Autistic burnout: How does it affect workers differently?

What it’s like to experience burnout as an autistic person

Dr Ana Silvestri, senior psychologist at caba, the occupational charity for ICAEW chartered accountants and their families, talks about autistic burnout, how to spot the signs and what you can do to manage it

Is the UK at risk of becoming a burnout nation?

In a recent study, 1 in 5 workers said they’d taken time off work in the past year due to poor mental health caused by pressure or stress. Meanwhile, accountants reported an even higher rate of burnout, with over half (50%) saying they’re struggling.

Learning how to spot the signs of burnout and understanding your personal triggers is an important part of preventing it and maintaining your mental wellbeing.

For autistic people – a social group that makes up more than 1% of the UK population – the causes of burnout can be vastly different to those for neurotypical people, despite the symptoms often presenting the same. This can make prevention and ongoing management more challenging.

How an autistic person experiences burnout is also distinct from the experiences of those without autism. For example, autistic people experiencing burnout may be more susceptible to depression and anxiety, as well as problems with their executive functioning (e.g., trouble managing their emotions, and inability to multi-task).

Here, we explore what it feels like to experience burnout as an autistic person and the best prevention and management strategies.

What causes autistic burnout?

Unlike burnout in neurotypical people, which often stems from competing stressors such as workplace pressure and relationship issues, autistic burnout arises from the stresses that present from having to live in a neurotypical society.

Examples of this include feeling like you have to mask autistic traits, dealing with sensory triggers such as a noisy office environment and a lack of understanding from neurotypical people. Without the necessary adjustments, this can be difficult to handle and make autistic people more susceptible to burnout.

What are the main signs to look out for?

Many autistic people experiencing burnout indicate that their health, particularly their mental health suffers excessively. Depression and anxiety are both common symptoms among autistic people with burnout. Autistic burnout can also impact a person’s ability to live independently. They, or those around them, may notice a loss of functioning, including problems managing thoughts, feelings and actions.

Other early warning signs of autistic burnout can also include changes in behaviour such as struggling with self-regulation, increased sensory sensitivity and changes to sleep patterns. An increased need for stimming, such as flapping hands, biting nails or rocking, can also show a change in mental wellbeing.

What are the best ways to manage autistic burnout?

If you’re autistic, the best way to prevent and manage burnout is to educate yourself on what the different symptoms might look like for you. Having a clear idea of warning signs or situations that can trigger burnout and knowing a plan for how to manage burnout is key to stopping it from spiralling out of control.

It can be easy to neglect both our physical and mental health when we’re feeling burnt out but it’s important that autistic people prioritise measures that’ll positively improve their wellbeing. Whether it’s going out for a walk every day or simply adjusting your sleep pattern, by having the right amount of rest and activity in your life you can remain emotionally balanced and improve your wellbeing.

Attending to autistic-specific needs, such as unmasking and spending time on highly focused interests, is also important as this can be a source of enjoyment for autistic people and a way of coping with everyday life. This helps to manage stress and prevent burnout as autistic people take time to recharge their cognitive functions.

Reaching out for tailored support can also help autistic people remember they aren’t alone in their experience. Finding trusted allies and supportive people to share your difficulties with can ward off feelings of burnout and help improve your mental wellbeing. Working out an action plan, with the support of others, can help deal with burnout and validate your autistic experience.

As more of us increasingly report feelings of burnout, it’s important to have an awareness of how this experience might be different for those who are autistic. From being aware of the signs of autistic burnout and the best prevention and management strategies, you can take proactive steps to improve your mental wellbeing and prevent long-term burnout.

Featured Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash.

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