In my role as a massage therapist, I spend a lot of time trying to help people relax their nervous systems, allowing them to “de-stress” and feel their bodies relax, thus reducing muscle and mental tension. In my role as a psychotherapist, I do something similar, helping clients learn to manage emotional and psychological stress in a more functional way, to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD, along with reducing need for relying on addictive coping skills like substance use.
Working with clients that have social and communication deficits known as Autism Spectrum Disorder, or previously known as Asperger’s Disorder, requires a good understanding of the nervous system and how being in a highly activated nervous system state (known as flight or flight or Sympathetic Nervous System mode) tends to shut down Executive Functioning processes like problem solving, decision making, impulse control and working memory.
Asperger’s Experts, my new favorite website for learning about Asperger’s and Autistic traits, provides a wonderful video explaining how people with Asperger’s tend to process information and sensations and gives really great tips on how to work with children and adults with this disorder.
When humans are in fight or flight mode, the brain and body is trying to save the person from perceived harm. It’s not a good time to learn or listen to directions or face social anxiety fears. People with Asperger’s tend to be overwhelmed by sensory input and thus tend to be in sympathetic mode much of the time. This makes it super difficult for them to learn social and communication skills unless they have taught how to handle the overload and self soothe or calm themselves down.
Danny Raede explains the Sensory Funnel here. My favorite quote is this, “Lack of social skills are a symptom of being too overwhelmed and in Defense Mode. And until you get somebody with Asperger’s out of defense mode, you won’t be able to teach him social skills. It’s like taking somebody in Iraq that’s involved in an active battle and saying, hey, do you want to learn how to knit? And while they may want to make sweaters, they have more important things on their mind. They’re just trying to stay alive.”
When parents work with children, when managers work with employees and when people in relationships become emotionally overwhelmed, we can all experience a similar feeling of not being able to think clearly, control our emotions and make decisions. Learning how to manage our sensory overloads and self soothe are valuable skills for us all, and even more important for working with people with Asperger’s and Autistic traits!