Let’s call it out: I don’t see autism from the lens of “disability” anymore. Nor do I see autism as a “disorder” which requires a cure. Certainly, many of our loved ones who face the complexity of autism, often present social, emotional, and communication skill deficits. Which often require therapeutic support. I see autism as an extension of the human condition; which we all experience. In fact, there’s a lot more going on through autism which we all can relate to.

So what does autism mean to me?

First, let me share my perspective: Having been an educator since 1980, the following opportunities serve as the foundation for my belief system: Education Advocate / Consultant working with countless numbers of families on the spectrum path (thousands?), Director of Special Education, Behavior Specialist, and Highly Capable Coordinator; all positions where the theme of autism has presented a major influence on my experiences. In addition, I taught in K-8 classrooms. Simply, I know a thing or two about school. And autism.

Here’s what I do know:

  1. Almost all of the children I have known on the spectrum have presented extraordinary levels of sensory development; often described as “hyper-sensitive”. This often leads to a deep sense of being overwhelmed, anxious, or stressed out, especially at a very young age; for the hyper-sensitive child is unable to handle the extent of stimuli projected toward him or her. Research concurs with this understanding based upon studies of the amygdala, the limbic system, and autism. It’s part of the human condition when one interprets the environment through the perspective as a threat, the body – mind – spirit process moves into a flight – flight -freeze set of response patterns; this is the default system we often associate with autism.
  2. As the hyper-sensitive child moves toward social enculturation, shifting focus upon their care givers and various basic needs within their limited scope of reference, typically between birth to 2 years old, to a more social complex context, typically starting at 18 months or older, the sense of being overwhelmed by environmental cues begins. As a result, research consistently highlights behavioral indicators associated with autism, most noticeable from two years to four years of age, and a diagnosis of autism requires “symptoms must be present in the early developmental period (but may not become fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities, or may be masked by learned strategies in later life).”
  3. Also, there’s a slew of available research addressing the relationship between inflammation, particularly gut – intestinal, and autism. There’s likely never going to be a causal relationship between autism and inflammation, however, there continues to be a strong correlational link between the two. And there continues to be a substantial amount of gut – brain research including the following statement from NCBI (2018) “The impact of the microbiome on host development has been well documented with accumulating evidence suggesting an association between gut microbiota and brain function”.

So let’s take a deeper dive into the three areas above and see it from the lens of the human experience rather than autism alone; and see how you can relate to the symptoms associated with autism:

  1. How often have you ever felt threatened or overwhelmed and your natural response was to run away (elope), nervously fidget (stimming), or get ticked-off easily (aggression) as a result? It happens. Life happens. And so for those on the spectrum, who experience life from a hyper-sensitive perspective, the amygdala “hijack” happens too. As a result, often the default of “shutting down” [freeze] impacts learning development associated with social language, social communication, and reciprocity. We all can relate to this. Have you ever been asked to perform a public speaking activity? What happens when you stand up, nervous as hell, in front of a room full of strangers? Most of us begin to nervously fidget, often forget what we are talking about, and simply, want to run away. Sounds like autism symptoms to me.
  2. We all know about the classic “terrible twos”; the period of social development associated with neurotypical children. Here’s a perspective that describes this well: “The “terrible twos” refers to a normal stage in a child’s development in which a toddler can regularly bounce between reliance on adults and a newly burgeoning desire for independence. The symptoms vary between children but can include frequent mood changes and temper tantrums. Although parents often expect the terrible twos to occur around a child’s second birthday, the behavior that’s typical of this stage often begins around 18 months and can last until age 4.1″ (Vincent Iannelli, MD 2022). So imagine, how this social development process plays out for someone who also experiences intense anxiety and stress associated with hyper-sensitivity. Instead of mood changes and temper tantrums alone. we may see flight or freeze behavioral patterns, which significantly impacts the learning process. Instead of engaging in social language or social communication with others, the default response to go inward within one’s own world takes over. I know this is a simplistic understanding of social communication and autism, but for many I have met on this path, it makes sense. Again, autism is not a disease requiring a cure; it requires understanding first and foremost. And once we can see it as an expression of the human condition, it allows us all to see autism from the perspective of compassion and empathy. Then, when we shift to intervention, by doing so from the perspective of understanding, it makes a difference!
  3. Finally, this is where the conversation falls under “pseudo-science”; but it’s not. The research related to gut-intestinal inflammation and autism is extensive. In fact, when you explore the relationship between gut – intestinal inflammation and other “disorders”, like Alzheimer’s and arthritis, a pattern settles in: Looks like autism meets the “A List” associated with this common problem. And the cause of inflammation from the gut and intestinal perspective is related to the food we eat. Which is part of the human condition and collective experience. I do know that when highly sensitive people make dietary adjustments related to reducing inflammation within their gut and natural biome, related symptoms, including memory loss, skin disorders, speech impairment, and overall energy levels, improve over time. Have you ever taken a break from a number of the following classic inflammatory foods and watched what happens to your body – mind or spirit? [Processed sugar, processed wheat, commercial dairy].

As an Education Advocate / Consultant, working with parents and schools, I bring to the conversation the understanding that when we look at autism from a behavioral perspective, but fail to honor “hyper sensitivity”, we miss the mark moving forward. Most notably, these discussions address symptomatic behavior as if autism is anomaly or aberration; in contrast, most behaviors associated with autism are related to hyper-sensitivity and classic limbic system responses: Something we all can relate to.

I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have read Functional Behavioral reports (FBA) or IEP documents addressing behavior which fails to identify hyper-sensitivity and related triggers. It’s not uncommon for children with autism symptoms to feel over-whelmed by the sounds, lights, and spatial limitations of the classroom, but also, many of our most sensitive children are over-whelmed by the emotions others project but cannot explain this for this is a subtle process. How often have you, as an adult, felt something very deep when others in the room are upset? In fact, this is a gift called “empathy”. However, this gets lost in translation when we address autism within the school conversations for the notion of energetic relationships and empathic response patterns are not within School Psychologist tool kit.

Many of my clients have children who experience social anxiety within the classroom. Some have presented “fight” response patterns when overwhelmed, while others “elope” and run away due to a “flight” default response. When the team addresses these patterns, often the conversations lead toward “work avoidance” or “school refusal” associations. And this proposes a challenge for many teachers and administrators to truly grasp these behaviors for they were often the type of students themselves who loved school, enjoyed the activities associated with learning, and felt comfortable within the classroom setting. However, for the hyper-sensitive, especially the emotionally empathic student, classrooms are filled with dysregulated emotions, social chaos, and often increase one’s anxiety or stress levels.

However, there are strategies that work and diminish the likelihood of an amygdala hijack: One school I have recently worked with decided to fully accommodate a 2nd grader on the spectrum for he experienced high levels of anxiety and presented “school refusal” behaviors. Their strategies highlighted the following; all of which addressed minimizing triggers within the environment:

a. The student enters the smaller Resource Room setting through a side door, to minimize the impact of being in the gym with hundreds of other students.

b. In the Resource Room, the student has a routine to follow including a wide range of “school preparedness” activities; priming the student for the rest of the day including detailed daily schedules and goal setting activities. The arrival process also highlighted a welcoming set of activities, a “Check & Connect” emotional assessment, and relationship building activities.

c. Slowly, the student makes his / her way to the General Education setting; but does so during the activities which are the most interesting or highly engaging; this creates a bridge between one setting to another. Each day the engagement periods are closely monitored and adjusted as needed. One of the initial activities to facilitate moving from the Resource Room to the GE setting was an established “job”; something the student really enjoyed doing and required going from class to class.

d. Breaks are provided throughout the day to minimize stress or anxiety; and provide ample sensory release periods. This required a flexible staffing model for someone was always “on-call” as needed.

e. Often, to facilitate social engagement, the Speech Language therapist as well as the Resource Room teacher presented lessons or activities through “push in” activities which included 2-3 other students from the General Ed classroom; highly skilled students who would work in small group with the targeted student in a wide range of settings. Initially, these activities were “preferred” but shifted to standard class work.

In review of data, this student is spending more time in the General Education setting then ever before; especially, since following the COVID “online” schedule, which was implemented for almost two years, and severely impacted the school refusal behaviors.

All in all the team is willing to work with the student through an intentional step by step transition back to the General Education classroom. A closely monitored “check & connect” approach, assessing anxiety and stress levels throughout the day, is applied. And utilizing “preferred activities” as the bridge leading to engagement. This is in contrast to a number of placements, where students with similar profiles are being placed in “Autism” classrooms or within special day classes with a wide range of students with disabilities. And are provided limited access to peers within the GE setting.

In closing, here is what I would to leave you with:

  1. When we are looking at the autism student profile, the notion of sensitivity often gets left off the considerations.
  2. Most notably, the triggers creating anxiety or a feeling of over-whelm, need to be addressed and minimized first and foremost; where the environment needs to reflect adaptions and modifications; to minimize the amygdala hijack.
  3. Secondly, as the process takes on a “sensitivity” training set of protocols, baby-steps toward the goals need to feature “what works”: High interest engagement, and preferred activities serve as the bridge toward behavioral change. Keep in mind, standard curriculum and related activities often need to be modified to create connection and meaning.
  4. Finally, when we explore autism, it’s important to put ourselves in the perspective of the other; for autism is an expression of the human condition we all can relate to. And in this light, once we see ourselves through this lens, our sense of understanding and compassion flourishes. And so does our children and students.