The unique experience of neurodivergent burnout  

“Burnout isn’t’ merely about overworking, it’s about over-adapting”. 

For many years, research has focused purely on the neurotypical experience of burnout, which is often caused by over-working coupled with not having enough time off. This experience is typically remedied by taking a few weeks off, with the opportunity to catch-up and rest.   

Less research exists in relation to the very unique experience of neurodivergent burnout.  

What is neurodivergent burnout?  

Previously known exclusively as ‘autistic burnout syndrome’, the experience of neurodivergent burnout is often the result of chronic stress combined with expectations, such as work commitments, and a lack adequate support (Raymaker, 2022). In an article by Sarah Deweerdt (Spectrum News, 2020), such experience is also equated as the consequence of camouflaging or masking, a coping strategy utilised by neurodivergent people. Read more about masking here

Chronic stress + expectation + masking – adjustments or support = neurodivergent burnout 

What does neurodivergent burnout look like?  

In many ways, the characteristics of neurodivergent burnout can appear similar to neurotypical burnout. For example:  

  • Chronic exhaustion and extreme lethargy.  
  • Inability to ask for help.  
  • Changes in mood, such as increased low mood or anxiety.  
  • In extreme cases, physical illness.  

However, there are well-documented (albeit often anecdotal) experiences that appear to be unique to neurodivergent people in burnout. These include:  

  • A reduced tolerance to sensory stimuli. 
  • Executive function overload, for example, increased challenges with memory.  
  • Loss of skills.  
  • Social withdrawal.  
  • Temporary loss of speech or communication skills.  
  • Difficulties with daily living activities, such as basic hygiene.  
  • Inability to mask / camouflage.  

What effect does autistic burnout have?  

Recent studies (such as Tawfik et al., 2023) have shown that the stress of burnout can overwhelm cognitive function and the neuro-endocrine system, which leads to physical changes in the anatomy and functioning of the brain.  

Stress and anxiety lead to an increase in cortisol and adrenaline (the main hormones in the endocrine system), and their long-term or chronic existence in the body can cause dysregulation, and ultimately alter neural pathways.  

The unique experience of neurodivergent burnout is the chronic existence of these hormones, which means that, unlike neurotypical burnout (where these hormones can typically be reset within a few days or weeks), it can take months or even years for neurodivergent people to recover from. 

How to support someone experiencing neurodivergent burnout?  

At present, there is limited research that provides an evidence-based way of treating neurodivergent burnout, specifically.  

Many support organisations, such as the National Autistic Society and ADDitude Magazine, have provided suggestions based on the experiences of their service-users. For example:  

  • Utilising energy accounting systems or Spoon Theory, to manage energy levels whilst experiencing burnout.  
  • Set boundaries to ensure there is enough time to process.  
  • If possible, take time off and ensure that this is spent engaging in relaxation activities. This type of ‘rest’ may look different to traditional forms of relaxation and may involve engaging with specialist interests.   
  • Taking opportunities to learn about unhealthy and healthy masking.  
  • Focus on improving basic needs. For many experiencing burnout, basic needs, such as eating, sleeping, and hydrating can be overlooked. Using reminders, calming techniques, and sleep aids can assist with resetting the neuro-endocrine system.  
  • Seek professional neurodiversity-specific support.  

Click the link to find out more about the services and support Creased Puddle offer – Services – Creased Puddle