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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Autistic Burnout

Why was this study done?
Autistic burnout is talked about a lot by autistic people but has not been formally addressed by researchers. It is an important issue for the autistic community because it is described as leading to distress; loss of work, school, health, and quality of life; and even suicidal behavior.
What was the purpose of this study?
This study aimed to characterize autistic burnout, understand what it is like, what people think causes it, and what helps people recover from or prevent it. It is a first step in starting to understand autistic burnout well enough to address it.
What did the researchers do?
Our research group—the Academic Autism Spectrum Partnership in Research and Education—used a community-based participatory research approach with the autistic community in all stages of the study. We analyzed 9 interviews from our study on employment, 10 interviews about autistic burnout, and 19 public Internet sources (five in-depth). We recruited in the United States by publicizing on social media, by word of mouth, and through community connections. When analyzing interviews, we took what people said at face value and in deeper social context, and looked for strong themes across data.
What were the results of the study?
The primary characteristics of autistic burnout were chronic exhaustion, loss of skills, and reduced tolerance to stimulus. Participants described burnout as happening because of life stressors that added to the cumulative load they experienced, and barriers to support that created an inability to obtain relief from the load. These pressures caused expectations to outweigh abilities resulting in autistic burnout. From this we created a definition:
Autistic burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic life stress and a mismatch of expectations and abilities without adequate supports. It is characterized by pervasive, long-term (typically 3+ months) exhaustion, loss of function, and reduced tolerance to stimulus.

Participants described negative impacts on their lives, including health, capacity for independent living, and quality of life, including suicidal behavior. They also discussed a lack of empathy from neurotypical people. People had ideas for recovering from autistic burnout including acceptance and social support, time off/reduced expectations, and doing things in an autistic way/unmasking.
How do these findings add to what was already known?
We now have data that autistic burnout refers to a clear set of characteristics, and is different from workplace burnout and clinical depression. We have the start of a model for why autistic burnout might happen. We know that people have been able to recover from autistic burnout and have some insights into how.
What are the potential weaknesses in the study?
\This was a small exploratory study with a convenience sample. Although we were able to bring in some diversity by using three data sources, future work would benefit from interviewing a wider range of participants, especially those who are not white, have higher support needs, and have either very high or very low educational attainment. More research is needed to understand how to measure, prevent, and treat autistic burnout.
How will these findings help autistic adults now or in the future?
These findings validate the experience of autistic adults. Understanding autistic burnout could lead to ways to help relieve it or prevent it. The findings may help therapists and other practitioners recognize autistic burnout, and the potential dangers of teaching autistic people to mask autistic traits. Suicide prevention programs should consider the potential role of burnout. These findings highlight the need to reduce discrimination and stigma around autism and disability.