Autistic Burnout: An Often-Misunderstood Element of Autism

During an autistic person’s life, there may be times when they seem to lose skills or show more obvious signs of autism. For example, a toddler who had a vocabulary of a dozen words may stop talking altogether. A social teenager may find it harder to make appropriate eye contact or take turns in conversation, despite having learned these skills as a child.

This phenomenon is called autistic burnout (or autistic regression, depending on the source). Autistic burnout can be very distressing for the autistic individual and their family, especially if they don’t know what is happening. However, it is important to note that autistic burnout is not necessarily an omen of permanent regression or skill loss. Recovery is possible.

What Is Autistic Burnout?

Autistic burnout can happen at any age, but it usually occurs at major transition points in life, such as toddler-hood, puberty, or young adulthood. Any period in which a person experiences lots of changes or stress can prompt an episode of burnout.

Very young children with burnout often lose language skills. Some children may forget a chunk of their vocabulary but still retain a few words. Others may stop making sound entirely and resort to physical gestures to communicate. Autistic children may also quit early social behaviours such as responding to their own name or looking at caregivers’ faces.

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