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LAVA calls for more attention to autistic burnout

We've all had the feeling that something is dragging. Like, while cycling, you get the impression that the brake pads are rubbing against your back wheel. If that feeling drags on for too long, you might end up at your doctor's, a psychologist’s or psychiatrist's office. They will look for 'what is going on'. This may be something specific - specific events at work or in your private life - or there may be 'underlying factors'. In the latter case, it is important to identify them. Nobody benefits from a quick fix only to experience that lingering feeling later again. After all, such a repeated return to the same type of problem leads to deeper depressions in which despair can incite actions that can be definite.

In this short contribution, we want to make the readers (including hopefully general practitioners, psychiatrists and psychologists) aware of an 'underlying factor', which in our opinion is too often overlooked: autism. We would like to do this through recent scientific research that we discussed together with Professor Ilse Noens, in LAVA vzw, the Reading and Advisory Group of Adults with Autism, a group of adults with autism and an academic education. The article discussed was about the phenomenon of autistic burnout [1]. The latter manifests itself later in life, after what seemed to be a problem-free life with successes both relationally, professionally and educationally.

The researchers argue that there are very specific differences between autistic burnout and burnout related to traditional overload from work or personal circumstances. For example, in the case of autistic burnout, there is the recurring feeling 'that something is dragging', and that feeling is more likely to be linked to an ongoing burden of dealing with expectations that are trivial for most. Whether it is behaving 'normally' in social settings or, across the various domains of life together, being able to 'keep up' with the confusing and ever-subtly changing demands of what is meant by 'the good life', all contribute to the chronic stress of 'holding up' against one's own nature. Although this different kind of trigger results in symptoms that overlap with classic burnout, there are - this research indicates - yet also symptomatically crucial differences such as greater sensitivity to stimuli and a general sense of regression in skills after 'pretending to be different than one really is'.

We do not mean to state that every burnout is an autistic burnout. It is merely the specifics that this study brings up which are very recognizable to LAVA members. Members who are convinced from their own life experience that if the factor autism would have been introduced earlier in their lives, a lot of suffering could have been avoided for both the person involved and his/her environment. It would also have led us to a different approach of our lives that allows us to link our productivity to lasting happiness in life (because there is nothing inherently 'wrong' about autism as our partners, friends and colleagues will confirm and demonstrate our strengths and achievements). We want to raise awareness so that this factor can be put forward more quickly as a possible explanation for autism. After all, if autism is indeed the reason for the recurring 'dragging' feeling, then it is our experience that recognizing autism in itself is the most powerful medicine to be able to move on again, thus to avoid autistic burn-out, with all its negative consequences.

At LAVA vzw, we know that we are just one of the voices of the autistic community. But, it is a voice that is important in critically adjusting the image of autism in the public perception and opinion. After all, autism is not just a phenomenon limited to children and manifested only in specific parenting problems. By critically reviewing autism research, we can break down such stereotypical images and this is important for the entire autistic community. After all, it shows that autism is compatible with very different life courses and personality styles and therefore, there is no reason to limit anyone with autism to a very limited number of possible achievements.

We hope that this short message can lead to a broader knowledge around this phenomenon, so that those who come after us can count on psychologists, psychiatrists and general practitioners to spontaneously consider an autism diagnosis (without risk of stigma). This would prevent a lot of needless medication, misdiagnosis, counterproductive relativism and - above all - suffering. Of the latter, we are certain.

[1] RAYMAKER, D. et al. "Having All of Your Internal Resources Exhausted Beyond Measure and Being Left with No Clean-Up Crew": Defining Autistic Burnout. Autism in Adulthood, volume 2, number 2, 2020, as discussed in the May 26, 2020 LAVA meeting.

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