People with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have difficulties smoothly and consistently processing information. Information from the senses about the properties of things,  language information, information about the social world, emotional information, and also information from the body and self and what is going on there.  People with autism especially have difficulty with understanding the big picture, putting all the pieces of information together so that it hangs together and makes sense. They get the bits of information, but the bits do not cohere. They cannot put the bits in order. They also have especially difficulty processing new information, and do much better with using what is already known.  They have trouble understanding context and how each element in a complex bit of information is at least partially defined by the whole context. They have trouble with relative thinking.

Each individual with ASD may not have each of these difficulties, but they do tend to cluster together.

Because of these processing difficulties, the level of stimulation or information flow often exceeds their ability to make sense of it. The information is NOT informative. Instead it is assaultive. Instead of resulting in a sense of understanding that guides effective action in the world and therefore a sense of control or mastery, it results in overload and anxiety. For most of us, information helps us cope better. It allows us to make sense of the world and to find out way through it. For individual with autism spectrum disorder, it has the opposite effect. It undermines confidence, mastery, and independence.

Autistic behaviors are attempts at self regulation in an overwhelming world

Every autistic “symptom” can be seen as an attempt to deal with one or more of these processing problems.

If the external world is confusing and overwhelming, it makes perfect sense to avoid it and stay “in my own world.” There experience is predictable and manageable. I do not get overwhelmed when I am in my own world.

If the social world is too complex…If social information comes in way too fast to understand…If all that non-verbal information is missed and results in misunderstanding…If it is painful to look in peoples eyes…then it makes perfect sense to avoid social interaction, play by myself, be alone.

If I cannot really understand why my peers are doing the silly things they do, then it makes perfect sense when playing with them to tell them exactly what they are to do.  Finally they will be predictable and comprehensible.  It makes perfect sense to insist on all rules being followed exactly. Then I will know what to expect. If already learned or familiar information and routines can be trusted, then it makes perfect sense to avoid change and stick to what is familiar (and comforting).

And so on.

I have not been able to think of a single bit of unusual behavior that is common in ASD that cannot be understood by this framework.  (If you think you have one, please comment below and let me know!)

And every helpful intervention used with individuals with ASD can be understood as a way to make the world a little less overwhelming.

Two directions for intervention

So, autistic behaviors are attempts at self regulation in an overwhelming world. The world is often overwhelming because the autistic brain is unable to consistently process the information about it.

It follow from this that there are two ways to intervene: 1.) to make the world less overwhelming with accommodations and other strategies such as visual mapping, and previewing , and social stories; and 2.) to help the child develop better ways to self regulate than withdrawal, avoidance, or attempts to control the world.

During a child’s younger years, the balance may need to lean toward accommodation, but it is absolutely critical that as the child develops, at least as much effort is paid to helping the child increase his capacity to cope. In my experience, less attention is often paid to this part of the equation. And the kids long term progress suffers.

The cardinal rule

A simple, and simply useful rule: If you see an autistic behavior, or see one become more severe, ask yourself what is making the world overwhelming, and how can I temporarily quiet the world and at the same time help the individual with ASD learn more effective coping skills.

At the NeuroDevelopment Center, we emphasize the importance of helping individuals with ASD improve their ability to process these sources of information so that they are useful, not overwhelming. We do this in many ways, including family social connections therapy, social coaching, Camp Kindred, HRV biofeedback, and neurofeedback.  Learn more.