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Yolande Hutchinson
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A UNSW project investigating autistic burnout and its risk factors has won a 2021 Autism CRC Award for Achievement in Autism Spectrum Research. The co-recipients of the award include Dr Samuel Arnold and Ms Julianne Higgins from the School of Psychiatry at UNSW Medicine & Health.

“It’s fantastic that the importance of inclusive approaches to research are being acknowledged, and I’m hopeful that receiving this award will help to further recognition of autistic burnout syndrome,” Dr Arnold said.

Ms Higgins, an autistic advocate and peer researcher said: “Autistic burnout is an area of much concern to the autistic community. The understanding of autistic burnout must come from the voice of autistic people, and I am pleased the consensus definition we achieved embodied the autistic experience. This award recognises the work of the whole team.”

UNSW Dean of Medicine & Health Professor Vlado Perkovic congratulated his colleagues on their award.

“Dr Arnold and Ms Higgins’s inclusive research project findings will greatly benefit the autistic and broader autism communities. Continued research of this condition will evoke greater empathy and understanding,” Prof. Perkovic said.

The Investigating Autistic Burnout project set out to define autistic burnout and explore its risk factors.

“Autistic burnout is commonly described by autistic people in everyday conversations and on social media, but it had been neglected as a topic of academic research,” Dr Arnold said. “Although linked anecdotally to high rates of co-occurring health conditions, lack of research on this topic meant we knew virtually nothing about its causes, correlates or consequences.”

The project found that autistic burnout is a debilitating condition. Fatigue from masking autism, social interactions, overload of cognitive or sensory input, or other stressors can lead to autistic burnout. This involves significant mental and physical exhaustion and interpersonal withdrawal, along with either reduced day-to-day functioning, problems thinking or losing touch with reality, and increased intensity of autistic traits.

The project team included Dr Janelle Weise, Aishani Desai and Professor Julian Trollor from the School of Psychiatry at UNSW Medicine & Health, with Professor Liz Pellicano from Macquarie University. 

The annual Autism CRC Awards for Achievement in Autism Spectrum Research recognise achievements in inclusive research practice and the translation of autism research into practice, products, policy and programs that benefit the autistic and broader autism communities.

The awards have two categories – Inclusive Research Practice and Translation of Autism Research.

Autism CRC was established in 2013 and is the world’s first national, cooperative research effort focused on autism.