I continue to learn about autism and I found a new concept, autistic burnout. The term is not an official diagnosis but adults on the spectrum have reported on it. It occurs when an autistic person is spending their time and energy trying to appear normal without any break or rest. Due to the stress of maintaining normalcy, the body and mind wear out and the person suffers from burnout. When this occurs, the person loses skills for social situations, and suffers from fatigue, depression, insomnia, increased illness, and anxiety. The current theory is the combination of exhaustion and adrenal fatigue eventually leads to burn out.*
Photo by J.T. Harpster
When I read of this concept, I could also see this happening to an entire family, not just an individual. Families often keep up a facade of normal behavior and try to hide the autistic behaviors of their children from the world. Based on my experience with my son, I was often on alert when he was younger in order to prevent meltdowns or poor behavior. In the meantime, my son was dealing with his stress and inability to communicate. My intent was to appear as a normal family or to leave if we had behavior that was inappropriate. Now I can see that my son and I we were in a constant mode of fight or flight as we interacted with the world.
I have found that a person can function with high levels of stress for a long period but eventually something will give. I have paid the price of depression, anxiety and fatigue when I have not rested enough. Our family has also paid the price. At the end of my son’s teen years, there was a lot of tension and exhaustion after many years of trying to behave like a normal family. When he turned 17, we gave up on appearing normal and reset our expectations for our son and our family. I again had a reset on expectation with my son in his mid-twenties after I was pushing him to be ‘normal’ by with school studies and minimized stimming around our house.
I wanted to share this idea with other families in case others are experiencing a high level of stress. Learn from my mistakes, it’s okay to take a break, and sometimes it’s a good idea to just stop, take a deep breath and reset some of the priorities in your life. Not every moment has to be a teachable moment, and even normal children have bad days that make parenting difficult. I try to remember, don’t sweat the small stuff and in the end, most of life is small stuff when I look back at it.
Photo by J.T. Harpster
*Additional resources for more information on autistic burnout, when it occurs and ways to deal with the loss of functionality.
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