of the burnout.
FM: Have you been able to show what some effective strategies for coping with or avoiding burnout might look like?
DR: We asked people in our interviews what strategies helped them avoid or recover from burnout. We also looked at social media, where people have been sharing strategies. The community has also been compiling this information, and there are some good resources out there, like this guide from Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network (AWN). I recently did a talk at Seattle Children’s Hospital on the research, and the slides from that talk also list a number of the strategies. You can get the slides here, and the talk should be available on YouTube at some point. Until then, it was recorded on Facebook, and you can view it there.
The tl;dr version: being accepted for who you are as an autistic person and supported by others, being able to act autistic and do things that fuel you (like engage in special interests), taking time off, and having a reduction in expectations to do things in the same way as non-autistic people are some of the primary things that help.
FM: Many autistic adults report that they only realised they were autistic (or only received professional help) after experiencing burnout. Some may have talked to specialists before this, and been denied a diagnosis because they were not seen as sufficiently impaired. Do you think it might help some people to avoid burnout, if it was easier to be formally identified as autistic without insisting that someone’s autism must ‘limit or impair everyday functioning’?
DR: Yes, absolutely. Even just realizing that you’re probably diagnosable could be helpful, because it gives you access to community wisdom, and the strategies people use.
However, if the dynamic of autistic burnout really is related to spending more resources coping than one has, I’m not sure the real leverage in avoiding burnout resides with the autistic person alone. Especially because a number of the strategies people have to avoid or recover from burnout involve being able to act more autistic, being accepted as autistic, and getting support and accommodations–all things that require the cooperation of others. So we need to also be looking at ways to make neurodivergence more accepted and less stigmatizing, as well as ways for services to become more inclusive of supporting autistic people who appear to be “functioning well.” Knowing you’re on the spectrum, alone, isn’t, in my opinion, going to fix this.
FM: Some have suggested parallels between autistic burnout and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Do you think this is likely to be a fruitful connection to explore in future research?
DR: I’m not a clinician and don’t have interest in clinical research. However, there are clinicians like Christina on my research team. Her impression from descriptions of autistic burnout are that it’s likely a different thing from CFS (although one could certainly be experiencing both), and that addressing autistic burnout directly is probably going to help more people than looking for a possible relationship between it and CFS. That said, it could be research for someone else with interest in that area to explore.
FM: You’ve completed the first stage of your study, interviewing ten autistic people about their experiences of burnout. Did any surprising themes emerge in these interviews?
DR: Since many of the people on our research team have been part of the Autistic community for years where autistic burnout is frequently discussed, I’m not sure that there were any particularly surprising themes to us. One of the themes that might be most surprising to the general public is that some things they might think are good for autistic people—learning to emulate mainstream social behavior, appearing to “overcome” autistic traits, things like that—may actually be hurtful in the long-term. I think it makes sense if a person thinks about it—if you were asked to pretend to be something you’re not constantly out of fear of negative, possibly life-threatening consequences, and it was very difficult to do, how long could you keep it up? I think it might surprise some people how close autistic burnout is in a lot of ways to professional burnout, or to caregiver burnout, or something else that they might have experienced themselves.
FM: You plan to develop tools to measure burnout in the second part of your study. How might you go about measuring something like that—and what sorts of uses do you foresee for it?
DR: Measurement is a whole field of research in itself. This study is using a mixed-methods approach to create a survey. That means first we’re doing this qualitative part to understand what ideas, or “constructs,” might need to go into a survey to measure autistic burnout. We’re putting together the symptoms of burnout that people talked about in their interviews, on the blog posts, in the community to create a draft of that measure. Then we’ll be trying the survey out with a small number of participants. They’ll take the survey, along with some additional surveys, and be able to give some written feedback. We can then run statistics on the results to start validating the measure. We can learn things like, does the survey contain the right constructs? Do the sections of the survey group together well? Is there an expected relationship between scores on the autistic burnout survey and another survey; for example do people with high burnout scores also have low self-efficacy scores (since people in our interviews talked about a loss of self-confidence when in autistic burnout)? These are all parts of validating a measure. Then we refine the measure and test again.
As far as uses, there are many. Two big ones related to the work I’m most interested in are: 1) It can be used to tell if someone is experiencing autistic burnout, which could then change how services or supports relate to that person; 2) If anyone creates an intervention, or a program of some sort, to help prevent or relieve autistic burnout, a measure will be needed to know if the intervention is working; in other words, you need to be able to measure it to know if you have changed it.
FM: What’s next for AASPIRE?
DR: A lot! We have multiple projects, including our ongoing work on issues such as healthcare and employment, and a new branch of AASPIRE starting up in Australia. You can visit aaspire.org to see some of what we’re up to. As far as the burnout research, the next steps after finishing up this study are 1) to publish papers in the academic and clinical literature to start getting the word out, and 2) to apply for new funding to further test the measure and begin exploring further how autistic burnout impacts people’s lives, so that we can start working toward creating an intervention to prevent or relieve it—as well as giving others tools to do the same.