Autistic Burnout: What it is & Why it Matters to our Occupational Therapy Practices

I am in the midsts of creating my next workshop called BEST Strategies for Self-Care, Productivity and Leisure Using a Strengths-based and Neurodiversity-friendly Approach & currently working on the BEST Strategies for Work module. For a list of all of my workshops scheduled for 2022, please go here: This BEST Strategies for Work section involved spending time speaking with autistic self-advocates & researchers to gain a better understanding as to what the barriers are when it comes to function & participation within an employment context.

Interestingly, the concepts of Burnout, Inertia, Meltdowns and Shutdowns (BIMS) kept on coming up. Dr. Christie Welch at the University of Toronto for example, is currently completing a study on the lived experience of autistic adults at work & emphasized how important it is for occupational therapists (& everybody else who supports autistic people) to understand & consider how these unusual embodied experiences impact all aspects of an autistic person’s ability to function and participate in meaningful occupations across the lifespan. You can learn about autistic burnout from autistic children and youth by reading her research team’s excellent (& newly published) research article on this subject entitled: What I Wish you Knew: Insights on Burnout Inertia, Meltdown, and Shutdown from Autistic Youth.

Since these are pretty new concepts for everybody (including myself!), I thought I would provide a bit of an introduction to each of these in my next few posts & today we start with autistic burnout.

What is autistic burnout?

Autistic burnout is an expression used by autistic people to describe an experience of chronic, long-term physical exhaustion, loss of function & reduced tolerance to (particularly sensory) stimulus. What strikes me the most is this experience of pervasive physical exhaustion that gets in the way of completing daily tasks including what needs to be done for self- care, school and work. As stated by an autistic youth, burnout “feels like my blanket weighs 500 pounds and it’s weighing me down” (as quoted in the above mentioned study).

I encourage you to learn more about autistic burnout by watching AIDE Canada’s video on autistic burnout. You can also check out their Understanding Autistic Burnout Toolkit written by Autistic Self-Advocate, Sylvere Moulanier.

What does autistic burnout mean to our work as occupational therapists? 

So much! First, that we in the health care professions have A LOT to learn about autism still. Thankfully, our understanding of autism continues to evolve as the research community has (finally!) taken an interest in the lived experience of autistic people which results in our collective learning (& unlearning) from autistic wisdom. Second, that we need to do away with the idea that all behaviours that we see are willful reactions to demands that stem from challenges with motivation, etc. Nope, there are real chronic physical, motor & sensory processing challenges that get in the way of daily function & we as occupational therapy practitioners need to advocate for our clients to increase their (& other people’s) understanding of these differences & how they affect function and participation.

What strategies can occupational therapists recommend to help support our clients experiencing autistic burnout?  

So many! Here are a few: learn to recognize autistic burnout in our clients, support the development of our clients’ (& their families’) journey of self-awareness, incorporate principles of pacing (a throwback to OT school anyone?) into our recommendations, co-create effective sensory diets & perhaps (& most importantly) when we see behaviour, let’s always adopt a compassionate lens & a stance of curiousity first, as what we may be seeing may not be at all within the person’s control.

Until next time,
Moira

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