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Harnessing autistic hyperfocus (neuropsychology and Hypno-CBT)

Harnessing autistic hyperfocus (neuropsychology and Hypno-CBT)

As a neurodiversity-affirming therapist in the Hypno-CBT® field, I know that autistic people often have special interests. Repetitive behaviours, a propensity for sameness and rigid thought patterns are after all key elements of autism, so it’s no surprise that autists can become hyper-focussed on a subject. This element of neurodivergence gets a bad press, but let me tell you, it’s a superpower.

Super-charged autistic hyperfocus

Yes, it’s a double-sided coin, but autistic people do potentially have the propensity to utilise the same brain regions that lead to restriction and repetition, and super-charge them for hyperfocus! (Climate activist Greta Thunberg and billionaire CEO Elon Musk are two examples of autistic people who have used hyperfocus to spectacular effect).

Autistic special interests

Let’s firstly say, there are negatives sides to this – obsessive, hyperfocused behaviours can be detrimental to health, and may lead to issues like unhealthy patterns, e.g. counting calories and eating disorders, as well as issues like trichotillomania, or hair pulling. (Cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy can incidentally be used very effectively to help stop habitual behaviours.)

However, what I want to write about here is the fact that special interests (for someone of any neurology) can be a haven of safety and expertise, and a feeling of validation. Autistic special interests can be a means of relaxation and pleasure; a way of using knowledge to overcome fear; a way of keeping anxiety under control; an energiser when exhausted or sad; and a way of offering motivation and conceptualisation.

If you’re an autistic person, it is likely you will find that you’re capable of honing in on things in a way that your friends and peers who are neuro-typical cannot. This is a superpower, without question.


Memory, and the hippocampus and cortical regions of the brain

I call this skill hyperfocus – the ability to really zoom in on a concept, and see it from all directions – including from the inside out. As a neurodivergent person, I can also tell you that this part of brain activity utilises muscle memory. The hippocampus and cortical regions of the brain are two areas that interact to support what’s called ‘associative memory’ after learning experiences. In simple terms, the amygdala processes emotion, while the hippocampus works on episodic memory. Essentially, thanks to neuroplasticity, the more you do a task, the more you get better at it, and retain the information.

Studies do point to the fact that autistic people generally have more hippocampal ‘volume’ – autistic young people also generally have more amygdala ‘volume’ (Schumann et al, 2004). Some scholars call autism ‘hippocampal dysfunction’ – we know that this issue can lead to medical concerns such as seizures and epilepsy. It’s also seemingly true that these differences in the amygdala-hippocampus brain region are what gives autistic people their social challenges and difficulties with social engagement.

But it seems that in many autistic people, there’s an EXTRA ability to retain information – plenty of studies show that larger hippocampal volumes correlate to higher memory scores. However, some studies don’t (Pohlack, 2017); hence it does seem to be very individual – but there is definitely the possibility that autistic people potentially CAN tap into this neurological ability.

The caudate nucleus and hyperfocus – the holy grail of learning

Another key area of the brain is the caudate nucleus, a C shaped structure at the centre of the brain, which also develops learning, and links ‘environmental stimuli with enhanced focus’. (Yu-Chin Chiu et al, 2017). What do you know, the caudate nucleus volume is enlarged in autistic people! While this can lead to varying levels of restricted and repetitive behaviours (Ting Qiu, 2016), I would postulate as an enthusiastic learner of neuropsychology that this difference can seemingly also lead to HYPERFOCUS. The holy grail of learning.

The title of this article is ‘Harnessing autistic hyperfocus’, so let me note down some ideas that may help individuals develop this skill within a cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy framework:

(1)Think about what you’re interested in and how this could apply to abundance in your life – could it be a rewarding hobby, a way to meet new people that share your interest, or a business venture? Satoshi Tajiri, the autistic inventor of Pokemon, is a good example of where hyperfocus can lead in a business sense. Maybe it is an area that you can use to make a difference to others? (Like autist Greta Thunberg’s work). Get focussed on your area of interest.

(2)Set yourself a goal. (Ideally a SMART goal – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely.) What do you want to do? Qualify with certification in that area?Remember, this doesn’t have to be about professional success – simply becoming a knowledgeable person in a specific area can just be about self development. This often brings enlightenment and acceptance of one’s self. Research your area thoroughly and identify the resources, such as training providers, podcasts, books and audiobooks. Set aside time to update your knowledge.

(3)Practice learning – work out your learning style (visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinaesthetic or ‘hands on’ – and find suitable resources.

(4)Use mindfulness techniques to help focus on the job in hand. Within Hypno-CBT® for example, we look at cognitive distancing, or witnessing one’s experiences as a third-person observer. This helps deal with unhelpful thought patterns which (due to autistic people’s propensity for repetition), can be troublesome.

(5)Think of the vibrational energy of your thoughts and the emotions that are generated by them – e.g. shame, guilt and fear are said to give the body contracted, negative ‘energy’, while peace, acceptance and courage give a more positive, expanded message. Use your hyperfocus to hone in on what you’re good at. If you’re autistic, you may well have signature values such as humility (not regarding oneself as more special than one is), a love of learning with a curious approach, and a firm stance on fairness (a sense of justice). Embrace these values, and delve deeper, working out how they could shape your special interest, and spread positive, expanded energy throughout your body.

(6)Meditate – within cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy, there are lots of ways to meditate – whether it’s for clarity, a more rested body, a focussed mind, or a myriad of other reasons. Meditating can change the structure and function of the brain through relaxation, which can reduce stress, anxiety and depression, increase focus and boost concentration. (tinyurl.com/TRYmeditate)

If you’d like more info on how cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy could help you find your hyperfocus, please email Kathy on arivetherapy@protonmail.com to discuss your queries.

#neurodiversity #autism #autismacceptance #neurodivergent #actuallyautistic #autistic #neurodiverse #autismspectrum #aspergers #differentnotless #autisticpride# autisticadults #inclusion #anxiety #highlysensitiveperson #hsp #empath #highlysensitive #highlysensitivepeople #empathproblems #selflove #nothingaboutuswithoutus #HypnoCBT #hypnotherapy #hypnosis

Remember, at Spectra Blog we don’t claim to be an expert on autism, Hypno-CBT or any other aspect that is discussed in these articles – learning is a journey. Our book ‘Autism from A to Z’ is now widely available – purchase here.
Leah-Anne Bott’s advice for young autistic individuals, and news on her latest children’s book

Leah-Anne Bott’s advice for young autistic individuals, and news on her latest children’s book

Leah-Anne Bott is an author and #actually autistic advocate, and we wanted to share some tips she has for young autistic individuals, as well as tell you about a new fundraising initiative Leah-Anne has for her latest children’s book.

Leah-Anne Bott’s top tips for young autistic individuals

Leah Anne Bott's dog Leeson“Consider a support dog. I’m living my best life thanks to my dog Leeson, pictured. I went through a really rough few years, but a mixture of growing up, being on the right meds, therapy and counselling, getting through puberty, the right support and this handsome boy has allowed me to spread my wings and fly! My gorgeous pup Leeson recently helped me take a bus ride after a trying morning. It took three attempts to actually get on the bus, but I did it, and he was a super star the whole time! I would add that assistance dogs aren’t for everyone though, and are a lot of hard work. They are animals not miracle workers; however can do amazing things!” Visit Support Dogs’ website.

“Remember, you never know what your autistic child is capable of. Never forget to celebrate the little things, because the little things are HUGE! If your child is expressing a want to start being more independent, these are the three things I’d recommend to help turn coping into thriving:”

1. Give them something to hold – it gives a sense of stability and continuance. No matter what goes wrong, you still have X to hold onto (I use Leeson’s grounding handle, but before him, I’d used a soft toy or a hoodie string).

2. Let them have something to stim with – it helps with self soothing and distraction (I use my chewigem sensory seeking chewy product, but before that, I used a tangle sensory toy).

3. Offer them something to provide or prevent sensory input – this will depend on if you’re a sensory seeker, e.g. seeking sensory input like pressure or movement, or an avoider (I use my wireless headphones or ear defenders for avoidance, but for sensory seeking, something scented like a bit of cloth with perfume sprayed on it may be useful).

Leah-Anne is currently raising funds for her latest kids’ book, Unique but United, in the Wagging Tales series.

leah anne bott“This is a children’s picture book that aims to support autistic children as they learn about their diagnosis,” she explains. “This is the sequel to Pesky Penguins, a story in which children learnt about anxiety and the penguins that are causing mayhem in their heads.”

“There are many books about autism, but few are written by an autistic author, and even fewer are written for autistic children, instead of their neurotypical peers,” she continues.

“As a young autistic woman, my voice has often been lost in the crowd, but as I grew, I found my voice.”

“I want to use my letters, my words, my voice to support young autistic children,” Leah-Anne concludes. Her books are Pesky Penguins and the new title, Unique but United.


Click HERE to help fund Leah-Anne’s Unique but United book. #actuallyautistic

Our own book ‘Autism from A to Z’ is now widely available – purchase here.

Autistic social engagement challenges can improve – and NOT by masking

Autistic social engagement challenges can improve – and NOT by masking

I think I had always assumed that the social communicative differences in autistic people were somehow set in stone, and that, in my own case, with very few exceptions such as when communicating with my spouse or close friends, organic social engagement could only truly be alleviated by masking, to some degree.

But what I have experienced recently has shown me that, by taking into account elements of neuroscience, cognitive behavioural therapies (including Hypno-CBT), polyvagal theory and general personal development, the social engagement ‘schema’ – schema being a pattern in the brain – can be improved in autistic individuals.

My polyvagal research hasn’t been autism targeted

Two men walking, to illustrate autism articleI don’t think I had ever called ‘social engagement’ by this term, until I read about polyvagal theories – see below for a brief explanation and link. (Incidentally, I am aware there’s a book by Holly Bridges targeted specially to the autistic market, called ‘Reframe Your Thinking Around Autism: How the Polyvagal Theory and Brain Plasticity Help Us Make Sense of Autism’ – but I haven’t read it yet – it’s on my list, and I imagine some people will love it, and some people will not.)

My polyvagal research hasn’t been autism targeted – I am in the midst of two non-niche, polyvagal courses currently (one on trauma, and one on psychotherapy), as I have just qualified to be a cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist, and aim to specialise in helping neurodivergent people make positive changes to their lives, when I launch Arrive Therapy in June/July 2021. I hoped that my research and studies into this and other theories would enable me to help other autistic people; but weirdly, hadn’t thought about if it would help me, as an autistic woman.

Autists have different levels of social engagement

I have noticed recently that what I would call my ‘social engagement schema’ has improved. Now, I want to make it clear that I understand fully that this will be an ebb and flow – that personal experience, environment and all of the usual challenges will affect how ‘socially capable’ we are (or want to be). If I am out of spoons, if I am overwhelmed, tired or am experiencing all of the usual triggers, naturally this part of my brain will respond differently. I also acknowledge that it is different for all people, and that in the first place, autists have different levels of social engagement (or interest in it!) to begin with. I just feel that my capacity for social engagement in the natural sense, not the masking sense, has developed or expanded. (I imagine that it can also shrink, if left unattended).

Today on one of my professional talking therapy courses, I had to undertake an exercise in ‘free association’ (google ‘Freud free association’, and you will get the gist!) that was so excruciating, it made my cells shudder – and this foreboding was true for many of my neurotypical peers too. As I undertook the ‘talking about myself’ exercise, I felt vulnerable, awkward, scared and all of those other emotions that sit alongside these fragile ones. (‘I am autistic! I like structure! I like control – I don’t do spontaneity!’, my mind whirred.) But I did it, as a person that isn’t a ‘talker’ and an ‘over-sharer’; as a highly sensitive person; and as an introvert – and at the end, I felt a little empowered. It occurred to me afterwards that in the recent days, weeks and months, my social engagement schema has improved, and it ISN’T through masking. It’s through neuroplasticity of the brain, and self-efficacy. (That feeling of ‘I can do this’).

Here are the factors that I believe have helped my autistic social engagement system:

*Learning about polyvagal theory – the parasympathetic nervous system is coordinated by the vagus nerve, and one of its two pathways – the ventral vagal, which responds to cues of social engagement and safety – can actually be influenced by ourselves, via breathing, muscle relaxation and even the reduction of negative thoughts. Because, yes, these thoughts bring physical body changes and sensations.

Two females talking _ to illustrate communication between NTs and autistics: ASC ASD

  • My knowledge about cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy (Hypno-CBT) and stand-alone CBT techniques. Social engagement issues are closely linked to our belief systems, our negative automatic thoughts: (e.g. ‘They think I am weird – I AM weird! I am not good; I am not enough’ etc), and our self-efficacy. That’s our perceived ability to cope. In learning about behavioural therapy concepts (*see my note below!) such as self-efficacy, assertiveness and disinhibition, and through improving my own personal boundaries and also via better self-esteem via self-development, I have seemingly managed to improve my capacity for social engagement without masking. It feels much more authentic and autonomous. (I am not saying I don’t or won’t mask, far from it. It’s a tool we autists all need to use sometimes, at varying levels; that’s my opinion at least. I am not saying that masking is healthy, but that sometimes it’s a necessary life-tool.)

*I want to make it clear when I mention ‘behavioural therapy concepts’ that I am not alluding in any way to those dreadful coercive techniques that are often labelled similarly to those Swedish songstrels who are famous for ‘Mama Mia’ and ‘Dancing Queen’. You know the field I refer to. I am instead referring to the work of talking therapists like A.T. Beck, Albert Ellis, Andrew Salter, et al. What I mean when I talk about ‘therapy’ for autistic people, in the context of my own knowledge-base, is talking therapy to help autistic people with issues such as anxiety, self-efficacy, confidence, relaxation, self-esteem and social anxiety.

So there you have it, my musings about the fact that our capacity for social engagement as an autistic individual isn’t a card we’re dealt with, that’s finite. It’s malleable, and it’s influenced by areas like reduced anxiety, improved self-efficacy, enhanced confidence, improved relaxation skillsets, boosted self-esteem, and an understanding of the issues of social anxiety, which in turn is often based on negative self-beliefs that we CAN challenge, and change.

I’d love to know your thoughts and experiences in this area! (Read more about the author HERE).

Remember, I don’t claim to be an expert on autism, Hypno-CBT or any other aspect that I discuss in these articles – learning is a journey. Our book ‘Autism from A to Z’ is now widely available – purchase here.

Fundraiser – autism awareness school books

Fundraiser – autism awareness school books

Autism Advocate Kelly-Anne Smith, who supports and empowers neurodiverse families, is launching a campaign for autism awareness week to get autism awareness books into primary schools.

Here’s the details of her project:
“As we start autism awareness week 2021, I would love your support in changing that awareness into acceptance and genuine inclusion – which is why I’ve set up a fundraiser.

I wanted to do something tangible that all of our children and future society will benefit from – I want to get autism awareness books (by both neurotypical and autistic authors) into as many primary schools as possible. Please help by sharing and donating as much as you can 💓. Let’s make a positive change from awareness to acceptance and inclusion for our children – and let’s start today.Visit Kelly-Anne’s fundraising page here. #OurNeurodiverseFamilies #autismacceptance #AutismAwarenessWeek #SENsationalWarriors

Visit Kelly-Anne’s ‘Autism & Parent Support: LivIng A SENsational Life’ Facebook group here.

The shame narrative – why autistic children need to Be Themselves

The shame narrative – why autistic children need to Be Themselves

Let’s look at autism and shame.

I heard a story recently from a parent, whereby a relative had reacted cautiously to the news of a seven year old’s autism diagnosis. The reaction was the often-seen trope of caution against labelling; not sharing the diagnosis widely with other children or adults; and guarding against potentially cruel people who may react badly to that difference by being careful about ‘public labelling’.

Autism’s shame narrative

grandparent autistic childThis is a (sadly) common reaction from families. The narrative I see here though is not one of protecting a sensitive autistic soul against the reactions of their mean peers (although let’s remember that today’s school children are probably the most diversity-and-inclusion-educated kids the western world has ever seen); it’s a shame narrative.

There’s lots of info online about shame and its effects, for anyone interested in delving deeper – Hannah Rose LCPC writes: “Shame will lead us to feel incapable of growth and change.” The Peaceful Parent Institute writes: “Shame can result in lower self-esteem and negative self-talk, or potentially over time, [the child] losing belief in themselves.” It’s true that autism has a stigma attached to it, and like many marginalised groups, autists feel the brunt of this stigma.

The exact same narrative of not being openly yourself, outwardly fitting into the mainstream and hiding your differences is the viewpoint that’s historically caused many LGBTQ+ individuals to grow up feeling shameful.

Autism’s outdated viewpoint

female child - for autism article on spectra.blogIt’s also an outdated viewpoint for the field of neurodiversity – diagnoses help children gain access to further support; diagnoses (from an educated viewpoint) help spread awareness of autism and other conditions to teachers and parents who would otherwise be none the wiser; and they help give the autistic child a sense of identity.

Trust me, growing up autistic with no diagnosis and no emotional support for your differences is crushing. A common simile that autists cite feeling like is ‘someone from another planet’. An outsider.

To deny a young autistic person a sense of agency, autonomy and individualism by effectively hiding their true self is to make them feel shameful.

Autism is not a label, just as Gay is not a label. An autistic person is autistic and a gay person is gay. Using shame based narratives says more about the person with this viewpoint and their core beliefs than it does about the individual in question.

The take home message here is, please support your autistic relatives to be themselves; they don’t have to shout their autisticness from the rooftops; they can disclose it when it’s appropriate and timely. But to deliberately hide or diminish it for fear of others’ reactions is not healthy.

#autism #actuallyautistic #neurodiversity #neurodivergence

WHY NOT READ THIS BLOG ON BEING AUTHENTICALLY AUTISTIC, TOO?

Exploring what being ‘authentically autistic’ means

A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about autism; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. Our book ‘Autism from A to Z’ is now widely available – purchase here.

How autistic people & their talking therapist / hypnotherapist can create a therapeutic relationship

How autistic people & their talking therapist / hypnotherapist can create a therapeutic relationship

How autistic people & their talking therapist / hypnotherapist can create a therapeutic relationship – a guest blog by Kathy at Arrive Therapy.

If you’re considering cognitive therapy or hypnotherapy as an autistic person – maybe to help with areas such as anxiety, self-efficacy, confidence, relaxation, self-esteem, social anxiety etc – you may be concerned about whether it’s for you.

In our blog ‘Can hypnotherapy, Hypno-CBT and mindfulness tools help autistic individuals’, I wrote about possible barriers to taking up talking therapy or Hypno-CBT for autistic individuals – these included (but aren’t limited to) –

 

1. A barrier to a good working alliance (therapeutic relationship) with the therapist, due to autism’s ‘socio-communication’ characteristics.

2. Difficulties with interoception (our ‘body feelings’) may reduce awareness of sensations and emotions.

3. Issues of cognitive flexibility may affect one’s ability to consider alternative possibilities (e.g. in terms of thoughts, beliefs and behaviours).

4. Sensory sensitivities may affect the efficacy of practiced tasks between sessions.

In this blog, let’s look a little more at autism’s ‘socio-communication’ characteristics, and how that may affect an autist’s choice of talking therapist or hypnotherapy practitioner. Obviously if you’re a fan of spectra.blog you’ll know that autism is widely considered to be a set of neurology configurations affecting the individual’s processing abilities, at varying levels – hence the term ‘spectrum’ in the diagnostic phrase, ‘autism spectrum disorder’ – so, no two autists are the same!

 

Is autism hyperfunctioning of neural circuitry?

One interesting theory (developed by Kamila and Henry Markram, and Tania Rinaldi) proposes that autism is a mental overload. The Intense World Theory proposes that autism may be described by hyper-perception, hyper-attention and hyper-memory, with the brain’s major functions working at increased capacity that leaves little ‘energy’ for social interactions.

The Intense World Theory also supports the idea that rather than a lack of empathy (a common myth), autists experience over-sensitivity in the field of empathetic responses. Many autists agree with the concepts behind these theories, and the idea of hyperfunctioning of neural circuitry, and a state of over-arousal for autistic individuals. The lack of energy’ (or spoons – see this blog for a definition) for social interactions extends to talking therapy too!

Socio-communication and autism

Whether or not you agree with theories like this, socio-communication characteristics (or difficulties) are definitively a key area for autistic people. Modern theorists agree that the ‘issue’ doesn’t just lie with the autistic person however, but cite a double empathy concern.
This considers the fact that two or more individuals of differing neurologies (e.g. autistic and neurotypical or non-autistic) often communicate in a different way than two or more people with a similar neurology will do. (Autists are for example often drawn to other autists, or ‘sensitive’ types. It is usually a subconscious ‘attraction’ based on neuroception.)

Many aspects of autistic social presentation are described by diagnosing clinicians as being ‘atypical’ in autistic individuals, including abnormal facial expressivity, irregular use of gaze, lower rates (or unusual timing) of expressive gestures, and unusual speech patterns.

These communication differences sometimes mean that autistic people may find socialisation difficult if it feels out of their control, includes large numbers of people, is worsened by sensory issues, or relates to areas that are difficult for them – for example, induces social anxiety, shame or embarrassment.

Autistic bandwidth

(Of course, some autistic people, although this isn’t exclusive to autists, are non-verbal, or can communicate verbally at different levels on different days. This warrants a different conversation and another blog post – one for another day!)

Autists may also sometimes feel ‘overloaded’ – through the experiences of their day, the surrounding environment, and any number of factors that have consumed their ‘emotional bandwidth’ on that day, or at that time.

Talking at length with them, and talking at all sometimes, can be an extra drain on their bandwidth and resources.

Hence, because autists may communicate in subtly different ways, talking therapists may need to adjust their processes to suit the individual.

Why autism’s ‘socio-communication’ characteristics are not a barrier to Hypno-CBT therapy

 

If you’re considering cognitive therapy or hypnotherapy as an autistic person – maybe to help with areas such as anxiety, self-efficacy, confidence, relaxation, self-esteem, social anxiety etc – you should work with a therapist who understands autism.

Some examples of what you should expect as an autistic client, if you’re seeking Hypno-CBT include:

1. The hypnotherapist knows that your body language (something that behavioural hypnotherapists take into account a great deal in their therapy) may present differently. E.g. your facial expressivity, use of gaze, expressive gestures etc may be different, and not indicative of what you’re feeling.

2. The hypnotherapist knows that your speech patterns may also not be indicative of what you’re feeling. As autists, sometimes we may seem ‘flat’ and neutral, when in fact we are very content or happy.

3. Your therapist knows that you may need extra processing time – this may be to find a certain word, visualise a scene, or process an emotion.

4. The hypnotherapist is aware that initially, the social anxiety presented by working with a new person (a stranger initially) may exacerbate the issue they would like help with. Understanding these issues and putting the client at ease means the required working alliance or relationship can progress.

5. The room (if it is a face to face meeting) is sensory friendly – the hypnotherapist can find out in advance any requirements regarding lighting that may need to be met. Factors like traffic noise, buzzing electrical devices and conversations from the next room, could all affect the working alliance for autistic people, in terms of distractions.

6. (It is important to note that working online, e.g. via Zoom, may be preferable for autistic people, as the online environment may be deemed to be more comfortable and ‘safer’, from a neuroception point of view.)

I hope this blog has helped allay fears about developing a therapeutic relationship or working alliance with the therapist, due to autism’s ‘socio-communication’ characteristics. We will look at some of the other areas listed at the start of the blog in forthcoming articles!

Read more about therapy and autism at Arrive Therapy’s Hypno-CBT blog.

#neurodiversity#autism#autismacceptance#neurodivergent#actuallyautistic#asd#autistic#neurodiverse#autismspectrum#aspergers#differentnotless#autisticpride#autisticadults#inclusion#anxiety#highlysensitiveperson#hsp#empath#highlysensitive#highlysensitivepeople#empathproblems#selflove#nothingaboutuswithoutus