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Autistic burnout

Autistic burnout is like a phone that has run out of battery. Even if you need to make a phone call, you are no longer able to. You have no energy left and can become quite stuck.

Burnout happens when:

  • Your tasks/ expectations in the day exceed the resources you have to deal with them (i.e. mental and physical energy).

  • As this happens, you go more and more into survival mode, and your body struggles to manage things that you may usually find easy.

  • You may not have support to relieve the above stress or the support you get for dealing with stress may be the wrong support, so it is ineffective or results in higher levels of stress.

  • As you do not have the energy to get out of survival mode, you need time/ space/ tools to recover your energy. If you are in survival mode for an extended period of time and are unable to properly recover, your energy reaches 0, and you are in autistic burnout.


Burnout can have a huge negative impact. For some people it can result in regression: often young people report difficulties attending school due to trauma, but then this affects their whole life. Even leaving their room or seeing friends can be too stressful/ traumatic, because you are ALWAYS heightened/ highly stressed. Your nervous system is in overdrive and is unable to take action to make you feel safe. Burnout can also result in a loss of skills.


Signs of burnout

  • Lack of motivation

  • More difficulty with self-care (showering, personal hygiene)

  • It is very easy to reach overload or meltdown

  • Loss of speech

  • Feeling exhausted or lethargic

  • Memory loss

  • Unable to mask anymore (masking is often unhelpful as a coping strategy, but burnout makes it almost impossible to do)

  • Huge difficulties with self-regulation

  • Increased sensory sensitivities

  • An increased need for stimming or sensory input

  • Needing more time alone to rest and recharge

  • Needing more sleep and rest, but also possible difficulty sleeping

It is important to note that burnout may look similar to depression, but is different (and can occur at the same time).


The four stage process of burnout recovery (from Naomi Fisher)

1. Breakdown


At this point, something has happened and you have broken down. This may result in shutting yourself away, aggressiveness, showing extreme distress and being unable to attend school. 


At this point, we need to focus on making a young person feel safe.


Breakdown may look like: 

  • Refusing talking to parents

  • Shock

  • Stopping doing everything, even things they enjoyed

  • Young people only being able to play video games and not seem to enjoy it -as they are used as a way to stop yourself from thinking

  • Needing constant distractions 

  • Expressing suicidal thoughts 


What can you do?

Be a safe place to land:

  • Remove all pressure and hidden agendas (you will have some always. Think about how you are talking and work out where the pressure might be coming from).

  • Listen (if they will talk).

  • If they won’t talk, find other supportive adults, such as mentors.

  • Reassure them their life is not over and things will get better - they may not know that yet, they might not have the life experience

  • Provide comfort and good food

  • If they enjoy something, find a way for them to do more of it

  • Make sure there is no expectation for them to be enthusiastic/ happy

  • Keep them safe


Find someone to talk to for yourself/ get support from - as this journey is difficult


Agree that things will not go back to how they were before 

thinking we will go back to before will prevent things from getting better. If you think you are going back to the place that made you so ill after you have recovered, you won't want to recover. They will have been told their whole lives they must go to school and carry on, and that has got them to where they are. They need reassurance. 


Let them know life is going to be different - we will find a different way to help you do things the way you want to and reach your goals. 


This period can take a long time. And will take longer with more pressure/ demands.

2. Repair


This is where you start putting everything back together and repairing relationships

Here, you can prove you aren’t going to push them to do more than they are ready for. What does this look like? 

  • Finding things they used to enjoy

  • Music, art, creativity 

  • Play (including gaming)

  • Starting to do things like cooking or going to the local shop

  • Watching TV programmes or playing games aimed at younger children

  • Sadness

  • Needing familiarity, doing things that aren’t too challenging that you feel safe with



If progress is made, please try not to push too hard to move forward or be too enthusiastic with the young person present, it can feel like pressure.


Hold the space for them

  • Keep the pressure off

  • Join with them in doing things they enjoy (if they’ll let you) 

  • Let them quit. If someone says they have had enough, please respect it

  • Try not to take things personally

  • Welcome them when they do come out or do something new, but don’t make it a big thing

  • Tell them that you love them and value them 

  • Find other people for them to connect with. This could be peers, older young people or mentors


3. Learning from what happened 


Once step 2 is well established, they may be able to start looking behind and see what went wrong (you may know already, but don’t share with the young person).


“Were we on the wrong road?”

“What put the most stress on and could that be changed?”


  • Reflection on what has gone before

  • Repetition of past events

  • Rehashing 

  • Anger - need support to process their anger 

  • Evaluating what happened 

  • Hidden stories

  • Arguments

  • Telling your story


At this point, empathise. Reflect back and listen, rather than pushing it back.


Listen and reflect

  • Listen to the way they saw things, even if you don’t remember it the same way. They have told you how they feel right now and you need to empathise with that.

  • Find stories of others who have been affected by school and burnout

  • Find mentors and other people who can listen 

  • Be prepared for stories going back years

  • Resist the urge to tell them they’ve got it wrong

  • Keep telling them that it’s going to be okay and that you love them

  • Work on yourself and the way you interact with the young person 


4. Planning for the future


Comes last, but people always want to do it first!

  • This isn’t going back to business as usual

  • How do we make sure we are on the right track?

  • How do we build in regular checks so we can see if this is happening again?

  • How do we learn from this experience? 


What does it look like?

  • Throwing themselves into something new or revisiting old passions

  • Imagining alternative futures

  • Deciding to take fewer GCSEs or no GCSEs right now

  • Becoming an activist 

  • Finding a way which works for them

  • Finding new friends

  • A sense of relief but also some sadness for what happened (and sadness is ok!) 


Think outside the box

  • Support the questioning

  • Provide opportunities

  • Let them make mistakes

  • Question things for yourself

  • Connect with them through things they enjoy

  • Resist the urge to tell them now’s the time to ‘catch up’

  • Help them make realistic plans but also think outside the box

  • Don’t squash the signs of recovery

It is not a catastrophe if you don’t do your GCSEs at 16, you don’t actually have to. 

You can learn more about burnout recovery in Naomi Fisher's course.

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