ADHD and autistic burnout

I wonder if you’ve ever enjoyed the delights of a campfire? Sitting around with family or friends, leisurely toasting marshmallows and enjoying the flickering flames and the comforting warmth of the fire? For many people, it’s a lovely experience! But it's not quite the same if the wind is howling and you’re having to fight hard to keep the fire burning.


Battling to add logs to the fire as they combust quickly is hard work! As is trying to construct make-do windbreaks to try and reduce the impact of the wind combusting the logs quite so quickly. All of this tends to get in the way of a relaxing campfire evening, leaving you – and the campfire – burnt out.  

The neurodivergent experience of burnout 

This image of a campfire in windy conditions can be a helpful metaphor for the type of burnout and overwhelm neurodivergent (ND) people can experience. Being ND in a neurotypical (NT) world can be hard work. The world and its social spaces are so often set up by and for NT people, with NT expectations. Many ND people know all too well the impact that masking, camouflaging, and trying to adapt and fit in has on them. It can begin to feel like trying desperately to keep a fire going in windy conditions – working much harder than you’d need to in more favourable conditions. The result? Your energy is depleted, enthusiasm is spent, you begin to feel helpless and you have nothing left to give. You’re burnt out.  

Some environments offer flexibility and adjustments that allow ND people to thrive.  In recent years, there’s been a steady growth in entertainment venues and shopping centres offering 'quiet times' and less sensory-stimulating options for customers. Thankfully many workplaces are recognising the benefits of offering employees flexitime and autonomy over when and how people take breaks from tasks. Schools are less likely to insist that children 'sit still' and 'don’t fidget' and colleges and universities now offer flexible options around different ways learners can demonstrate their understanding.  

These types of environments reduce the risk of ND burnout. Sadly, there are still plenty of environments that don’t offer this. Workplaces, educational establishments, and social settings where there’s a 'one size fits all' expectation. Like the campfire in windy conditions, a ND person can find energy levels are quickly depleted and combusted. The pressure to try to fit in, adapt and deal with NT expectations is draining.  

And, what happens at a campfire when there are windy conditions? Most people are likely to comment something along the lines of 'It’s not great weather for a campfire'. They’re unlikely to blame the fire itself. Yet, that is what ND people face when they navigate a NT environment. Rather than seeing the environment as offering poor conditions, comments along the lines of 'Well, you just need to be a bit more flexible', “Everyone struggles with this, you just need to get on with it' or 'It’s not so hard if you just put your mind to it' unfairly place the blame for any struggle or challenge at the feet of ND folk. Such comments are ableist and serve to minimise, dismiss and gaslight ND folk. That makes about as much sense as blaming the fire for the wind!  

Signs and symptoms of burnout 

There’s been plenty of interest in occupational and work-related burnout for a number of decades. Common signs and symptoms of this form of work-related occupational burnout include:

  • tiredness
  • aches and pain and muscle tension
  • feeling hopeless and helpless
  • experiencing a negative and cynical outlook
  • self-doubt and reduced self-esteem

But it’s only in more recent years that ND burnout is being recognised as a distinctive form of burnout and there’s not a great deal of research yet. The phrases 'neurodivergent burnout', 'ADHD burnout' and 'autistic burnout' are becoming recognised through the voices of neurodivergent people sharing their own personal experiences via social media. That’s slowly leading to research interest. A recent study into autistic people’s experience of burnout – creatively entitled, 'Having all of your internal resources exhausted beyond measure and being left with no clean-up crew' - identified characteristics of autistic burnout as including:

  • chronic exhaustion
  • loss of skills
  • reduced tolerance to stimulus

This same study helped to identify some of the causes and risk factors associated with autistic burnout. These included:

  • feeling a pressure to mask and fit in
  • lack of empathy from NT people
  • barriers in accessing support

And – importantly – this research described things that can support autistic people to recover from burnout. These included:

  • acceptance
  • social support
  • reduced expectations
  • being supported to unmask

How can counselling help? 

The importance of recognising the impact the environment can have is one of the ways that counsellors and psychotherapists can support ND people. Counselling shouldn’t be a place where ND feel the need to mask and burn through energy levels. Counselling offers a place to be yourself – and to receive empathic acceptance of your experience. Many counsellors work in neuro-affirming ways looking to avoid any unnecessary strain or demands, working with flexibility and inclusivity and looking to affirm your strengths and well as meet you in your challenges and frustrations.    

In this way, neuro-affirming counselling aims to offer the ideal environment – no harsh wind or stormy gales to contend with. A neuro-affirming counsellor certainly won’t be looking to blame the fire for the wind! Rather, neuro-affirming counselling aims to be a place and a space for your own 'inner fire' to burn gently and steadily – and a place for you to feel the warmth and comfort of the person you are when you are given acceptance, support, and the freedom to unmask.  


  • Raymaker et al. (2020) "Having All of Your Internal Resources Exhausted Beyond Measure and Being Left with No Clean-Up Crew": Defining Autistic Burnout. Autism Adulthood. Jun 1. 2(2):132-143.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Preston, PR4
Written by Claire Law, PG-Dip, MBACP (Accredited)
Preston, PR4

Claire is an Integrative Psychotherapist based in Preston, Lancashire, specializing in counselling people experiencing burnout, including neurodivergent burnout.

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