Autism: a sense-ational life!

Autism is NOT a disease requiring a cure.  From my perspective, it is a part of life; a sensory response by amazing individuals who may often experience an extraordinary gift of sensitivity, sensory receptive perception, and unusual empathy.  These characteristics, if fueled by anxiety and a powerful sense of being over-whelmed, may require intensive therapeutic support [social – expressive language – sensory].  Simply, many on the spectrum need to access new coping strategies and social skills to compensate for anxiety and stress create many unfavorable behavioral responses.  It also requires parents, teachers, and other loved ones to extend themselves to new levels of love and understanding for Autism related symptoms are often highly inconvenient and challenge conventional wisdom about developmental benchmarks and social appropriateness beyond anything we ever imagined!

I do not believe that Autism is caused by vaccinations.  Nevertheless, the invasive impact of vaccinations often presents extreme symptoms by kids on the spectrum due to their acute, fragile, and often delicate sensory responses. Sure it makes sense to create a causal connection relating immunizations and symptoms but I feel this is short sighted. Furthermore, this hyper sensitivity is also observed within the context of diet and nutrition.  As hyper-sensitive beings, children may react to the vaccination in an adverse manner and by doing so, this may lend one to believe the extreme Autism manifestations are due to the vaccination.  Same goes for inflammatory responses due to wheat, gluten, dairy, and other allergen prone foods which many of us tolerate while those on the spectrum may experience life altering physical reactions.  Furthermore, due to an intense level of sensory receptive perception, many diagnosed with Autism, appear to shut down socially and close themselves off due to overwhelming sensory overload at this critical period, especially as the child is just beginning to acclimatize to the world outside them self (1-3 years old).  What makes this so profound is that typical developmental growth patterns of infants and toddlers is founded upon interaction with their environments at this time.  This is when most of us learn the fundamental social skills associated with language, cultural norms, and interpersonal relations.  In contrast, many children on the spectrum, shut themselves off from the outside world due to the intensity of their sensory experience.  How many of us feel the need to “get away” when we feel overwhelmed and over-stimulated?  Most everyone; seems like a natural response to a crazy world.

As a result of the limited social interaction due to the isolation, separation, or closing off from sensory overload, a developing child on the spectrum may experience considerable skill impairment in social receptive/expressive language.  Though the impairment may appear significant compared to a typically developing child, social / language skill development follows a continuum, and most likely, stays the course but within a unique timeframe; their own developmental time line requiring therapeutic support, direct instruction, patience, and understanding along the way.  These kids are remarkable young people who are shaping their environments around them in ways beyond conventional wisdom and require understanding outside the box in light of traditional developmental patterns.

This social learning hypothesis is based upon brain research associated with young children and social skill development.  According to internationally reknown biologist Dr. Bruce Lipton, the author of The Biology of Belief, states, “Children, whose brains are mostly operating at this frequency through six years of age, can download the incredible volume of information they need to thrive in their environment.  The ability to process vast quantity of information is an important neurological adaption to facilitate this information-intense process of enculturation.”  For those on the Autism spectrum, the frequency is different due to the “sixth sense” nature of their unusually acute sensory perception.  As a result, many of these kids with sensory overload may experience life like an AM radio in between stations; experiencing a whole lot of static.

Nevertheless, we are wired to experience enculturation during this critical developmental period and Social skill development plays an important role in this process.  As a result of sensory perception overload, many children on the Autism spectrum experience hyper development of the hormone cortisol as a result of these stressful perceptual experiences and this may impair their early stage development, in particular, social skills.  As I compare kids on the spectrum to babies and young children experiencing other hyper-stressful life conditions, such as adopted children coming from East European orphanages, the impact of stress and specifically, its impact on social skill development, I notice similar biological responses: the over production of cortisol clinically impairs behavior and learning due to its impact on brain development.  Related research conducted by Holden (1996) is cited in The Biology of Belief connecting the dots between stress, anxiety, cortisol, and cognitive impairment.  I would suggest anyone wanting to explore this link further, should review research related to the amygdala, Autism, and anxiety.  Most notably, the amygdala is an essential component of the brain related to sensory input, “flight or fright” responses, and cognitive development.  One thing for certain, anxiety is a common thread amongst many kids on the spectrum.

Furthermore, in contrast to popular belief, Autistic children often do not truly shut down, nor are they cognitively / emotionally in a coma-like state.  Those on the spectrum who can express themselves easily frequently describe a feeling of being overwhelmed through over stimulation and self-prescribe isolation from the environment.  Dr Barry Prizant, one of America’s leading Autism clinicians highlights the following: “Difficulty staying well regulated emotionally and physiologically should be a core, defining feature of autism. Unfortunately professionals have long overlooked this, focusing on the resulting behaviors instead of the underlying causes.” [Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism].  As a result, we need to truly understand the causes of behavior associated with Autism and for many, the notion of being overwhelmed serves as the cause. 

Also, developmentally, many of the kids are intellectually focused, and put forth all of their cognitive acumen toward repetitive activities and familiar settings; both may serve as an organic compensation due to hyper anxiety; by soothing one’s soul and easing the environmental influenced tension.  Most notably, these initial learning patterns often touch upon innate gifts, talents, and learning styles.  Again, the work and insights of Dr Prizant supports this understanding: ““Still, some parents and professionals view these interests as yet another undesirable symptom of autism, one that makes it even more difficult for the child to fit in. Often their instinct is to discourage the child, to redirect his attention and suggest interests that are more socially acceptable and conventional. But discouraging an enthusiasm can be just another way of dismantling a strategy that helps a child with autism feel better regulated—or, worse, removing a source of interest and joy.”

Many of the students I serve as an education advocate demonstrate extraordinary aptitudes and endowments much earlier than their typically developing peers. Nevertheless, the inconvenient aspects of these repetitive behavior patterns or hyper-focused interests are often described as an “unwillingness to accept change or an adverse response to transitions.”  Specifically, these behaviors do not create “kodak moments” within the family photo album; in fact, it can create a serious level of tension within the family structure as well as at school.  We all are aware of the intensity often experienced with children walking the sensory integration experience.  Nevertheless, I believe the purpose of repetitive behavior or hyper focus serves as a compensatory response to anxiety and stress due to sensory overload.  So rather than fix the kid, or medicate, it may be more beneficial to look at our efforts to adjust the environment and reduce the overload.  I always say, “Break the code, not the kid”.

So from my experience as an educator, Special Education advocate, and a parent trying to make sense of it all, the gifts found within Autism are extraordinary [in fact, sense-ational!] for these kids are absolutely profound in the manner by which they relate to the world around them. Without a doubt, sensory perception and empathy in its immature state may appear very challenging at best (and often inconvenient) but then again, as the continuum evolves, this gift becomes more apparent and shines in so many ways.  Our children are a blessing and contribute to the mosaic of life way beyond anything we initially imagined. Unfortunately, many people tend to adversely respond to autistic diversity by placing preconceived notions into the mix and “pegging” these children as “Autistic” as if there is a one-size-fits-all category for these remarkable kids.  Often this label may not always be welcome nor encouraging.  This is where the rub begins for each child is truly a square peg within a round hole, a unique individual.  And education advocacy, one of the essential tools within an emerging kit, will help create a more successful path for each child as he/she moves through life within their own continuum.   He/she is truly a gift to behold and his/her contribution to the world also requires an unfolding on its own time.  As the child’s best advocate, parents with kids on the spectrum are trailblazing a new path, unlike anything else anyone has ever seen before for each child is walking their own path for each piece of the mosaic is unlike any other.  I am certain it’s more important to fix the round hole rather than the square peg!

Considerations and Strategies:

Help others to understand and appreciate each child, his/her gifts, and the challenges he/she faces; be his or her greatest cheerleader! Take notice of these interests and nurture them at home and in the community for many of these talents are not given instructional time at school.  Within school, collaborate with teachers and staff by identifying avenues for expression which align with the innate aptitudes.  With these kids, it’s best to flow downstream with the energy within rather than fight a battle by going against the grain.

Build upon strengths and interests; and front load everything at all times through hyper-vigilant pre-planning; be your child’s number one advocate. Kids on the spectrum require structure in their environment with well-defined guidelines, perimeters, and modifications.  As adults and caretakers, so we often have to change our behaviors and the environments first before we can expect our kids to change theirs. Predictability is a good thing.  You may find the work of Dr. Martha Herbert [] encouraging and insightful as you explore strategies.

Seek out support within the Advocacy community for you will be facing significant challenges for your child is clearly a “square peg in a round hole”; find other square pegs and be an active member of a larger community.

And most notably, seek the expertise of a Behavior Analyst in addition to the other therapists [ie; speech and language pathologists] you may already work with. A highly skilled Behavior Analyst will help guide the learning process from “good intentions” to good instruction for many of the inconvenient behaviors associated with Autism require a strong therapeutic behavioral approach in social/receptive/expressive areas of communication. Many of these skills are natural to the typically developing 2-6 year old, but in the context of a late developing child, a highly skilled therapist is often required.  Also, within the realm of sensory perception, self-regulation skills are vital in this process.  Resources found within the Institute of Heartmath, addressing emotional self resiliency, may also prove to be valuable. [].

Finally, consider a wellness / spiritual path; one that embraces the gift within! Be a part of something much greater than one self and experience the support of an approach which addresses a holistic frame of reference within the whole child rather than tackling the symptoms one at a time.  Your child is already a member of something spiritually guided for his/her presence is a significant part of a larger mosaic; an important part of the natural order of all things.

Best to you and yours as you navigate this extraordinary path for Autism presents a sense-ational life.