What Causes Regression in Autistic Individuals?

by | Mar 19, 2021 | Autism Behaviors, Parenting

As a parent guide, it can feel discouraging when your autistic child appears to have regressed.

Your child’s switch to prior behaviors may lead you to question, “My child is regressing and exhibiting behaviors that I thought we had moved past. Why?” 

The cause of your child’s return to past behaviors or developmental progress that appears to have taken a step backward may be symptoms of a common state of mental and physical exhaustion that is called autistic burnout, or autistic regression. 

What Causes Autistic Burnout?

Overwhelming and intense physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, accompanied by stress and the loss of acquired developments, describes autistic burnout. 

Your child may be unaware that their challenges in life exceed their learned, developed, and available resources, but as autistic burnout transpires, the loss of energy makes it difficult, and sometimes impossible (in the moment), to manage their world as they once did. The body and the brain basically take a break from navigating the wheel of life. As the brain recovers, your child’s skills and abilities may lessen or disappear until adaptation is processed.

Autistic burnout can occur at any point in your child’s life, but it commonly presents during times of transition, such as toddlerhood, adolescence, or young adulthood. At these pivoting stages in life, children experience many changes which may promote stress and can lead to an episode of burnout. 

Disruptions in your child’s progress due to autistic burnout are often temporary. Every child is different, but this interruption in development does not mean that they have lost what they have learned forever. An autistic child’s abilities can return, with some slower than others, and to a much lesser degree, some abilities may not return to the level achieved before burnout. 

Research is ongoing, so there are no scientific explanations for autistic burnout. One prevailing theory is that autistic people have high levels of neuroplasticity, which enables new connections between nerve cells in the brain. This may contribute to some higher-level problem-solving skills in autistic people, but it may also contribute to the brain shifting away from specific competencies as it is in the process of developing new abilities and solutions to problems. 

Autistic burnout is not a conscious behavior. 

Look at autistic burnout as a train, with the brain being an engine pulling cars loaded with different abilities. When the train needs to shift to a new ability, it might disconnect and park several of the train cars while pulling and developing the new car. Once the mission is completed, the engine will return and hook back up to the disengaged cars. 

How to Help My Child Recover from Autistic Burnout

The basic starting point in helping your child recover from autistic regression involves recognizing the markers that can indicate signs of a struggle and eventual disconnection due to burnout. 

Autistic burnout can manifest in different ways, sometimes with subtle signs that appear before catching your attention. Your child may stop responding to their own name, or they may stop making eye contact or looking at your face. You might not notice a pattern in these changes of behavior until a consistent amount of time has passed. 

Other signs of burnout include (and are not limited to): 

  • Increased reaction to stimuli (sound, uncomfortable clothing, lighting, temperature), which may lead to increased stimming to compensate.
  • Social skills may deteriorate, and the child may return to prior body language and speech patterns. 
  • A change in communication, which can range from forgetting words and losing the ability to form a sentence or to speak at all. A change in non-verbal capabilities may look like an inability to point to an object, gesture, or to use devices or pictures to express needs.
  • Decision-making may become especially difficult. Switching from task to task may lead to an unusual level of confusion. You may see a shift in your child’s ability to engage in everyday life routines, such as self-care tasks. 

Each of the six areas of dynamic intelligence is affected by autistic burnout, especially flexible thinking, the ability to adapt when life’s circumstances change. 

Patience – The prevention of burnout closely mirrors how you can help your child recover from burnout, and both start with patience. Have patience in yourself as the parent guide and have patience in the entire recovery process. 

Calm – Your main goal in the early phase of recovery is to bring calm and peace into you and your child’s environment. This can be set into motion by taking more frequent breaks, or by partaking in activities of special interest for your child (and for yourself). What activity brings joy and peace into your child’s life? What practices bring your stress level down in life? 

Give your child time to recover. Remove some planned activities and tasks from their life. Allow your child alone time…time to feel pressure-free. The less ‘pressed’ your child feels, the sooner they can recover from burnout. 

Sensory Diet – Put your child on a ‘sensory diet’ by removing or reducing over-stimulating activities or environmental situations. Your child may enjoy getting away and stimming. Allow and promote your child to take stimming breaks.

Lower Your Expectations – Adjust your expectations of your child. What has reduced anxiety in the past? Was it together time with your child? Perhaps it was quiet one-on-one time as you shared in a soothing activity. Your child may love listening to music with you. Can you see yourself relaxing into your ‘happy place’ while your child stims into a state of calm? 

Look at this as an opportune time for you to re-center yourself as a guide. Taking a break and centering yourself is a form of self-care, and it is an important support to your role in parenting. 

Slow Down to Speed Up – At RDI®, we believe in slowing down to speed up. We speed up incrementally as the child is ready to do so. RDI® is a gradual process. We believe less is more, especially in the early stages of progression. 

By slowing down, pacing, and giving yourself and your child space with less planned activities, the developmental benefits for your child multiplies. Slowing down grants free time for your child. Slowing down prevents autistic burnout, as the frustration that could prohibit growth is ultimately prevented. 

Slowing down can help your child recover from burnout. A balance of free time and space naturally grows your child’s motivation and intrinsic growth-seeking. 

We Are Here to Help

Sometimes the challenges that we can face as parents of autistic children can leave us feeling defeated, overwhelmed, and feeling as if we are alone on an island faced with a lack of clarity, and wondering just where do I go from here? We understand. 

It is important to understand the obstacles you can face so that you can then understand how to overcome them. You can learn more about the guiding relationship and the RDI® Model by joining the RDI® online learning community here!


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