A New Way to Look at Autism
Autism can be a contentious thing. People argue about exactly what it is; how it came about; whether it is natural or caused by vaccines. They argue about the types of therapies you should adopt, what is beneficial and what is toxic and unacceptable. They argue about the right to self-diagnose and whether people have a right to an opinion if they are not autistic.
While everybody is off arguing about all this, I am here wondering a different kind of question. Sometimes I like to wonder about whether autism is actually a verb instead of a noun? The point being that if people with autism can change and grow over a lifetime, if they can learn and develop and encompass more of themselves and the world–then maybe autism, although very real, is actually a mechanism rather than a ‘thing’?
Autism shifts, the goal posts change, and we see it all the time. People who couldn’t talk suddenly can. People who have been diagnosed autistic–and there are many of them–consider themselves now to be neurotypical. Some people, while retaining the title of autism or Asperger’s profess to having their executive functioning significantly improve and/or they report to a better ability to be emotionally connected, that they are better able to manage stress and their work lives.
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If this is all true, and it is because I not only see it all the time in my therapy practice, but I witness it in the stories of others all over the world…then maybe we are looking in the wrong place for autism? Maybe our understanding of autism needs an upgrade?
Instead of being a brain disorder, maybe the autistic brain does not function as well as it could because aspects of the body are out of alignment? Maybe the systems that we need to operate our eyes, our ears, our voice, to be connected to our heart, are not synchronizing as well as they might and maybe this affects our ability to be present in the world?
We are a series of systems. We have a vestibular system; an ocular system; an auditory system; a proprioceptive; a digestive system…and they all need to talk to each other in order for us to be able to take in information and relate to our world. We can’t function properly without them.
The thing that helps operate all these systems is the vagus nerve. It helps our bodies respond to environmental threat, and when we perceive threat in our environment, all these systems get turned off a little or a lot by the vagus nerve. When these systems get turned off even a small amount by our vagal ‘safety switch’; our ability to process information in our environment decreases significantly. Furthermore, if our safety switch has been turned off since birth or in utero, then we might not have made the necessary developmental steps required to best use these systems in our everyday life.
This makes sense to me because I have seen with my own eyes, both for myself and for my students, what happens when you improve the strength of the vagal nerve and you allow the body time and space to recalibrate all its systems. The eyes, the ears, the voice, the heart, the face – they start working better, and when they start working better the person starts feeling better and they start being able to be more comfortable in the world. They get more spontaneous; more responsive, they really do.
Now I am not arguing whether autism is or is not a real thing. It is. But since it is not a static thing, but is actually very fluid, then maybe we are going to get further a lot quicker if we begin to look at it as a systems issue, rather than a fixed, permanent problem? Maybe it’s time for something new in the way we approach autism?
The other thing I like to wonder is: given so many of the people I know with autism are so wonderful and so full of heart, intuition and empathy, is autism actually an evolutionary upgrade and we just need to better integrate this new software? You never know!
Regardless, it’s not an either or. You can have autism and you can learn to live in a way that is much more capable and responsive and I think this is a worthy goal. I don’t so much care what autism is or what autism isn’t—I care about this.
This article was featured in Issue 58 – The Greatest Love of All: Family