Creating Autistic Suffering: What is Atypical Burnout?
This article was co-authored by Tanya Adkin and David Gray-Hammond
The literature around Autistic burnout is in it’s infancy with regards to academic papers, most of what exists comes from lived experience and blogs written by Autistic people themselves. The first academic paper on Autistic burnout was written by Raymaker et al (2020).
This paper describes Autistic burnout as:
“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.”Raymaker et al, 2020
The following image from the paper shows how life stressors and barriers to support culminate in the outcome of burnout for Autistic people.
Typically the Autistic person in question will still have multiple demands in their life that require cognitive resources, despite having little to no resources left to give. Life goes on, as they say.
Burnout is widely understood and reported to be misdiagnosed in Autistic people as depression (Raymaker et al, 2020). This isn’t without basis; burnout can look like stereotypical features of depression such as not being able to attend to day-to-day life and losing one’s enthusiasm for things that used to be enjoyable. People experiencing burnout can struggle to get out of bed, although this is not necessarily a defining feature.
We are moving towards a measurement of Autistic burnout, although it is still in it’s very early stages. Papers such as Arnold et al (2023) suggest looking at things like issues with memory, emotional numbness, and difficulty communicating; all of which are usually taken as features of depression. It’s easy to see where the difficulty in differentiating arises.
The key difference in our opinion is that while burnout can lead to depression, it does not start there, and is rarely responsive to typical treatments for depression. Autistic burnout starts with monotropic split (Adkin, 2022) over a sustained period of time. Burnout recovery can take months or even years, and the recommended course of action is usually to remove as many demands as possible, and recharge through interest-led activities.
As Autistic people, we naturally live as demand free as possible. We do this because whether we are aware of it or not, we have to account for the distribution of our cognitive resources.
So, what happens if we can’t stop?
There are many reasons that an Autistic person may not be able to stop and recover; we may not be able to sense our exhaustion (due to interoceptive differences), masking (it may not be safe to practice authentic expression, it may not even be conscious), responsibilities such as child care, work, and home management. We may have co-occurring ADHD.
What we should try and remember is that burnout is not necessarily a set of observable traits that conform to a checklist. It literally is the result of going into an energy deficit on a regular basis.
The use of the word atypical is not to create a neat category for an observable form of burnout. What we are referring to is burnout that might look different to the typical “depressive” understanding. In our experience it is not at all rare or atypical. We come across this time and again.
What atypical burnout can look like is being stuck in a hyper-aroused state, Tanya often affectionately dubs this as “meerkat-mode”, she describes a meerkat-type nervousness, constantly on the look out for danger, unable to focus and self-regulate creating the need for constant co-regulation with another person, and a fear of being left alone. This is sometimes misinterpreted as attachment disorder because of the childs perceived over-attachment to a parent or safe person. We often see this type of response from children and young people in traumatic school environments for extended periods of time.
This is usually accompanied by significant changes in sensory needs, especially interoception. This can result in a loss of sense of self, and reports of voice hearing. Individuals in this state appear to struggle to differentiate between our own thoughts and something external to their own being. This may be related to the high rates of occurrence of psychosis amongst Autistic people (Varcin et al, 2022).
It would be important at this point to mention monotropic spiral. We may internalise beliefs that seem negative and/or delusional in nature. We can seem stuck in a loop that drags us deeper into these internalised notions.
Rituals and routines can become more pronounced and seemingly compulsive, this is usually in an effort to create some attentional resource and ease an overloaded monotropic neurology.
There is a growing under-current in various circles questioning the validity of the diagnosis of Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (formerly known as Borderline Personality Disorder). We know that this is commonly misdiagnosed in Autistic people (Fusar-Poli et al, 2022). We also know that there is a huge amount of sexism involved in the identification of EUPD; women out-number men 3 to 1 in the diagnosis of EUPD (Bjorkland, 2006).
When we reverse that lens, men out-number women 4 to 1 in the formal identification of autism (Rynkiewicz, 2016). Considering the high co-occurence of ADHD and EUPD (Philipsen, 2006) and the well-known co-occurrence of autism and ADHD; is it possible that we might be looking in the wrong direction? Could many of these people be experiencing a protracted, atypical, Autistic burnout?
Or is it just a big coincidence?
Adkin, T. (2022) What is monotropic split? Emergent Divergence
Arnold, S. R., Higgins, J. M., Weise, J., Desai, A., Pellicano, E., & Trollor, J. N. (2023). Towards the measurement of autistic burnout. Autism, 13623613221147401.1
Bjorklund, P. (2006). No man’s land: Gender bias and social constructivism in the diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. Issues in mental health nursing, 27(1), 3-23.
Fusar-Poli, L., Brondino, N., Politi, P., & Aguglia, E. (2022). Missed diagnoses and misdiagnoses of adults with autism spectrum disorder. European archives of psychiatry and clinical neuroscience, 272(2), 187-198.
Philipsen, A. (2006). Differential diagnosis and comorbidity of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD) in adults. European archives of psychiatry and clinical neuroscience, 256, i42-i46.
Raymaker, D. M., Teo, A. R., Steckler, N. A., Lentz, B., Scharer, M., Delos Santos, A., … & Nicolaidis, C. (2020). “Having all of your internal resources exhausted beyond measure and being left with no clean-up crew”: Defining autistic burnout. Autism in adulthood, 2(2), 132-143.
Rynkiewicz, A. (2016). Autism spectrum disorders in females. Sex/gender differences in clinical manifestation and co-existing psychopathology (Doctoral dissertation, PhD Dissertation. Retrieved from Medical University of Gdansk Bibliography Database 2016).
Varcin, K. J., Herniman, S. E., Lin, A., Chen, Y., Perry, Y., Pugh, C., … & Wood, S. J. (2022). Occurrence of psychosis and bipolar disorder in adults with autism: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 134, 104543.
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