If you are interested in taking part in Spectrum 10k for yourself as an autistic person or an autistic family member, we suggest delving into the info provided by the Spectrum 10k study, including its focus on DNA, and reading some of the autistic community’s concerns:
PODCAST – intro to neurodiversity, neurodivergence, ADHD & autism for primary and junior school kids
PODCAST – intro to neurodiversity, neurodivergence, ADHD & autism for primary and junior school kids
CLICK THE PICTURE TO GO TO THE PODCAST!
We aim to use simple language and celebrate the positives of autism and ADHD, as well as educating kids about acceptance.
Please note, this podcast is for education purposes only.
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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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
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
“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.
“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
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
I 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 two main factors that I believe have helped my autistic social engagement system:
1.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.
The graphic on the left is by Justin Sunseri and shows the primary autonomic nervous system states as well as the mixed states.
We can help to ‘shift’ our states to something more helpful (and train ourselves to access our social engagement system) by making choices to do things that release energy in the way that’s needed.
E.g. walking or running, music, art and creativity, using movement like dance or somatic work, humming, chanting and singing, specific skin tapping, meditation and grounding exercises.
2.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.
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.