Removing the challenges – not the diagnosis

…why this work should not be misinterpreted as a “cure”

I have just come across a Facebook advertisement asking for participants with a diagnosis of autism for clinical trials for a “treatment for autism”.

The advertisement has, unsurprisingly, been met with lots of “angry” reactions and angry comments from people who feel that autism is not a disease that needs “treating”.

I agree – it’s NOT. Autism is a neuro-developmental difference, not a disease.

However, I do believe that if the challenges of autism are causing a person to be held back, it is good to try to attempt to reduce those challenges. Not just for the autistic person, but also for parents/carers/friends/family.

I’m fairly sure that parents/carers etc would love their autistic relations to be able to cope better with transitions, sensory input and situations that make them anxious.

Removing these challenges is not a “cure”.

A well-known therapy has been heavily criticised by the ActuallyAutistic movement, because what it does is to condition an autistic person to behave in the way that society expects everyone to behave – that is really all I know about it. However, the therapy mentioned does not “cure” autism at all, and neither does it claim to, as far as I know. However, I suspect that, despite conditioning people to act “appropriately”, it may cause recipients further anxiety, and potentially mental health issues in the future.

What we do as neuro-developmental therapists is nothing to do with “cures”, and certainly nothing at all to do with conditioning behaviour. To us, the term “ASD/ASC” can sometimes be a bit of a mystery in the first place when related to the 40 year-old Polyvagal Theory (see diagram below). To therapists who work with fragile central nervous systems, “neurodiverse” means that the nervous system and brain has developed differently from that of a neurotypical person (except hardly anybody is truly neurotypical in reflex terms). What is wrong with trying to work with it, and give the system a second chance to develop?

When I had just started training, I had my Fear Paralysis Reflex triggered by one of the exercises we were carrying out with each other: I went into a sort of non-verbal shock – I could no longer focus on what was being said around me, I felt as if I had tunnel vision and felt extremely on edge. I went home that evening feeling hypervigilant and didn’t sleep well as a result – in fact, I had nightmares – I was in fight or flight mode (flight, in fact). I then spent a few weeks in that very same state – I felt as if I wanted to shrink up and hide from the world. I avoided social contact with people and hardly left the house! This is a prime example of a “freeze” reaction, if you look at Dr Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal theory.

Using a combination of the Safe and Sound Protocol and primitive reflex integration, we can bring people out of fight/flight/freeze and into the social engagement state.

The Safe and Sound Protocol is a five-day listening programme, which exercises the middle ear muscles to train them not to filter out mid-range frequencies when a person is stressed, and also stimulates the vagus nerve to help a person self regulate by regulating the autonomic nervous system. Here is an explanation by Dr Stephen Porges himself:

Summary of the SSP by Dr Stephen Porges
How the SSP works

Using Rhythmic Movement Training techniques to integrate primitive reflexes, we can make a person feel safe in the world and regulate their emotions and behaviour. I talk a lot about reflex integration in my posts, but at this point, it’s worth mentioning this wonderful book, released last week, by Moira Dempsey, which will tell you all you need to know and more, as well as incredible stories of transformation through working with Rhythmic Movement, from all around the world.

This is NOT curing autism, or indeed dyspraxia, OCD, Anxiety, ADHD etc etc – far from it. The same person is still there, with the same superpowers. However, what we have done is to remove the fear and challenges.

We are working with the person, not their medical label.

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