Being an autistic parent is hard. When your kids are also neurodivergent, this can make life even more challenging when trying to navigate everyone’s complex, often diametrically opposed needs. When we need space, a lot of the time our children need connection and closeness, and we can become overwhelmed and tapped out. When there are days, weeks, or months of this, we can risk entering into autistic burnout territory.
Autistic burnout is characterized by intense mental, physical, or emotional exhaustion often accompanied by a loss of skills (skill regression). I have experienced burnout many times in my life, but as a late-diagnosed autistic, I did not know that was what it was. When I became a parent, burnout became more frequent due to the intense demands (physical, emotional, mental) placed on me as an autistic parent to an autistic child.
Perhaps this is a cycle you are finding yourself in as well. Due to the demands of parenting in a society that has limited support for neurotypical parents, much less autistic parents, we can find ourselves at the end of our ropes. A lot. So how can we deal with this? It requires two steps. The first is preventing burnout in the first place and when it can’t be prevented (and let’s face it, sometimes it can’t) then we need to learn how to support ourselves in the recovery process.
Preventing Autistic Burnout
In order to prevent autistic burnout, we must design a life that supports our needs as autistic parents. This means that we must incorporate rest into our lives. We need lives that nourish us and fill up our cups, rather than drain us. To design lives that nourish us, we need to learn what actually nourishes us and what drains us. That means learning what works for you and what doesn’t. It is impossible to design a more supportive life for yourself if you do not know what would feel better.
When asking the question of what works for you, it’s important to look at routine/predictability, your sensory experience, activities, self-care, social connection, and over/under stimulation. Notice how each of these experiences impacts you and what your “just right” spot would be with each category. Are you being over or under stimulated? Do you like routine or do you need more novelty? What activities do you enjoy engaging in? What frequency/duration works best for you? What level of socializing works best for you? Do you want more or less social connection right now? Are your sensory needs being met? If not, how could you meet your sensory needs better?
After you have started to engage in self-understanding and self-awareness, it is important to ask for help when needed. None of us are entirely independent – we are interdependent and rely on others to help us in one form or another, and others rely on us. Many of us learned to be hyper-independent from childhood as a way to cope with lives that didn’t meet our needs. It may be hard for us to ask for help or to delegate tasks. I implore you to embrace your interdependence with others. Preventing burnout requires that we learn how to ask others to help us. This will look different for each person but generally requires communication.
Recovering From Autistic Burnout
Many autistic parents lack the necessary support and resources to help them when they are experiencing burnout. Being a parent makes it tricky to just “rest” when little humans are needing you to feed them, clothe them, play with them, regulate them, love them… most of us feel like we can’t actually take a break.
That is why we need to learn ways of recovering from burnout within the context of being 24/7 caregivers to littles. This might mean that we offer more screen time while we are experiencing burnout. It may mean that we rely more on our community and family, if available. It also may mean that we need to make tough decisions about how we can cope and how our choices affect those around us.
It is important to learn how to recognize autistic burnout when it is occurring. Some signs to look out for are: Exhaustion, decreased functioning, sensory sensitivities, social withdrawal, communication difficulties, increased anxiety, increased meltdowns, loss of interest, cognitive fatigue, physical symptoms, and emotional numbness to name a few.
The signs of autistic burnout vary for each individual, but it is important to learn the signs that you are in autistic burnout. The number one thing most burned out autistics need is some form of rest. Our system has been overloaded and burned out and we need to recuperate. For me, this has looked like unlimited iPad time for my kids so that I can physically lay down. It means playing with my kids from a supine position. It means saying no to more playdates and park days. Although I know those things are important for my children’s development, I know that having a recovered parent is more important.
When you have learned how to notice that you are burned out, it is important to support your recovery from burnout. Although rest is the #1 remedy, there are other ways to help yourself recover. It’s important to set clear boundaries to support your recovery and communicate your needs to others. Limiting stimuli and spending time in a relaxing, low-demand environment can be helpful as well. It is also important to reflect on the issues that caused the burnout in the first place and address them via changes in your environment or by organizing your time differently.
When you are burned out, it is important to find what nourishes you mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, etc. What energizes you and fills your cup? Even if you aren’t burned out, it is important to prevent burnout by discovering how to meet your needs. Is it listening to music or walking in nature? This requires some self-inquiry and experimentation. I believe it would be hard to be autistic in this world without getting burned out at some point. It’s important to be gentle with yourself and seek help/support when needed.