Modeling Autistic Burnout Through Resources And Demands

There’s an absolutely terrific commentary in Autism Research by Jane Mantzalas, Amanda L. Richdale, and Cheryl Dissanayake outlining a proposed conceptual model of autistic burnout “to explore how various risk and protective factors may interact” that really gets at the heart of so much of what it can be like to be autistic. To do so, they directly draw upon both a model of occupational burnout and a theory of the conservation of resources.

(While the paper is paywalled, Mantzalas shared a link on Twitter that should get you access to it.)

The paper also introduces me to a social-relational model of disability, which addresses some of my nagging concerns about the ways in which some autistic people overstate or oversell the social model to argue there’s really no impairment, per se, at all. I do think that’s a minority view of the social model, which I think most people look at to be more or less equivalent to the social-relational model, but I do find it useful to have a specific name for what I consider my own perspective on the issue.

The [social-relational model] bridges these perspectives [between the medical and social models], conceptualizing disability as a form of social oppression dependent on the relationship between an individual’s “impairments” and social and environmental influences. While aspects of a person’s condition may restrict their activity, disability is socially imposed.

(It brings to mind an eighteen-year-old piece by Sunny Taylor I’ve mentioned before, in which a distinction is drawn between impairment and disability.)

I’ve talked before about my frustration that in all the newfound interest in burnout and work, little of the discourse around burnout seem to expand the viewport to notice that burnout is more generally a symptom of what I’ve called society’s intrinsic field pushing us to conform and perform. So I do think it’s really important that Mantzalas et al. bring into the autistic burnout discussion two models related to that more traditional, work-centric view of burnout.

The [Job Demands-Resources] is a theory of workplace stress that classifies work attributes as either demands or resources. Job demands require physical or cognitive effort that may lead to physical or psychological costs over time, whereas job resources can offset the costs associated with job demands and are experienced as fulfilling or rewarding. According to the JD-R, exhaustion and burnout can occur if job demands consistently exceed job resources. A core assumption of the JD-R is that resources act as a buffer between demands and exhaustion; however, [Conversation of Resources] theory posits that this relationship is not always straightforward.

Fundamentally, COR theory is a motivation model based on the premise that individuals strive to acquire, pro- tect, and replenish resources. Stress and burnout may occur if an individual’s investment in resources (e.g., time) does not produce expected returns. Resources are objects, conditions, personal qualities, and energies that are intrinsically valued, or which facilitate the acquisition of other valued resources (e.g., education, money, self-esteem). Resource loss can trigger “loss spirals” that lead to further resource losses. For example, depleted energy (resource) may prevent an autistic individual engaging with their special interests (resource) which could, in turn, reduce their mental wellbeing (resource). Additionally, the effort associated with acquiring and maintaining some resources can outweigh their protective, buffering effect.

These two theories of occupational burnout easily are transposed over to how we should be talking about autistic burnout: simply replace any reference to something like “workplace” with the term “life”—something I’ve noted before. It also echoes what I’ve said about 19th-century descriptions of “neurasthenia” also being useful for talking about burnout, in that there too the issues were ones of the complex interplay between resources and demands.

One of the most important things that Mantzalas et al. discuss is that last sentence in the above quoted portion: “[T]he effort associated with acquiring and maintaining some resources can outweigh their protective, buffering effect”. It’s why simplistic advice to burned-out people to just go do something they enjoy isn’t necessarily appropriate. For example, trips to Oregon Zoo long have been part of my own mental health regimen, but such a trip isn’t always some sort of balm for burnout due to the accumulated stressors (demands) of taking public transit across town, the effort of walking around the zoo and being among so many other people, and taking public transit across town again.

Mantzalas et al. spend a good deal of time on these complicated interactions between resources and demands and much of it for me was somewhat revelatory, in that way where you’ve known about something but never quite had the…well, resources to be able to enunciate it.

I’m hoping this paper can be the start not just of bringing more attention to autistic burnout but the start of widening the lens of the burnout discourse more generally. I did send email to Anne Helen Petersen and Jonathan Malesic about it, hoping to spur that sort of movement.