Stress and Autism

Yes, a person diagnosed with autism certainly adds a component of stress to any family but doesn’t any chronic or developmental disability?  The thing I’ve seen on the surface with autism is it seems much more unpredictable and volatile. Which is why, I suppose, that many treatments use a behavioral approach. And I don’t deny that those can help but I’d like to share some thoughts or considerations I’ve been tossing around in my mind.

Stress and Autism. I’m trained in sensory and holistic occupational therapy and when a parent brings a child to me for therapy and the diagnosis is autism I put on my investigator’s hat and I ask my parents to consider the role of being a curious detective as well. Yes, we measure the behaviors in the 3 ways – intensity, duration and frequency … but I’m most interested in the trigger event and even the accumulation of triggering events. What has caused the child to come under stress to the point where their body entered the fight-flight stress mode?

The Canary? 

Why does it seem like kids with autism are more easily triggered by stress? Environmental stress of touch, sights, sounds and smells. Immune vulnerability to infections, inflammation, and vaccines. Gut and digestive problems assimilating foods and nutrients. Seasonal allergies and asthma.

They seem to have real pain and discomfort and the world must seem so unfriendly and unsafe to this group of kiddos. I ask myself, is it really fair to ask them to “behave” in socially appropriate ways when their own body is in this primitive survival state? But I know it’s not an “either / or” situation – the best answer is “both / and”… first we work on creating a relaxation response and then we work on guiding and teaching social behavior.

Why De-stress First? Basically, the stress response gathers body resources for short-term survival (to the fight-flight muscles) and blood is diverted from the thinking part of the brain and from the gut (digestion is for a time when you’re at rest), and the general cellular repair from the immune system is put on hold. Sleep is dangerous because under stress it’s important to be vigilant for the next threat. 

Just imagine trying to learn and grow and thrive when you have symptoms of sleep deprivation and lack of nutrients from difficulty eating and digesting.  But why is the stress response so easily triggered and staying on for these kids? I’m wondering if people with autism are more sensitive to an epigenetic response to toxicity? Mercury, aluminum, lead or other heavy metals; pesticides, hormones or genetically modified foods; radiation, electrical or energy excesses?

Whatever the factors, I’d like others to consider if they see a stress and autism connection too … and whether we are all on that continuum but people with autism are just more sensitive and thus are our metaphorical canary’s … and we all can look for ways to build the relaxation response into our lives!

One thought on “Stress and Autism

  1. Wow, you have put a lot of thought into this article, very interesting. I plan to pass to some people I know that have children with Autism. Some of the parents may get a different view point after reading this.

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