As we talked about in the first post, keeping safe and secure is a very key driver for an autistic brain. Unlike an NT brain that is, for the most part confident that we are an apex predator, the autistic brain is less confident. While the reasons for this are unclear at this time, the result is that an autistic brain maintains a more alert state as its baseline. Research has shown that autistics have a larger amygdala than NTs – this is Dino brain. Dino brain is responsible for activating the autonomic protective response of fight/flight/fawn/flop/freeze.
If we go back to our Dino brain, Panic Monkey and Air Traffic Controller analogy from the first post.
In an NT brain, Panic Monkey (the limbic system) is woken up by the Air Traffic Controller (the Cortex) if they feel a potential threat needs to be evaluated. Panic Monkey evaluates the threat, based on the emotional response to previous similar events, and decides a plan of action that is passed back to the Air Traffic Controller to carry out. If the threat is too immediate and Panic Monkey decides that the Air Traffic Controller cannot respond fast enough, they will wake Dino brain (Amygdala/Brain Stem) and put them in the driver’s seat. For an NT brain it takes Threat with a capital T to put Dino brain in charge – physical assault, fire, exploding volcano. Normally, Panic Monkey is perfectly happy handling the threat otherwise.
The only other time Dino brain gets alerted for an NT brain is when there has severe stress over an extended period or significant trauma. When this happens, an NT brain switches to behaving like an autistic brain.
In an autistic brain, Panic Monkey is always on the alert and needs to be constantly reassured by the Air Traffic Controller that everything is OK. The more on edge Panic Monkey is, the more problems they cause, including turning up and turning down the volumes on the sensory panel in front of the Air Traffic Controller. And Dino brain never quite goes to sleep, roaring out every so often at perceived threat and sending Panic Monkey into overdrive.
In addition to managing processing; and the added input that Panic Monkey needs on the screens, to be comfortable they are fully aware of any potential threat; and identifying where to focus on those screens; and resetting the volumes on the sensory panel, the Air Traffic Controller needs to keep an eye on both Panic Monkey and Dino brain – reassuring them that everything is OK. If the Air Traffic Controller gets too busy then they can’t do this. Over-processing, intense senses and unlabelled warnings from low senses all trigger a high anxiety response. Panic Monkey goes into hyperdrive, recognising extreme anxiety as a sign of extreme threat, and unless external action is taken to calm them down, they will release Dino brain who is ready and anxious to take over. And this can happen over any threat, however small it looks from the outside, including things like plans changing, not getting food immediately, someone frowning or appearing cross.
What isn’t clear, is how much of this activity in an autistic brain is purely down to trauma from living and operating in an NT environment. Whether we are looking at long-term cPTSD that starts from a very young age because of the disjoint in communication and connection with those around us. Or whether our brain is more a ‘lone nomadic’ brain rather than a ‘cave-dwelling community’ brain, where we cannot rely on the group to enable us to be apex predators or the security of the cave and community to protect us. So, we are hard-wired to be more alert and aware than NTs from birth.
My opinion that it is a LOT from column A and a little from column B. Our developmental style and way of learning certainly point to our brain prioritising different things than social interaction. Not that we don’t value human connection, we very much do, it is just we are more interested in learning how the world works rather than how the intricacies of small talk works.
This intertwining has, as yet, seen little research activity. Currently, the anxiety and trauma response is considered so much part of autistic neurology that ‘behaviours’ stemming from the trauma response are included in the diagnostic criteria. Indeed, parents are still being taught that meltdowns are bad behaviour that need to be extinguished, instead of being taught that meltdowns are NOT a natural part of being autistic – they are a giant red flag that the nervous system is severely over-stressed. Where our system is NOT over-stressed – we do not experience meltdowns. Just like the rest of the population.
Meltdowns are NOT a natural part of being autistic – they are a giant red flag that the nervous system is severely over-stressed.
In adults and older children, this intertwining can lead to a refusal of diagnosis with diagnosticians seeing only the trauma response and ascribing it to GAD, trauma or other anxiety related mental health conditions. Particularly, when the other key differentiator of communication style difference can be hidden by masking – where an autistic learns to perform NT in order to ‘fit in’.
The fundamental things that are needed to help us feel safe are universal.
- Effective communication and connection with those around us. If we know we have people who can understand us when we express we are in danger, who are able and willing to step in to protect us, we feel more secure.
- Predictability – all neurologies are more comfortable with the familiar and the known. It is one of the reasons that majorities are instinctively hostile to minorities and seek to push them into the majority way of being. Our difference is a threat. Even if something is uncomfortable, if it is what we know, we will prefer to stick with that than step into the unknown.
- Autonomy – the more we are empowered to be able to identify threat and act on it ourselves, the safer we feel. If that is taken away, we are then completely reliant on someone else to protect us. Who may or may not see the threat and may or may not act in a way to effectively protect us. ‘I meant it for the best’ is not a lot of help when the action resulted in injury.
In Trauma research, trauma, with a little ‘t’ is defined by four elements – the event represents a threat to our well-being; it is unexpected; we are unprepared to deal with the threat; we are powerless to prevent it.
In early childhood, this happens all the time.
At that stage, we are 100% reliant on caregivers for our primary needs for survival – food, drink and protection against predators. If these needs aren’t met, we die. This means babies and toddlers experience many near-death experiences – every time our needs aren’t met immediately – our limbic system sees the threat and Panic Monkey goes into action – the baby/toddler cries to alert the caregiver. Every time the caregiver responds, the Panic Monkey panics less – becoming more and more reassured that the caregiver is on the job and our needs are guaranteed to be met.
If the caregiver doesn’t respond, or significantly delays response, then Panic Monkey ceases to try to alert the caregiver – it is a waste of precious energy. The best route for survival at this stage is to stay still and quiet and hope the caregiver eventually returns. And the brain learns that this caregiver is not a reliable protector and it is going to have to become more pro-active in hunting out threat. Panic Monkey starts to become more activated and alert.
As a toddler, we become more aware that we are all individuals. This throws doubt into the mix again. If the caregiver is an individual – then the caregiver could leave at any time – and never come back. And we could die. The more caregivers we have the less scary this prospect is – we have others to take the place of the primary caregiver. The more calls on their attention that the caregiver has, the more scary it becomes – we could get lost in the mix or worse, simply be left behind.
This is why most toddlers, regardless of neurology, often become attention seeking. They are seeking constant reassurance that the caregiver is there and keeping a watchful eye out. It is also why many toddlers need to co-sleep. Up to this point, they have assumed the caregiver is always there, watching over them while they sleep. Now, they are very aware this is not the case. This means that, in order to feel safe enough to fall asleep, they need someone with them.
However, toddlers are also more capable of independence and autonomy – This is the age of the ‘me do’s’. We also now have more options to protect ourselves. Dino brain expands the repertoire from crying, flop or freeze, adding fight, flight and fawn. We can communicate with those around us.
And this is where it goes wrong for many autistics. Our communication system is often not the same as those around us. We struggle to get our needs understood. For many of us, while we are able to listen to and understand speech, we can’t access it for our own use and our gestures and movements do not seem to be recognised by those around us. When we signal distress, instead of having our protector meet our needs, we are punished for expressing distress. And when we can speak, our direct style causes anger and punishment and not support.
When we are with peers, our way of play does not match theirs. We make no sense to them and they make no sense to us. So, we become isolated – we are very aware that we do not belong to this group. Worse still, our caregivers do not recognise our style of play and try to force us to play in a way that is uncomfortable and unfamiliar.
We have lost our fundamental foundation of safety. If we are in trouble, we are on our own. We cannot communicate the danger to our caregivers, and we cannot rely on peer support.
This translates into anxiety and stress behaviours in an attempt to manage the threat. We can seek to control others in order to increase predictability and therefore reduce risk. We can become extreme attention seekers, terrified if the caretaker switches focus for a second. Panic Monkey becomes hypervigilant releasing Dino brain at the slightest sign of threat. Overwhelms and meltdowns can become a regular occurrence. We can start becoming demand avoidant in order to protect our autonomy (PDA). We can start relying on familiar rituals to give us the feeling of safety that we crave (OCD). Or we can go permanently into fawn mode – excessive people pleasing – in an attempt to ensure the ongoing engagement of those who can protect us, as well as to try and deflect harmful actions.
And all this activity within the brain stem and limbic system disrupts the cortex, reducing our ability to process and regulate and throwing our senses into sharp spikes of maximums and minimums.
The older we get, and the better able we are to protect ourselves and fend for ourselves, the more Panic Monkey relaxes a little. They are still on alert because there is no one else to rely on, no clan to back us up and defend us. In addition, Dino brain often learns that fight is not an effective protective mechanism and flight is often not available. Instead, we learn to fawn – excessive people pleasing, flop – dissociate and disconnect, going with the flow but not engaging, or freeze – where our brain disconnects from our muscles altogether and we are unable to move. Those around us think we are just quiet or daydreaming, when we are in fact under severe stress. And no one is listening or offering to help.
While NTs establish their clan of people who see the world like them and communicate like them, autistics are not only excluded, they’re often actively bullied for their difference. Often this leads to us masking as a protective mechanism. Copying NT behaviour and performing NT as a way to camouflage and blend in. However, what we learn over time is that learning NT communication through observation, or even explicit tuition, does not help much, because the understanding is not intuitive and innate. There will always be gaps in understanding and glaring mistakes made. For all our attempts at belonging, NT is not our natural language or culture. And masking takes a huge amount of processing and energy to manage.
Counter-intuitively, we fit better if we remain ourselves and learn to explain and advocate for our differences. That way the difference is clear and up-front and does not catch those around us off-guard. They also have a better understanding of what is going on rather than guessing and misinterpreting based on their understanding of the world.
‘I struggle to remember please and thankyou in the moment, so please don’t take that as a sign I don’t appreciate your help. I do. And I will always thank you properly after the task is over.’
‘I cannot hear my tone or whether I am too loud or not, so I would appreciate it if you just let me know so I can change it.’
‘I often get things wrong without realising it. I never intend to hurt people so if I accidentally did something that you felt was hurtful, I need you to let me know. I need you to tell me what was hurtful, why it was hurtful and how I can avoid it in the future.’
‘I can get really excited about a topic, but I know it may not be everyone’s interest, so if I am going on too long, you need to let me know. I don’t see it as rude. I see it as helpful.’
And if we are taught that it is our fault that we aren’t connecting, that it is our fault for not sharing a common culture, then, in addition to the trauma of the disconnect, we have the shame of our constant failure. We become powerless to change the situation.
Contrast this to an upbringing where your caregivers learn your way of communication and communicate with you in the way that is natural to you. Who recognise when you are in distress and act to remove those sources of distress. Who helps you build communication tools that suit the way your brain works so that you can communicate and connect more effectively with those around you.
Where your way of play and learning is honoured and you are taught how to bridge the gap. You are taught how to advocate for yourself and explain where misunderstandings may occur. Where you have an opportunity to meet and socialise with others who share your communication style, and communication and connection is simple and easy.
What would that look like? When our core foundation for feeling safe is established and protected?
They say behaviour is communication. Anxious / angry behaviour communicates a lack of security. It communicates that we don’t feel safe. And when Dino brain becomes large and in charge it communicates we feel REALLY unsafe.
Previous posts have looked into reasons why we might be feeling unsafe – overloads in processing, unbalanced sensory profile, communication mismatches. Those who care for autistics can make all the difference by switching their lens and recognise that ‘We are not giving a hard time, we are having a hard time’. Finding ways to help us feel connected, protected and safe, instead of increasing the threat through a negative response can make all the difference.
This is done by establishing effective communication and connection, building in predictability and encouraging autonomy. Helping us manage and reduce our stressors. Recognising and providing access to what helps us feel safe.
These things include:
- Familiar and secure routines.
- A safe space to retreat to that no one else can enter.
- Spending time with us but not interacting.
- Familiar items and scents.
- Clear expectations.
- The freedom to say no to anything we are uncomfortable with – including relatives hugging and kissing us. Understand the discomfort and address that, instead of pushing us to ignore our brain’s warning signals.
- Encouragement, acceptance and approval. Focus on our positives – achievement leads to motivation. Failure leads to trauma and disengagement.
Finally, recognise that, while you may not understand the autistic brain, our brain, left to its own devices, is very well-designed to manage trauma. Rhythmic stimming including rocking and pacing regulate the brain stem putting Dino brain back to sleep. Physical activities like jumping, stretching or running regulate the limbic system moving the sensory highs and lows closer to the centre again. Which, in turn, restores proper access to the cortex enabling processing to run at its best without interference from the trauma response.
Our brains may not work the way you expect, but they work the way they were designed to. And allowing us to work the way we are designed instead of the way you believe we ought to work, makes all the difference.