Professional burnout is all too familiar: Go at something too hard for too long, and the motivational tank empties. But burnout for an autistic person isn’t always about overwork, Dora Raymaker, an autistic systems scientist at Portland State University (PSU), found in a study of autistic workers. Instead, the need to mask autistic behaviors through a workday with nonautistic people can cause chronic exhaustion, reduced ability to tolerate stimuli like light or sound, and loss of skills, the study showed through interviews and a survey of social media comments.
The work, which Raymaker’s team published last month, highlights a new trend in autism research. Raymaker and colleagues are part of a small but growing number of research teams with autistic members. These groups are shifting the focus in autism research from cause and cure to practical steps, including ones that help autistic people in settings such as the workplace. And they’re publishing some of their findings in a new journal, Autism in Adulthood, which is dedicated to including the perspectives of autistic people in what it publishes.
Interest in those perspectives is “skyrocketing,” says Christina Nicolaidis, a co-author on the burnout study. Nicolaidis, a professor in the School of Social Work at PSU, has an adult son who is autistic. Although much research on autism has focused on children, autistic adults who came of age in the 1990s and early 2000s are joining the field and bringing a focus on their own experience. One member of that cohort is TC Waisman, a doctoral candidate at the University of Calgary studying how faculty and staff can improve autistic students’ college experiences. Waisman says she sees researchers increasingly “respecting us as our own self-determined culture and foregrounding our needs in studies.”