Things seemed to be going so well for a while. Your child’s meltdowns and tantrums were beginning to wane in frequency. They were slowly gaining more and more independence in terms of daily tasks. Some of the more challenging behaviors began to wane. Communication and social skills improved.
And then your child starts backsliding. It seems like they are getting “more autistic,” are starting to regress in some way, or are losing their coping skills.
Parents and loved ones who witness this may be concerned: What on earth happened? Did the autism get worse somehow?
Rest assured; the answer is “no, probably not.” It may very well be that your child is experiencing something called autistic burnout.
While autistic burnout isn’t a technical term, it describes something that many people on the spectrum have reportedly experienced.
To understand why it happens, you need to know that it takes a significant amount of energy and effort for those on the spectrum to simply exist and function “normally.” Being autistic in a neurotypical world can be overwhelming enough, but if you’re also trying to “pass” as neurotypical, it can require even more energy, as it’s not natural.
As is the case with anyone, however, long-term energy reserves are limited. Due to stressful events, life changes, or simply trying to “pass” as neurotypical for too long, eventually people on the spectrum can get worn out and develop burnout—a state where they can’t keep going anymore.
Adobe Stock/andrys lukowski
So really, it’s not that the autism is getting “worse.” The autism was always there, but now the person who has it no longer has the energy to use coping skills or life skills to keep the challenges in check.
Many people with autism report that they experience burnout during periods of change or high stress; it’s commonly reported to occur during puberty, early adulthood, or even middle age (burnout is actually one thing that has been known to impel undiagnosed adults on the spectrum to seek out a diagnosis).
Methods of dealing with burnout include increasing sensory regulation, getting help, slowing down, and saying “no” as needed. Many adults on the spectrum also insist this is one reason why normalization should not be a prized goal for individuals on the spectrum; it can eventually lead to exhaustion and burnout.
To learn more about autistic burnout from the perspective of an autistic person, check out the video below!