Saturday, July 7, 2012

Neuro-typical You

Over the years, millions of dollars have poured into research projects designed to isolate the cause or causes of autism. Statistics show an alarming increase in the number of autism diagnoses. Autism awareness has improved tenfold.

The problem I have with all this is that no one can actually tell you what autism is.

Sure, psychologists have identified collections behavioral patterns that they use to classify someone as having autism or not. Some studies have identified physiological traits common to people who the psychologists would classify as having autism. Methods have been developed to help change the behavioral patterns. Still, no one can actually define autism.

The collections of behavioral patterns vary so broadly that autism has been expanded from a specific "disorder" to a spectrum of disorders.  The physiological traits are coincidental, but not definitive. Even if you get past the question of "causes what?", any time someone claims to have identified a cause, at best he's identified a coincidence, not a causality. In the absence a fundamental theory of autism, although many methods seem to effect change, treatment methods have been developed haphazardly; try this and see if it works.

As I've come to learn about autism, working both with therapists and researchers, and through first-hand experience, I've come to several actionable conclusions. First, since no one really knows what's going on, I might as well take a crack at it myself. Second, if you step back far enough and look at autism from several perspectives (e.g., physiology, neurology, environment, behavior), you can see patterns that may not be obvious to someone who's too close or only looking through a single lens. Third, to varying degrees, every one is at least a bit autistic.

Situational Autism
Autism is caused by the environment.

Let's start with the more common usage of the word "cause" (as used in, "what causes autism?"). Although one might identify genetic patterns and triggers coincident with autism, the increase in frequency of autism diagnoses has occurred at too high a rate for it to have been caused by genetic change. So, if indeed the frequency of occurrence matches the frequency of diagnosis, then the increased rate must have been caused by the environment.

That said, I've found that a more useful use of the word "cause" focuses on environmental factors that are transitory and immediate. Autism's not a thing, it's a collection of symptomatic behaviors. People who exhibit these behaviors (even the highly repetitive ones), don't do them all the time. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don't. It depends on the situation or environment.

Rather than looking at autism as a disorder, I've found it more useful to look at as ways of coping with environmental factors that are overwhelming. Although one can point to genetic factors coincident with autism, autism is not something you're born with. It's something that develops. It's something that you learn.

Each of us responds differently to environmental factors. There are some for whom the quiet of a library is calming and others for whom it feels as though they've been placed in a coffin. There are some for whom the roar of the subway is grating and others for who whom it is relaxing. There are some for whom a full-body message is heavenly and others for whom being touched is hellashish.

Our responses to various environmental factors is determined by how our sensory systems (e.g., sight, sound, smell, balance, touch) respond and how well they work together. The more sensitive the system, the greater the response to sensory stimuli.

For example, if your tactile system is not very sensitive, you might not even notice when someone tickles you. You may have a high threshold of pain. However, if your tactile system is highly sensitive, then a tickle might cause you to jump out of your chair or to swing your arms wildly to stop the tickler.

Each of us has sensory systems that we favor, systems where stimuli have a calming effect. If your visual system is highly sensitized, the visual activity of a busy airport can make it difficult to concentrate. However, if you favor your auditory system, then throwing on a pair of headphones with some cranking music may help you relax and focus. By stimulating a favored system, you distract yourself from the overstimulation of an unfavored system.  

We all do this in one way or another. You stimulate one sensory system to compensate for the overstimulation of another. Not only that, but you may also stimulate one sensory system to compensate for under-stimulation of another. Have you ever drummed your fingers on a table during a meeting or paced a room while waiting?

When you stimulate one system to compensate for the under- or over-stimulation of another, you're doing something called sensory-regulation. If your method of auto-stimulation is pronounced and atypical, then you may be diagnosed with autism. If it's not too loud and/or not too "weird", then you probably won't be diagnosed with autism. However, from what I can see, it's all pretty much the same thing; it just varies in degree, latitude and frequency.

Actionable Information
If you're hanging in there with me, you might be thinking, "So what?"

The so-what is this.
  1. If you think about autism as something that everyone experiences to varying degrees, then you'll be better enabled to get a handle on what's going on for someone who's been formally diagnosed with autism.
  2. Since the atypical behaviors of someone with autism are simply responses to sensory overstimulation, you can help them change those behaviors by teaching them new ways compensate for the overstimulation.
  3. However, before you can teach someone how to respond differently to her feeling as though her hand were on fire, you might first want to eliminate the immediate environmental factors that are leading to that response and help her regulate her sensory systems. No one's going to listen to you when they feel as though they're on fire.
  4. To eliminate the environmental factors, you have to know what they are. Since they're different for each person, you have to pay attention and look for patterns. Learn which sensory systems are most prone to overstimulation and what specific environmental factors seem to contribute to it.
  5. To help someone regulate his sensory systems, you have to know which ones he favors. Again, this involves paying attention and looking for patterns. If he hugs himself and rubs his arms, he may favor his tactile system. If he runs in circles, he may favor his vestibular system (inner ear).
  6. After you've created an environment that is sensory-friendly and taught someone effective ways to regulate, you can slowly reintroduce the unfriendly sensory stimuli to help desensitize the offended sensory system.
  7. If you do all this well and consistently, you'll see change. The person will become less sensitive to environmental factors and she'll be able to manage overstimulation more easily and perhaps in ways that are less pronounced and more typical.
  8. Going back to item one, all this starts with you practicing on you. 
That's it for today.

Happy Saturday,

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