What if autistic kids were actually among the most socially aware of all of us?
Last night, we played Apples to Apples with my family. Later, when I tucked my 7 year old son into bed, I knew something was wrong. He didn’t want me to leave. After 5 minutes of haggling through his embarrassment and fear, he confessed his trauma:
Little man had no idea what computer hackers are, but he intuitively gleaned this: there are some scary guys out there, and they might get you if you aren’t careful on your computer. And we have computers all over the house.
My son is not autistic. But as the old saying goes, “we are all somewhere on the spectrum.” And my son has enough of the characteristics that they haven’t passed me by unnoticed: avoidance of eye contact, poor listening skills, hates varying his routine, constant squirming, fidgeting, quirky ideas, and a slight loner tendency at recess. He isn’t the only one in the family. In fact, he got most of these behaviors from me.
I am not a doctor, nor even an autism specialist. I am an ex-teacher and counselor-in-training who has done my fair share of hanging out with kids with autism, filling out diagnostic observation forms, helping parents communicate with their child, and helping them adapt to the stressful world of school. In my 10 years of public schools, I was on the front lines, and enjoyed a special kinship with these kids. I usually feel like I “get” them, and we have often made great progress. I noticed that over and over, the same theme kept coming back: the need for felt safety.
Over and over, the same theme kept coming back: the need for felt safety.
To be sure, autism is born from a combination of multiple sources built on a hereditary predisposition. Despite conspiracy theories abounding, there is no one “smoking gun.” I wish it were so. That would constitute an easy fix, which is a understandably a hopeful pipe dream many parents to cling to. Instead, we have found that a myriad of factors co-conspire to exacerbate autism’s symptoms. Food intolerances, exposure to environmental chemicals, psychosocial stress, immune dysfunction, and even hormones all contribute to what I call “a full nervous system assault.”
Suruchi Chandra, MD. Autism Research Institute © 2013
If the 21st century has taught psychologists and neuroscientists anything, it may be the fallacy of the old “mind vs body” dichotomy. Mind is body. There is no obvious reason to suppose that the brain treats one of these types of stress separately. This is where most of us get off. We must stop thinking of the mind and consciousness as separate from our physicality.
But brains just see it like this:
When a brain is free and calm, it marches forward. We are built to be doers and risk takers who go out and face life with courage. We tackle challenges and overcome adversity to make a mark on the world.
When the brain is under assault from stress, we retreat inward to find safety. We ball up like a roly poly.
Now is not the time to chance making a new friend.
Children with autism seem to be in a near-constant state of facing inward. From what we can tell, each small assault coming at the child exacerbates an already-stressed brain, eventually threatening the safety of the entire system. The brain’s systemic answer to collective assaults is to socially, mentally, and physically retreat into places of comfort: routines, stimulating relaxants, safe people, quiet rooms.
If only it were one switch we could flip. But the evidence keeps telling us: this is a whole-brain retreat. Think of your computer running Windows on “safe mode.” This, I believe, is the function of the brain of a child with autism.
While my son isn’t on the autism spectrum, he has absence seizures. And he is often a walking ball of fear. At the age of 6, he would not go to a room alone, even his bedroom or the bathroom in our own house. His toy of choice is not a race car or light saber, but a stuffed animal. He demands his daily snuggles. He climbs in our lap, begging for squeezes.
Seizures, like autism, seem to be caused by an abundance of factors bearing down to assault the nervous system. One of his was an unexplained physical stress from contortion on his skull and upper vertebrae. We took him for several rounds of manipulative treatment through an osteopathic doctor. Each time the doctor did adjustments, his body visibly relaxed right in front of my eyes… and then his demeanor would change.
He would often go from spasmodic, goofy, joking, and squirmy to fully relaxed and yawning in a matter of a couple of minutes. The doctor said yawning was common during adjustments, because the body was finally relaxing a bit. One day, to my surprise, he walked straight out of the adjustment room and into the bathroom. When I told him to hang on, he just calmly said, “its okay, dad. I’ll go alone.” As if this were normal. It was like some alien had kidnapped my little spas-ball or nerves and replaced him with a chilled out little boy. You could have picked my jaw up off the floor.
I was finding out that physical body stress had the same impact as emotional and mental stress. Physical adjustments were actually reducing his fears.
If that sounds completely crazy, good, because that means that I’m not alone. But its only crazy if the mind and body are separate. And they’re not.
Let me stress that osteopathic adjustments will not cure seizures or autism. Despite promises of some shaman-doctors, neither will your favorite vitamin, oil, detox plan, smoothie, or air purifier. But there are far too many indicators that multiple interventions in concert can move the needle, even if a little.
In short, when you have 20 different assaults from all angles, removing 2 of them (or slathering on lavender) probably isn’t going to do much. But removing 10 or 12 might, even if only a bit.
Back to last night.
Here’s where it gets interesting for me. After counseling him through his fear of computer hackers, I thought, “Good Lord, Computer hackers?? Seriously? A person can’t even mention anything remotely scary-sounding without tripping this kid off.”
Ambient fear clings to my son like a dust-bunny on an ionized Swiffer. If someone in the room is afraid, he adopts the fear immediately, and I am stuck trying to un-convince him. Loud noise? Explanation demanded. Tornado warning? Forget it. Today its computer hackers. Tomorrow it will be rabid squirrels or bioterrorism.
I went off to bed last night with an even fuller appreciation of his fear-dust-bunny-clinging-Swiffer of a brain.
The light began to come on.
A brain under assault becomes a brain heightened to risks all around it. It desperately needs to know if there is anything in the room it should be further protecting itself from.
I believe that an autistic child is a fear magnet.
His (or her) brain is constantly scanning the room for threats to protect itself from. If a single person in a crowded room mentions or even sounds as if they are afraid, my son’s radar is triggered. An unfamiliar noise pops up? He is on it. New, unfamiliar environment? He feels like this guy:
My boy may not know what a computer hacker is, but he has enough context clues to know — it ain’t good. He may not even realize he is afraid, because this is his default state.
He isn’t a good listener because he is actually a great listener. He often missed our actual words because his brain is too busy deciphering the more basic features of tone, emotion, and other signs of threat. In the brain’s economy, these are far more important indicators of safety than how to carry the remainder on a long division problem. I’ve noticed that my son, like my students with autism, are always tuned in, even when they are missing large chunks of instruction.
Well meaning adults get frustrated because he isn’t listening, only to turn up the negative emotion and compound the problem.
For the longest time, we have thought that autistic children are the most socially unaware among us. I posit that they are the most aware of all.
It immediately caught my eye. The amygdala? Altruism? Seriously? (If you are unfamiliar, the amygdala draws its notoriety and infamy for being the “fight-flight-or-freeze part of our brain,” lighting up when danger shows up). The study indicated that extreme altruists seem to have an amygdala that is 8-10% bigger. How could that be?
And then it hit me.
Fear is largely a social construct. Aside from a few basic primal fears, almost all fears are taught. If, then, my son is a fear-magnet, it isn’t because he is anti-social. It is because he is hyper-social.
The researchers mentioned call the amygdala the “seat of empathy and emotions.”
“If my son is a fear magnet, it isn’t because he is anti-social. It is because he is hyper-social.”
Think about it:
Bigger amygdala = more empathy = more adoption of other’s negative emotions
When you fight, flee, or freeze, you are usually doing so based on social cues you are gleaning from those around you. To contrast – psychopaths, criminals, and those with antisocial disorders have been shown to have less volume and lower activity in the amygdala.
No wonder he wouldn’t be running out to play with everybody at recess. Its not because he doesn’t like people. It’s because, for him, that is like running through a mine field of new possible fears to assault him.
A kickback might be, “Wouldn’t it be also true that a child with a heightened emotional sensitivity would glean positive emotions as well?”
Yes, but there is a caveat. Unfortunately, brains care way less about positivity. With all humans, positive emotions have been shown to “slide off like Teflon”, while negative emotions “stick like Velcro.” This keeps us safe. It is why we all remember where we were on 9-11-2001.
Over time, each and every negative memory becomes encoded with experiences. The unknown world out there becomes a frightening maze of Velcro walls, with danger lurking at every turn. Most every experience out there being connected to a negative memory our kids find it difficult to get past. Their brains retreat inward to find homeostasis.
For kids barely on the spectrum, this appears as non-social or anti-social behavior.
As soon as I read the article, my brain jumped up and immediately began to wonder– If my theory of autism were true, then kids with autism should have a larger amygdala.
Researchers have long tended to believe that the amygdala is connected to anxiety, and that anxiety can be connected with autism, as if mysteriously. Up to 40% of kids with autism have diagnosable anxiety.
But my theory is that all kids with autism have anxious brains, whether it expresses itself socially or not.
I’d like to hear your feedback on this. Take a look at the research and see if I’m off. Hit me up in the comments. We’ll be listening.