Far from being insensitive, those with Autism may experience hypersensitivity

SE and the Autism Spectrum: Hypersensitivity and Hyperarousal

by Karla McLaren on February 9, 2012

I have a question for Somatic Experiencing® practitioners: Have you worked with people for whom regular, everyday life is traumatizing? Have you worked with people on the autism spectrum?

Here’s why I’m asking: A few years ago, I worked for a group of 22 college-aged students on the autism spectrum (which includes autism, Asperger’s, and PDD-NOS— or Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). My job was to help the students with all of their academic needs: scheduling, counseling, learning accommodations, tutoring, social services, transportation … I was hired to create a total support system under and around the students so that they could successfully attend college. To do that, I had to study these students and their needs very intently. What I found surprised me.

The reigning theory is that people on the spectrum are not socially adept because they are “mind blind.” They supposedly don’t have a functioning idea of the “otherness” of people, which would mean that they think everyone knows what they know, likes what they like, and thinks how they think. This mind-blindness, so the story goes, means that spectrum people are insensitive.

In my first few days with these students (who almost immediately became my friends), I looked everywhere for this mind-blindness and a lack of sensitivity— but I didn’t find either one. In fact, I saw hypersensitivity— painful hypersensitivity. And instead of mind-blindness, I saw a continual, time-lagged confusion about what was going on with and between neurotypicals (this is a new term used in the autistic community when referring to “normal” people).

My new friends were incredibly sensitive to sounds (especially very quiet sounds that many neurotypicals can ignore), colors, patterns, vibrations, scents, the wind, movement (their own and that of the people around them), the feeling of their clothing, the sound of their own hair and their breathing, food, touch, numbers, animals, social space, social behavior, electronics, the movement of traffic, the movement of trees and birds, ideas, music, juxtapositions between voice and body movements, and the often emotionally incongruent behaviors neurotypicals exhibit. Many of my friends were struggling to stand upright in turbulent and unmanageable currents of incoming stimuli that could not be stopped, bargained with, ignored, moderated, or organized.

In short, they were overwhelmingly, intensely, unremittingly, outrageously sensitive— not merely in relation to emotions and social cues, but to every possible aspect of their environments. In fact, I wrote a post about this heightened sensitivity at a site called Autism and Empathy. This is a big issue that isn’t being addressed very well.

My friends were essentially on fire most of the time, and this often created a great deal of emotional turmoil, as you can imagine. However, because they struggled with communication and socialization, it was hard for them to address or deal with their often intense reactions. Some would completely withdraw, some would try to connect to others by launching into monologues, some would engage in “stimming” (a repetitive action that can bring some sense of peace and control), and others would lash out. Being on the spectrum is a very difficult thing when the world around you— with its constant noise, confusion, emotional inconsistency, and demands for attention— is built for neurotypical people who simply aren’t as sensitive as you are, and can’t understand why so many things set you off.

So my question for Somatic Experiencing practitioners is this: Have you done any work with people on the spectrum in terms of helping them find skills to manage the hyperarousal they experience on an everyday basis? Would SE be a helpful form of support? Thank you!

– Karla

The Author, Karla McLaren

The Author, Karla McLaren

Karla McLaren is an author, social science researcher, a cappella arranger, and empath. Her most recent book is The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You.

Photo by hepingting

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Monika Wengler February 10, 2012 at 7:28 am

Karla,
I have a grandson who was just diagnosed on the autism spectrum and I would be very interested in your findings.
Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention,
Monika

Reply

Karla McLaren October 25, 2012 at 1:24 pm

Thank you Monica, and sorry to reply so late! These replies didn’t display for me until this week. Strange.

Have you found ASAN (http://autisticadvocacy.org/ ) and TPGA (http://www.thinkingautismguide.com/ )? These are groups of autistic advocates and allies who work to destigmatize the condition so that autistic kids can grow into adulthood more safely and with a sense of dignity and belonging. Groups that treat autism as a tragedy and an epidemic tend to treat autistic people as broken disease entities, and that doesn’t help.

There’s also a wonderful autistic woman named Karla Fisher on Facebook who’s providing deeply empathic support to autistic youth and adults. Her page is here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Karlas-ASD-Page/155369821204141

And my beloved Ibby Anderson-Grace is an autistic researcher who answers questions about autism on her blog: http://www.tinygracenotes.com/

I’m finding that the real experts on autism are autistic people themselves, and luckily, many autistic youth and adults are stepping forward to help, support, and advocate for each other. It’s an awesome social movement.

I send you and your grandson blessings!

Reply

jennifer slater February 10, 2012 at 9:38 am

hello Karla,
Thanks for bringing this issue up. As most of us know Steven Porges has worked with this for quite a long time now and his findings are enlightening for those of us who work with people in this spectrum. In my PhD research and work with clients I have taken it a step further to study those individuals who are not autistic but have temperament types that predispose them to having a greater sensitivity, including highly functioning individuals and as well, those who develop behavioral inhibition (shyness) and social anxiety disorders. What I became interested in is how these individuals have the predisposition to develop post traumatic stress syndromes as well as eventual PTSD.
As to your question to what skills are useful for these individuals who are deemed highly sensitive and always on a high arousal scale, I tend to feel that the slower they process the better.
thank you
Jennifer Slater, portland or
jenslater.com

Reply

Karla McLaren October 25, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Thank you Jennifer! I’m working more with somatic processes now, and I really agree with you about the slowness. It’s an amazing healing and awareness modality — to simply slow down one’s movements and see what’s in there.

I’m also working with a somatically trained aikido sensei and autistic advocate named Nick Walker, and his approach is very exciting. His website is here: http://walkersensei.com/

Reply

Linda Berry February 11, 2012 at 10:43 pm

H Karla,

I’m somewhere on that spectrum — highly sensitive. On my web site I offer a guided imagery process http://smileintodistress.com/ that’s helpful to me and others who use it to transform what’s bugging you into energy you can use. Once you learn the process you can get to the “safe” place in just a moments time. Please contact me if you’d like to know more.

Blessings and thank-you for the excellent work you have done and are doing to help highly sensitive people make it in this often overwhelming world.

Linda

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Ludwina Van Hyfte March 5, 2012 at 10:51 pm

I also am in that spectrum – highly sensitive. I have been using what is called “the sedona method” to learn to let go of my overload of emotions. I also switched to a gluten free and casein free dieet . That helped me a lot. My youngest son has autism. In my professional life i have been working with people with autism…i am convinced that heir is a big misunderstanding about autism and that it is in fact a form of high sensitivity. I am writing a book about this. Can I refer to your study? I would like more detailles.
you can find more about the diet here: http://www.altmd.com/Specialists/Healing-Highly-Sensitive-Body-and-Mind/Blog/Gluten-FreeCasein-Free-Oh-No-I-Dont-Know-What-To-D

Reply

Karla McLaren October 25, 2012 at 1:35 pm

Hello Ludwina,

Thanks for your response, and yes, you can refer to the post I wrote. Interesting about the GFCF diet — it’s a huge area of contention within the autism community right now, because it’s being promoted as a one-size-fits-all curative for autistic people. However, it doesn’t work for everyone, and there’s concern that parents are trying it without any medical reason to do so, and unnecessarily limiting their children’s diets.

But the testing is expensive and invasive, and for many parents, just trying it seems worth the possible risks in terms of nutritional deficiencies. However, as you probably have already discovered, there’s a lot of intensity around the diet, and when parents don’t see any positive response, the suggestion is often: You aren’t doing the diet right (or long enough, or with enough restriction, etc). It’s a troubling situation.

If you’re doing well n a GFCF diet, then awesome! I do too! However, it’s not for everyone.

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Veronica March 29, 2012 at 7:47 pm

Dear Karla,

I am a “neurotypical” who also was around Autistic person for awhile. I agree with you 100%. This person was in fact highly sesetive to everything and lived in constant overdrive. I believe SE should help as it “grounds”. I even think that sourse of this person was in fact a trauma when he was horrible damaged while he was “off guard”, when he felt safe but it was false sence of safety. I felt he cant let go anymore and ground himself because of this.

Reply

Karla McLaren October 25, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Thanks Veronica,

You may want to see if he’s connected to support within the autistic community. This is a unique neurology, and many autistic people don’t get the support they need to live healthy and appropriate lives for their neurology.

I’ll include the links I posted for Monika, above, in case you’re still connected to your autistic friend:

Have you found ASAN (http://autisticadvocacy.org/ ) and TPGA (http://www.thinkingautismguide.com/ )? These are groups of autistic advocates and allies who work to destigmatize the condition so that autistic kids can grow into adulthood more safely and with a sense of dignity and belonging. Groups that treat autism as a tragedy and an epidemic tend to treat autistic people as broken disease entities, and that doesn’t help.

There’s also a wonderful autistic woman named Karla Fisher on Facebook who’s providing deeply empathic support to autistic youth and adults. Her page is here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Karlas-ASD-Page/155369821204141

And my beloved Ibby Anderson-Grace is an autistic researcher who answers questions about autism on her blog: http://www.tinygracenotes.com/

I’m finding that the real experts on autism are autistic people themselves, and luckily, many autistic youth and adults are stepping forward to help, support, and advocate for each other. It’s an awesome social movement.

Reply

Leanora October 14, 2012 at 9:16 pm

Hi, I also work with trauma through energetic intuitive empathy… the result of changes in our sense of self leads my work into spiritual development also. What I am curious about is the non-autistic people who have some of these hypersensitivity challenges. In particular I am wondering if you have any wisdom or research, or could point my nose in the right direction, around people who suffer from what is being called alexithymia (which is like having a sense of self that is aligned energetically anyway… as best as I can tell…. with non-existence). thanks, Leanora

Reply

Karla McLaren October 25, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Hello Leonora! Besides the links I posted above, which connect to specific autism-positive people and organizations, I’m thinking that Richard J. Davidson’s new book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, would be an excellent thing to look at in conditions where a person does not have a good interoceptive sense of themselves.

Richardson identifies six dimensions of emotional style, and talks about ways to manage, moderate, increase, or decrease each one. The dimension that relates to alexythymia would probably be Self-Awareness, which Davidson identifies on a continuum from Self-Aware to Self-Opaque — and he’s got specific mindfulness skills to help people become more able to tune into themselves. I think it might be a good book to look into!

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Laurence Heller November 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Hi Karla, I just came across your blog. I am completely in agreement that the underlying factor is hyper, rather than hyposensitivy. One can look at the many different symptoms on this spectrum as efforts to manage this hypersensitivity. I have written extensively on this in my new book: Healing Developmental Trauma. Larry Heller

Reply

Charlotte Yonge April 29, 2013 at 7:27 am

I have taught a child with Aspergers syndrome through a highly visual curriculum, using multimedia arts such as cartooning, home video, puppets and drama storytelling. This approach has been tried and tested by Cheri Florence, who observes that children with autism like behaviour may have low performance in the auditory brain function, high on the visual. Consequently they are hyperaroused in defence of not being able to decode language. Giving her child picture cards and drama he flourished and went to mainstream school. Her book tells her story: maverick mind. This experience was identical to mine, and the child now a young man is passing through a multi media arts degress, dissertations and all.
Good luck.

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Dodie November 5, 2014 at 9:18 pm

I write this with tears in my eyes as this is exactly how I try to discrib my world, but am unable to convey this to NT. I am so grateful for your insightful and amazing view into our world, to see what we say to each other. It is overwhelming and exhausting to be bombarded with so much, emotion, noise, lights (especially the florescent lighting used in schools), your own heartbeat, the sound of the wind, so many things. Anyway thank you for seeing us!

Reply

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