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.