Supporting pupils through Autistic Burnout (Teacher Guide)
Updated: Feb 12
This is written from my lived experience as a parent and teacher, supported by the amazing research of professionals and advocates in this field.
I'm not a therapist or medical professional.
Autistic Burnout is widely talked about in Autistic communities however, it is not yet recognised by the British Medical Journal as a diagnosable condition and it is even less recognised by many teachers and those within education. However, burnout has been acknowledged by The Royal College of Psychiatrists in their College Report (2020 ) which describes burnout as, 'a state of exhaustion, associated with functional and cognitive deterioration and an increase in autism symptomatology, as a consequence of coping with social interaction (including masking) and the sensory environment'. Many parents, teachers and others working with children and young people have still not heard of this term and there has been very little systematic research in this field. This leaves many young people and their families struggling in our school system and it leaves many teachers and schools struggling to know what they can do to provide support for pupils experiencing and going through Autistic Burnout. Autistic Burnout is traumatising and disabling for those experiencing it and also for difficult for people supporting those going through it. If a pupil in your class or school is experiencing Autistic Burnout, they will need an understanding flexible approach, an increase in sensory regulation time and a decrease in demands (family and school).
Ideally we need to change the school environment so children and young people are less likely to reach the point where they experience Autistic Burnout as discussed in my article Education Crisis - Neurodiversity Affirming Teacher Training Needed (autisticrealms.com). However, change will take time and we have children and young people in our education system now, many of whom are unable to attend school and are already missing out on their education due to Autistic Burnout. This article discusses what Autistic Burnout may look like and how teachers and those working in education can support children / young people and their families experiencing this.
Role of teachers and schools
'School staff are not expected to diagnose mental health conditions or perform mental health interventions' (DFE Feb 2023). However, teachers are expected to meet the needs of their pupils so they are able to learn. If a pupil is struggling we need to think about how we can support them & their family within our role as teacher and within the capacity of the school setting. This is highlighted in the quote below from 'Summary of responsibilities where a mental health issue is affecting attendance' (DFE Feb 2023);
'The role of school staff is to ensure that the school is a calm, safe, and supportive environment where all pupils want to be and are keen and ready to learn, which is the foundation of securing good attendance. Generally, schools will achieve this by promoting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing through a whole-school approach to pupil mental health, and by developing a trusted relationship with parents/carers and families that involves them in the conversation about the school’s ethos, and emphasises the importance of supporting mental health and regular attendance'. There is very little research about Autistic Burnout and even less about Autistic Burnout in children and young people. Most recently in an article by Higgins et al (2023), 'Confirming the nature of autistic burnout' they concluded that their adult participants felt; 'autistic burnout leads to exhaustion. They needed to withdraw from being with other people. They needed to stay away from autism unfriendly places. Many had been misdiagnosed as having depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder... or other conditions. We need increased awareness of autistic burnout. Autistic people need more help.'
This research supports my own understanding and personal experience of Autistic Burnout as a parent and teacher. From anecdotal observations and my own research from within the online neurodivergent communities I have found children and young people seem to experience Autistic Burnout in a similar way to adults . I agree with Higgins et al (2023) that 'more research is needed, we need to have bigger studies to understand autistic burnout'. We also need research to specifically find out about Autistic Burnout in children and young people and we need it to be officially recognised by professionals so more appropriate support can be provided. This article summarises the limited research I have found and provides some ideas that may help some children, young people and their families.
It is important that if you have any concerns about the mental health of a child / young person in your school you refer to a mental health professional and discuss concerns with them and their family for further support.
Types of Autistic Burnout Autistic daily burnout - This is caused by the demands of social and sensory input outweighing the individual's capacity to manage and is often seen with children and young people as presenting in the typical 'after school meltdown ' or 'coke bottle' scenario as I described in my article ‘Ideas for Autistic Children who are struggling at School'. This is day to day burnout; it is also referred to as ‘constant low-level burnout' in the AASPIRE Autistic Burnout study by Christian Maslach and Michael Lieter (2007). Intense Autistic Burnout - This is described by Kieran Rose as a 'crash’ where you ‘keep on crashing'. This happens to children as well as adults. If a pupil in your class has got to the point where they are experiencing an "Intense Autistic Burnout", they will find it difficult to continue their usual daily routines including, going to school, extra-curricular and other social activities. In the AASPIRE study this is referred to as an 'intense acute burnout', it can seriously impact mental health.
Definitions of Autistic Burnout
Raymaker describes Autistic Burnout as; “A state of pervasive exhaustion, loss of function, increase in autistic traits, and withdrawal from life that results from continuously expending more resources than one has coping with activities and environments ill-suited to one’s abilities and needs.” In other words, Autistic Burnout is the result of being asked to continuously do more than one is capable of without sufficient means for recovery.”
Endow describes Autistic Burnout as; ‘a state of physical and mental fatigue, heightened stress, and diminished capacity to manage life skills, sensory input, and/or social interactions, which comes from years of being severely overtaxed by the strain of trying to live up to demands that are out of sync with our needs'.
Signs of Autistic Burnout in Children and Young People It is likely that parents / carers will be the first to spot signs that their child or young person may be going through Autistic Burnout. Parents / carers may contact you with concerns or you may notice some signs in school. Possible signs of Autistic Burnout may include:-
Struggling to attend school
Withdrawing from their peers or changes in usual peer groups
More anxious than usual or showing difference in moods
Changes in response to sensory stimuli (hyper or hypo)
Changes to sleep patterns (difficulty sleeping /sleeping more / disturbed sleep)
Changes to diet (more restricted food types, eating more / less)
Differences with communication (speech may be affected or processing of information)
More details of these signs are mentioned in my article 'Parent Ideas for Autistic Children Struggling at School'.
Children's and young people's mental health is complex, and it is important teachers signpost families appropriately to CAMHS and their local family and mental health teams for further support and professional advice.
The AASPIRE Autistic Burnout Study (2006) describes the main features of Autistic Burnout as a loss of skills as defined below:
cognition, executive function, memory, speech/communication, ability to cope, ability to do things once could do
increased sensitivity: to sensory stimulus, to sensory overload, to change, to social stimulus
increased autistic behaviour (e.g., stimming, speech difficulties)
more frequent meltdowns / shutdowns
Endow describes Autistic Burnout as the ‘demands of life exceeding a person’s resources' which can result in the following:
progressively losing the ability to speak
deteriorating executive function
reduced memory capacity
loss of self-care capabilities
loss of social skills
In addition (from my parental and teaching experience), I would add:
reduced ability to tolerate sensory stimuli
feelings of social overwhelm resulting in changes in behaviour and dysregulation (more meltdowns / shutdowns)
more tired / more anxious energy (it could be displayed either way depending on individual)
changes to diet and eating habits, may be more restricted diet to try and keep some feel of 'control' & autonomy & predictability
changes to sleep patterns, disrupted sleep, may be sleeping less as too anxious or alternatively shutting down and just wanting to sleep all the time
different responses to sensory stimuli - hyper or hypo aware of things they may be used to tolerate better
emotional - may be more tearful and clingy, or alternatively angry and frustrated that they can't communicate or understand what is happening, feelings over overwhelm
executive functioning difficulties escalated and brain fog
routines - may try to control their situation which could result in more demanding and controlling behaviour driven by anxiety (especially for those with PDA profile)
Supporting a pupil through Autistic Burnout
It is essential to work collaboratively with parents / carers, the child / young person and multiagency professionals. There is pressure from government and local authorities to increase attendance data, however adding pressure onto families that are experiencing their child going through Autistic Burnout to attend school at all costs is not helpful for anyone. Adding the expectation of 'one more' lesson / day / week' is adding to the pressure pot and could result in a pupil needing even more time off to recover long term and the whole family experiencing burnout as a result of living under such stressful circumstances. This can be likened to adults going through work related burnout, adding more and more pressure and trying to persevere with a high intensity workload whilst juggling family life with out a break or accommodations is only sustainable for so long. A few days off work when you start noticing signs of burnout could help prevent a full burnout where you may need weeks or months off work, it is common sense to try and keep things as balanced as possible.
Ideas for School
If a child or young person is experiencing early signs of Autistic Burnout, ideally they would benefit from some time off to regulate and re-charge. However due to many reasons this may not be an option for the child / young person and their family and they may be in school but really struggling. One way to support pupils is to lower demands and increase regulation time.
The key points to support recovery highlighted from the study by Higgins et al (2023) include, 'withdrawing from social situations and taking downtime....participants most strongly agreed that stress and sensory environmental factors led to burnout onset (e.g. “a build-up of life stressors” or “being overloaded by sensory and social information in my environment”)'. This needs to be considered for children as well as adults. Dr. Luke Beardon has written lots about the importance of the environment for autistic children (and adults) summarised in his golden equation;
autism + environment = outcome
1. Low Arousal Teaching
A low arousal approach is not about 'giving in' it is about prioritising and accommodating needs it is about thinking of alternatives, there is always a plan B, similar principles from low arousal parenting can be applied to teaching:-