I have a question for Somatic Experiencing® practitioners: Have you worked with people for whom regular, everyday life is traumatizing? Have you worked with people on the autism spectrum?
Here’s why I’m asking: A few years ago, I worked for a group of 22 college-aged students on the autism spectrum (which includes autism, Asperger’s, and PDD-NOS— or Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). My job was to help the students with all of their academic needs: scheduling, counseling, learning accommodations, tutoring, social services, transportation … I was hired to create a total support system under and around the students so that they could successfully attend college. To do that, I had to study these students and their needs very intently. What I found surprised me.
The reigning theory is that people on the spectrum are not socially adept because they are “mind blind.” They supposedly don’t have a functioning idea of the “otherness” of people, which would mean that they think everyone knows what they know, likes what they like, and thinks how they think. This mind-blindness, so the story goes, means that spectrum people are insensitive.
In my first few days with these students (who almost immediately became my friends), I looked everywhere for this mind-blindness and a lack of sensitivity— but I didn’t find either one. In fact, I saw hypersensitivity— painful hypersensitivity. And instead of mind-blindness, I saw a continual, time-lagged confusion about what was going on with and between neurotypicals (this is a new term used in the autistic community when referring to “normal” people).
My new friends were incredibly sensitive to sounds (especially very quiet sounds that many neurotypicals can ignore), colors, patterns, vibrations, scents, the wind, movement (their own and that of the people around them), the feeling of their clothing, the sound of their own hair and their breathing, food, touch, numbers, animals, social space, social behavior, electronics, the movement of traffic, the movement of trees and birds, ideas, music, juxtapositions between voice and body movements, and the often emotionally incongruent behaviors neurotypicals exhibit. Many of my friends were struggling to stand upright in turbulent and unmanageable currents of incoming stimuli that could not be stopped, bargained with, ignored, moderated, or organized.
In short, they were overwhelmingly, intensely, unremittingly, outrageously sensitive— not merely in relation to emotions and social cues, but to every possible aspect of their environments. In fact, I wrote a post about this heightened sensitivity at a site called Autism and Empathy. This is a big issue that isn’t being addressed very well.
My friends were essentially on fire most of the time, and this often created a great deal of emotional turmoil, as you can imagine. However, because they struggled with communication and socialization, it was hard for them to address or deal with their often intense reactions. Some would completely withdraw, some would try to connect to others by launching into monologues, some would engage in “stimming” (a repetitive action that can bring some sense of peace and control), and others would lash out. Being on the spectrum is a very difficult thing when the world around you— with its constant noise, confusion, emotional inconsistency, and demands for attention— is built for neurotypical people who simply aren’t as sensitive as you are, and can’t understand why so many things set you off.
So my question for Somatic Experiencing practitioners is this: Have you done any work with people on the spectrum in terms of helping them find skills to manage the hyperarousal they experience on an everyday basis? Would SE be a helpful form of support? Thank you!
Karla McLaren is an author, social science researcher, a cappella arranger, and empath. Her most recent book is The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You.
Photo by hepingting