In the context of neurodivergence, skills regression is a term that has been used widely medical professionals, when describing a loss of functional skills in autistics and ADHDers.

It’s a phrase aimed at describing a loss of ability, in any area, that we have previously taken for granted. For instance, having been a high achiever in the workplace for years, or coping well with the fast pace of being a parent or carer. It could be that we’ve been a social butterfly or that our academic studies have been so promising…until now.

And it’s that until now that changes everything. It’s at least as baffling to us as it is to those around us. It’s frustrating finding that it’s all we can do to get dressed (or maybe we can’t) and make one essential phone call (or maybe not). Even that feels exhausting, taking superhuman effort.

  • How on earth did we manage to achieve so much previously?
  • We’re still the same person. What’s happened?
  • Why do we feel “more autistic”?
  • Why do we feel depressed?
  • Why does the very thought of going out into the world of work and social commitments fill us with extreme anxiety?
  • Why is the mask, that we have worn so successfully for so long, now such a bad fit that it just keeps sliding off?

What I’m actually describing here is autistic burnout. It is described as such in order to distinguish it from professional burnout experienced by neurotypicals, not to separate it from other neurodivergencies. Burnout is increasingly the preferred term to regression, particularly by most autistic people. Regression implies we have returned to an earlier stage of our development, which isn’t true and this can lead to misunderstanding by those around us. Secondly, the word term autistic burnout gives the reason why we’re struggling with pre-existing skills, and no longer feel we are coping with life, rather than just putting a label on it, as the term skills regression does.

I’ve added this post as skills regression is still a term in use by some, including some autistics, so you’re likely to come across it at some point. From here, if you haven’t already seen our page on burnout, that would be a good one to read, as well as those on masking and unmaskingThese terms are all so intertwined, our understanding of why we seemingly suddenly start to struggle to function and cope is much easier to come to terms with if we have the full picture.

I really enjoyed this article on Musings of an Aspie’s blog. It’s a decade old but it really does justice to the topic.

One final link – this one is to a piece of evidence submitted to UK Parliament in February 2023 by, autistic advocate, Viv Dawes. She makes the explicit point that autistic burnout is not regression, simply changes in our executive function and that a diagnosis of regression can ‘overshadow’ a diagnosis of burnout.