Another phenomenon that can co-occur with burnout is "autistic regression." Unlike burnout, regression is widely known among nonautistic parents and professionals. When an adult or child reverts to an earlier stage of development, parents and professional freak out because they fear that their child or client is losing skills and won't ever gain it back. They don't understand that what they see as "regression" is part of the "peaks" and "valleys" that characterize life. Regression is a term that is wrongly applied in certain situations and is a pathological term to describes the "lows" that autistic people go through.
I never knew that some of the challenges or limitations that I experienced throughout my adolescence as well as my young adult years could be the result of autistic burnout. Until I knew these terms, I thought what I was going through was due to laziness or that I "was creating this in my head." It wasn't until I started following various autism related pages on facebook and starting a twitter page that a lot of my fellow autistic peers were going through similar experiences. There are days where the expectations of everyday life were just too much for me. Camouflaging myself just to get by in a society that was not built for me zaps my energy to the point that it barely leaves enough energy to do other things (e.g socializing, cleaning the house). Whenever there is a layer upon layer of difficult situations (e.g. tests, exams) that demand a lot of coping skills, I can get easily irritated which can also lead me to get upset or it can lead to what we label as having a meltdown. Sometimes, this can lead me to "lash out" aggressively without meaning to. This is when self management just fails me and no behavioral therapy can entirely eliminate meltdowns due to burnout.
Transitions can also excacerbate burnout and can precede "regression." I've experienced this with the numerous transitions I have went through during my young life. However, I've felt the effects of regression the hardest when I left the structured nature of special education services in high school and transitioned to college. Since I had a lot of unstructured time, my anxiety was at an all time high and I felt depressed since I missed the high school so much. For awhile, I felt sad and isolated and did not want to socialize that much. In my third year of college, I was experiencing a high level of anxiety about my upcoming transition to a four year university/dorm living. In dealing with this transition, I rediscovered my interests in Hello Kitty, Disney Princess and other kitschy characters that are related to childhood innocence. This may look like regression because I am reverting back to a childlike state or "old childhood interests. In reality, this is how I cope with change because it is the one thing I can hang on to.
If you or your loved one is experiencing burnout or having regression due to transitions, it is important to not freak out. Instead try to be supportive of an autistic adult or child experiencing burnout and come up with an action plan together in trying reduce the amount of negative stress and anxiety burnout brings. As for regression, a lot of times (especially true for teens and adults) it is related to something that is going on in the autistic person's life (e.g. moving to a new place). Please understand that just like other humans, autistic people go through "dark periods" as well and it does not mean they have lost skills and will never gain it back. If you or your loved one is in the midst of regression, just let it run its natural course and have the confidence that it will all work well in the end. Regression is not necessarily a bad thing and we need to stop attaching negative stigma to it.
We need to bring more awareness and recognition of the signs of autistic burnout in the mental health fields so professionals can effectively help the autistic population.