'Why' and 'How' - Coping and management strategies


UNDERSTANDING THE "WHY" AND "HOW" OF AUTISTIC BURNOUT 

We investigate the "why" behind autistic burnout in the workplace and practical strategies on "how" to tackle autistic burnout. 

This section is divided into two parts: 

  1. Coping and management strategies for employees
  2. Accommodations made by employers to avoid autistic burnout

PART 1: COPING AND MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES


1. Transparency and Interaction
Being transparent about being autistic is crucial to recovering from burnout. Seek psychological help with any mental health issues that arise. 

Being honest and open about your diagnosis of autism can foster understanding and connection with others like you experiencing autistic burnout. It may also create psychological safety in the workplace. 

It's also good to interact with other people as a way of managing autistic burnout. Having conversations with friends, relatives and others who provide the right ‘energy’ can boost your sense of wellbeing.

2. Acknowledgment & Acceptance
Autistic burnout management is two-sided - dealing with incidence (cure) and mechanisms to avoid it (prevention).If undergoing autistic burnout, a common first rule is to remove yourself from the situation (such as for a room, building and discussion). 

Another approach is to put on headphones and listen to music or podcasts. You can vulnerable without fear of judgement or feelings of embarrassment, as well as being mindful of others in the physical setting. 

 Accept and acknowledge the occurrence of autistic burnout. Take as long a break as necessary, depending on how long the autistic burnout is present.

3. Energy Management
Do the tasks or activities that align with your mindset at the time. For example, focus on doing ‘deep work’ when mental capacity exists to think most thoroughly and meticulously. Attempt to tick off simple ‘checklist’ items to remove items from the top of mind.

Managing energy may sometimes require minimising contact to those closest/most essential. This could mean eschewing social media platforms (such as deactivating accounts). 

It could also mean reducing exposure to emails, even to the extent of setting up an automated ‘out of office’ message for those who seek to make contact, including where professional opportunity is concerned.

4. Mindset
For some, it is good to philosophise that neither the best things are as good as they seem, nor the worst things as bad. Such a mindset can help maintain a ‘level’ state and maintain a sense of perspective during the situation.

5. Pursuit of Outlets 
Try exercise such as going for a solo walk, walking a dog, or going for a run. They can be transformative self-care strategies, particularly so for those whose autistic burnout has manifested in an emotional or mental form more so than in a physical form. It can be seen as an energy release as well as a way to alleviate life stress.

Finally, consider immersing yourself in creative, even artistic, endeavours. One example is reflective writing, while another is poetry. Such a process can be highly beneficial and therapeutic though, free of excessive external stimulus and underpinned by a sense of control. Ultimately, this is best and most effective when embraced as an organic, unstructured endeavour.

6. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Research suggests that CBT or behavioural strategies to help recover from autistic burnout might actually be detrimental, not helpful for autistic people. Always seek professional advice for your particular situation, as CBT can be helpful for many autistic people. But if you fall in the category of not finding CBT helpful for your situation, you can consider other strategies above.

A FIVE POINT SUMMARY FOR AUTISTIC BURNOUT RECOVERY


  1. Withdrawal from social and / or interpersonal contact and externally-imposed demands, potentially requiring convalescence during an in-patient admission.

  2. Time spent on personal interests

  3. Time spent re-regulating (e.g. stimming)

  4. Time spent reintegrating with self and external world via gradual passive to active engagement in activities e.g. moving from listening to music to playing music; from watching video gaming to playing video games

  5. A gradual return to daily routines, activities and responsibilities.


PART 2: ACCOMMODATIONS 

Workplace accommodations can transform the working experiences of autistic employees. 

Here are some examples of accommodations to help autistic employees thrive at work and avoid autistic burnout.

  • Acceptance and social support 
  • Individual and peer support
  • Access to coaches and mentors
  • Enabling autistic people to be themselves - play to strengths and talents, focus on areas of passion and special interest
  • Permission for autistic people to unmask
  • Encouragement to request formal accommodations
  • Reducing overall load to nullify emotional burnout -  time off/workload reduction to recharge, work-from-home arrangements, withdrawing from social activities, calendar control.
  • Encouraging self-advocacy - setting boundaries, asking for help, building healthy habits
  • Building self-knowledge - recognising early signs of burnout, understanding patterns and making strategic decisions

ENVIRONMENTAL ACCOMMODATIONS

Environmental accommodations concern how an employee can undertake their work. These fundamentally may take shape in two forms - physical environment and flexibility.

The common thread between these is the offer of opportunities to work-from-home (WFH), which lends itself to several benefits in autistic burnout management, chief among which is a reduction in incidences of masking. However, benefits to environmental accommodations are not limited to this.

STRUCTURAL FLEXIBILITY


Weekly Structure
Flexibility in which days of a week autistic employees can work from home or on-site, if need be, allowing for both them and their employer to manage burnout with agility, whenever it may arise.

Daily Structure - Breaks
Break time flexibility accounts for spacing, frequency and duration of breaks across each workday. Provided they remain able to work their required weekly hours, this enables autistic employees to take more, shorter, breaks if they must, as opposed to the traditional longer, but singular break, as a preventative measure for burnout.

Daily Structure - Hours
For some autistic employees, providing the opportunity for them to extend their workday ‘window’ beyond the kinds of hours that would typically be considered standard - e.g. 9am-5pm. This serves autistic employees in two ways. It better accommodates flexibility in daily breaks previously mentioned above, while also enabling them to maximise their potential output at work and simultaneously minimise the likelihood of burnout.

Energy management
Managing energy is a key strategy for employees subject to autistic burnout. Where structural flexibility in work arrangements is concerned, this could extend to meetings, where ‘walking meetings’ can take place as an alternative to sitting in meeting rooms. Further to this, if/where meetings involve ‘remote’ participation, permission for the employee to ‘walk and talk’ via phone can improve their energy management while they work.

PHYSICAL ACCOMMODATIONS  (STIMULUS MANAGEMENT)

When an autistic employee needs to work on location to perform their work, sensory overload can propel burnout, due to excess exposure to stimulus.

The following accommodations are suitable where this is likely:

Devices
Sensory accommodations may be requested by an autistic employee, in order for them to be able to perform work. Making provisions for these can prevent the employee from succumbing to an overload of sensory stimulus. Such accommodations typically include such noise-cancelling headphones, along with more workplace-specific measures like comfortable lighting (i.e., non-fluorescent) and avoidance of strong scents/fragrances.

Quiet workspace
A quiet room (or space - for example, a permanent/fixed desk space as opposed to a hot-desk) may be requested by autistic employees, especially for activities such as taking phone or video calls. Making such an allocation serves to reduce stress on autistic employees who may otherwise become quickly overwhelmed.

Quiet breaks
Along with quiet spaces, provisions for ‘quiet’ breaks (for example, a ‘walk break’) during a period of unforeseen excess noise also reduces autistic burnout potential for an autistic employee.

WORKFLOW MANAGEMENT ACOMMODATIONS


Clarity in communication
Communicating key organisational goals (e,g., daily, weekly, monthly) and timelines to autistic employees is a valuable preventative measure regarding autistic burnout. This helps the employee better plan and manage their workload to optimise finite personal resources and avoid exhaustion. 

A constructive approach is likely to involve:

  • Where preferred by an employee, visual communication (e.g, through a flowchart) should be made an option

  • Specific, clearly and concisely presented instructions, with well-segmented information and examples for context where applicable

  • Two-way communication, with space for additional questions that entrench clarity. Regular check-ins that help avoid potential panic and a sense the autistic employee must internalise concerns that can become overwhelming.

Deadline management
Where an autistic employee is negotiating the challenge of a difficult deadline, accommodations to manage this demand may be necessary due to autistic burnout. 

These include: 

  • Opportunity to work uninterrupted for a period of time (i.e., free of other administrative/incidental work)

  • An increase in flexibility of hours, including the opportunity to complete work at home

  • Offers of extended deadlines if required, especially where changes are made to tasks / projects that require the employee to pivot

  • Minimisation of competing deadlines

Psychological Safety
A culture that embraces and encourages transparency is essential for both maximising the potential of autistic employees, and retaining them. They need to know they can feel comfortable flagging any potential for (and instances of) autistic burnout with managers, and ensuing delays due to stressors they face.

COLLABORATION ACCOMMODATIONS


Providing autistic employees with multiple options for participation in team meetings is essential to maximising their capacity to meaningfully contribute, while significantly reducing the potential for autistic burnout.

Meeting Format
While the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a shift towards more remote-based discussions, the following opportunities should be made available:

  • Contributions via video tools, though with the option to have the screen turned off, enabling the employee to contribute via audio without expending additional energy ‘facing’ others.

  • If essential, provide an autistic employee the opportunity to strictly contribute via a chat function, particularly where they strongly gravitate to written communication and/or find verbal interaction a challenge.

  • Space is made for clarifying (i.e., paraphrasing) questions posed and/or solutions suggested, as well as emphasising key points raised, to minimise possibility of confusion when attempting subsequent tasks.

  • Allocation of meeting breaks, providing autistic employees an opportunity to destress where they have been overwhelmed from engaging in a discussion.


Strengths-focus
Another measure an organisation can take regarding collaboration involving autistic team members is to adopt a strengths-focus. Critically, this enables the employee to be true to themselves as much as possible, thus vastly reducing incidence of autistic burnout

  • Have rules in place for both team meetings and the pursuit of objectives, that strengths of team members across the board are optimised.

  • For team-based initiatives, seek to establish routines that are relatively consistent - as much as possible - so that autistic employees don’t find work processes too jarring to such an extent they lose capacity to perform or function.

  • Where this exists, capitalise on an autistic employee’s strong, particular interest. The strategic advantage and organisational benefit is two-fold - it enables the employee to thrive in their element, reducing the probability of autistic burnout, while also increasing the likelihood of employee retention.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Higgins et al, ‘Defining autistic burnout through experts by lived experience: Grounded Delphi method investigating’  #AutBurnout (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/13623613211019858)

Raymaker et al, 'Having All of Your Internal Resources Exhausted Beyond Measure and Being Left with No Clean-Up Crew”: Defining Autistic Burnout' (https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/aut.2019.0079#:~:text=“Autistic%20burnout”%20is%20often%20used,in%20every%20area%20of%20life.&text=Informally%2C%20autistic%20adults%20describe%20how,pushed%20them%20to%20suicidal%20behavior)