In the general population, burnout usually means that the demands of life are exceeding a person’s resources to cope, and the body and brain begin to diminish in efficiency.
In the Autistic child, burnout is profoundly debilitating as it affects them at levels which neurotypical individuals do not have to consider. The challenges which demand that they continuously mask or camouflage their characteristics in an effort to fit in with others’ expectations creates such deep-seated stress that it has become known as Autistic Burnout.
An Australian research team led by Samuel Arnold from UNSW Sydney has attempted to investigate this phenomenon in order to design prevention and recovery methods.
Arnold and colleagues found that the most commonly experienced symptoms involved exhaustion and social withdrawal. It would appear that stress, self-doubt and sensory environmental factors led to burnout onset.
Autistic burnout in all ages is often characterised by pervasive, long-term exhaustion, loss of function and reduced tolerance to stimulus and can occur during periods of transition and change when children feel out of control in their environment. This can occur during a change in school, or a house move which can create turmoil in a child with autism as nothing feels ‘safe or solid’ in their world anymore.
To aid recovery, children will often withdraw from social situations to feel safe while they restore their equilibrium. Children experiencing Autistic Burnout feel overwhelmed if there is a lack of support and understanding, and acceptance of who they are would bring immense relief, instead of having to persuade others that what they are feeling is very real by exhibiting behaviours which others may find confusing.
Burnout in neurotypical and autistic children is described as profoundly different experiences leading to the term ‘perspective disconnect.’ This creates difficulties in understanding the needs and limitations of the other during the burnout episodes, thereby often being misdiagnosed as depression or anxiety in an autistic child.
Children with Autistic Burnout may experience more stimming episodes and meltdowns in response to increased sensitivity to sensory stimulus. They will find it difficult to perform normal cognitive functions at the onset of a burnout crash and may be unable to do what is asked of them without sufficient means for recovery in place. This can cause upset in the neurotypical individuals around them, and these clashes could be avoided if teachers, caregivers and health professionals were better trained to recognise the symptoms of Autistic Burnout.
More research urgently needs to be done so that these unsettling episodes can be better understood and given the correct treatment before symptoms unravel to a level which could involve suicidal ideation, which is a real danger in children with autism, especially as they grow older.
Settling an Autistic child into a school for special educational needs which is prepared and fully trained in recognising the onset of Autistic Burnout is the best environment to create a happy and secure child who will thrive among the people who fully understand and accept them.
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