This is a revised and updated version of my 2022 article: Supporting Children through Autistic Burnout (Parent/Carer Guide)
If your child is going through Autistic Burnout, they will need your support. They will need your understanding, flexibility, increased sensory regulation time and a decrease in demands both from family and school environments. People can heal from Autistic Burnout, but it takes time, and changes may be needed to support recovery. This article will look at different types of Autistic Burnout, some signs of burnout and suggestions for supporting a young person through Autistic Burnout.
Types of Autistic Burnout
Autistic Burnout is caused by social and sensory input demands outweighing an individual’s capacity to manage. For many children, this is presented in the typical “daily after school meltdown” or “coke bottle” scenario where a build-up of unmet needs and stress of the day suddenly “explodes” when your child is in their safe space again, with a person they feel secure with.
There is also a longer-term, more intense Autistic Burnout, described by Kieran Rose as a “crash” where you “keep on crashing.” This happens to children as well as adults. If your child has got to the point where they are finding it difficult to continue their usual daily routines, including going to school and social activities, managing their usual day-to-day tasks, struggling with self-care and if you find that perhaps their sleep and eating are also affected, then it may be they are experiencing a more severe, intense Autistic Burnout which will take longer to recover from. The cumulative effect of unmet needs over a long period can lead to more serious mental health difficulties.
What is Autistic Burnout?
Autistic educator Judy Endow describes Autistic Burnout as a “state of physical and mental fatigue, heightened stress, and diminished capacity to manage life skills, sensory input, and social interactions, which comes from years of being severely overtaxed by the strain of trying to live up to demands that are out of sync with our needs.”
Phung et al. interviewed Autistic young people who used words such as “exhaustion, feeling stuck, frozen and being entirely overwhelmed” to describe how burnout felt for them.
Arnold et al., in their articles Confirming the nature of Autistic Burnout and Towards the Measurement of Autistic Burnout state, “Autistic Burnout is a debilitating syndrome preceded by an overload of life stressors and the daily challenge of existing in a neurotypical world.” They also concluded that their research and other recent studies “show autistic people experience a combination of exhaustion, withdrawal and problems with their concentration and thinking. Burnout seems to be linked to the stress experienced by autistic people in their daily lives.”
Signs of Autistic Burnout
Research is only emerging about Autistic Burnout, and there is very little about Autistic Burnout and young people. However, in the recent study by Arnold et al., the ten most frequent reasons cited for Autistic Burnout in adults were:
- I felt extremely tired or worn out.
- I was mentally exhausted.
- I withdrew from social situations.
- I had difficulties doing my usual work as well as I typically do
- I felt overwhelmed by my environment.
- I found it more challenging to relate socially to people.
- I was physically exhausted during the day.
- I found some of the following more distressing than usual: Sudden or loud noises bright or flickering lights.
- Communicating with others was more difficult than usual.
- I had difficulties with my school or academic tasks.
The AASPIRE Autistic Burnout Study describes the key features of Autistic Burnout as a “loss of skills.” However, this loss of skills could also be viewed more as a difference in managing attention, resources and energy whilst in burnout. They list the key features of Autistic Burnout as a change of:
- Cognition, executive function, memory, speech/communication, ability to cope, ability to do things once could do
- Increased sensitivity to sensory stimulus, to sensory overload, to change to social stimulus
- Increased autistic behaviour (e.g., stimming)
- More frequent meltdowns/shutdowns
- Chronic exhaustion
From my personal parenting and teaching experience, I would also add that the following are possible signs of Autistic Burnout for children:
- Changes to diet and eating
- Changes to sleep patterns
- Changes to sensory perception
- Emotional changes: May be more tearful and connection-seeking, or angry and frustrated.
- Executive functioning difficulties escalated
- A need for more autonomy and control
Supporting Your Young Person Through Autistic Burnout
If you recognise that your child or young person is experiencing some signs of Autistic Burnout, it is important to get professional advice and see your doctor or GP. It is important to rule out any other medical or health concerns. It may also help to implement some neurodivergent-friendly lifestyle changes and adopt what is described as a “low demand parenting approach.”
1. Low Demand Parenting
Ross Greene famously said, “Kids do well if they can.” It is up to us as parents and carers to allow a space for our children to do well, meet their needs and thrive. Low demand parenting is not about “giving in.” It is about prioritising and accommodating needs. There is always a plan b….or even plan x, y, or z! A low-demand approach reduces the likelihood and will help lessen the severity of Autistic Burnout. It will help if you are able to be more flexible, reduce demands, give more time and space around the events of the day, consider putting children’s sensory needs first and to adopt a co-regulation technique.
2. Understanding Monotropism
Monotropism is a theory of autism developed by Murray, Lesser & Lawson in their article Attention, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for autism. They suggest that autistic minds focus more energy (resources) on a smaller number of things at any one time. Autistic and Autistic ADHD people are likely to be more monotropic than others (Garuau et al.).
If your child is monotropic, it may feel quite distressing and may take a lot of energy for them to switch channels of attention to different tasks/activities. Without careful planning and support, this could have a detrimental impact on mental health.
In a school setting, monotropism could be a reason why many autistic young people struggle to move from subject to subject, changing classes/teachers and transitioning between different events of the day, more support may be needed.
At home, what you may consider a simple request may be quite stressful for your autistic child, such as suddenly expecting them to stop engaging in their play when they are in a total flow state to suddenly come and sit down for a family meal or get in the car to go shopping with you.
Be Flexible: If your young person has a monotropic way of thinking and processing the world, you will need more flexibility and time around transitions in the day to help them move more smoothly between attention channels.
Having more time around events in the day (attention tunnels), talking things through in advance, having visual reminders and planners, and flexibility will help manage monotropic flow states and help the day run a bit easier. You may find fewer moments of sensory overload (shutdowns/meltdowns), and your child is a bit more regulated; this will help reduce anxiety and over time could help to prevent burnout.
More research needs to be done in this area; however, Wood’s research has shown how beneficial it can be for young people to engage in their personal interests, which can help improve well-being. Allowing more time for children to rest and recharge by engaging in their interests and lowering other demands will help maintain good mental health. It could also support the recovery of autistic burnout.
3. Meeting Sensory Needs
Increase Sensory Decompression Time and Decrease Parent Demands
You need to do what is right for you and your family; it can be hard to let go of how you feel you “should” be parenting and you may feel judged by others for parenting “differently.” However, it is important to consider your child’s sensory profile and to meet their needs, a more regulated child is a happier child, and this will help reduce the likelihood of Autistic Burnout.
If your child plays a lot of online gaming, this may mean they need to do this for longer and more frequently if it helps them regulate. Equally, if your child loves climbing, spinning, and other types of play, this may be their way of self-regulating and coping and could help regulation and reduce burnout.
If anxiety escalates, adopting a co-regulation technique will help; let your calm meet their storm and feelings of being overwhelmed. What may work one day may not work the next. Meeting your child where they are at in that moment and just trying to do what you need to get to the next moment will help everyone, including your mental health!
Risk of “Just” One More
If you feel your child is going through Autistic Burnout, they will already be at full capacity. If you try and push for just one more activity or just one more day of school, they will likely burnout quickly since they are already struggling. They may experience more sensory and social overwhelm, more meltdowns/shutdowns and eventually, they could head into Autistic Burnout.
“They Seem Fine in School”
Schools often say they don’t see a problem, and children seem “fine” in school. This may be due to what is called “autistic masking” where your child (subconsciously or consciously) may try to fit in with their peers and keep their authentic autistic suppressed in school, in order to feel safe. This is only sustainable for short periods; masking is exhausting and can lead to mental health difficulties.
An education at the cost of mental ill health is not worth the risk. School staff, parents/carers and young people all need to work together to create a plan that will work for the young person and support them through this time, decreasing pressures and demands and giving them time to rest and recover to meet their needs.
It is also important to consider that some autistic people may find it difficult to understand their own internal body signals (interoception) and may experience difficulties understanding their own emotions and those of others too (alexythemia). This can make things more difficult for young people and may mean it is hard for them to explain how they are feeling and what help they need.
Supporting a Young Person Through an Autistic Burnout Crisis
If your child is experiencing an Autistic Burnout crisis, remember this is not your fault as a parent, and not your child’s fault. Autistic Burnout results from all the demands in their life exceeding their capacity to manage. The demands that lead to burnout could be a combination of school, home, sensory, social and communication demands; this world can be overwhelming!
What To Do Next
- Reduce self-expectations as a parent/carer.
- Lower demands for the whole family.
- Contact your doctor/GP for a referral to your local mental health service if needed.
- Contact the doctor/GP if you feel you need support for yourself.
- Local Autism charities may have shorter waiting times and be able to offer support.
- Have a meeting with the school. They may not have heard of Autistic Burnout, but this doesn’t mean they won’t be able to help.
- Remember this won’t be forever; take it moment by moment.
Look After Yourself
It can be exhausting caring for and trying to meet the needs of any child; if your child is also Autistic and is in Autistic Burnout, it is also important to think about your own mental health needs so you can also support theirs.
There are many wonderful Autistic and neurodiversity-affirming communities online that are able to support you and your family and provide further signposting and information*. With flexibility, time, and with your support and understanding, your child can heal and will be able to move through Autistic Burnout.
Author’s note: I am not a medical professional. If you recognise that your child or young person is experiencing some signs of Autistic Burnout, it is important to get professional advice and see your GP; it is important to rule out any other medical or health concerns.
* Editor’s note: Not all autistic people have the inclination or expertise to provide support for parents who need information about parenting their autistic children. If you need help finding communities, ask us or look in our Resources section.