For awhile now I’ve been interested in how trauma gets laid down in the brain, because I’ve wondered if the way sensory and other stimuli hit the autistic brain carries a risk of causing trauma, especially with research suggesting persistent connections in such brains. I’ve wondered if such connections effectively mean that, for example, ongoing environmental stimuli don’t give the autistic brain time to recover from moment to moment, creating a kind of mounting pressure.
In comes a story on Spectrum today about sensory overload and hypervigilance which seems to support pretty much exactly this idea.
In most people, sensory stimuli such as noises or unusual textures trigger activity in brain regions that process sensory information. If the stimuli persist, however, the brain tamps down its response. This process, called habituation, enables people to tune out unimportant sensations — such as the sound of an air conditioner or the feeling of a wool sweater on bare skin — so that they can pay attention to new information.
The new study found that some autistic children don’t show habituation — and this may explain why these children show unusual responses to sensations, such as covering their ears in noisy environments or refusing to wear clothes with itchy tags, says lead investigator Shulamite Green, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Habituation. Hypervigilence. Suddenly I have terminology to describe what I’ve been trying to get at.
The article suggests that this means “exposure therapy” likely will not work for the autistic brain, with an unrelated researcher therefore noting a need for “another way to treat” autistic people. I have a suggestion: accommodate this disability by subjecting autistic people to as few stressors as possible, rather than trying to find a way to “treat” it, per se.
Such accommodations which should include adaptive methods of psychotherapy for autistic people, since presumably therapy is not meant to cause further trauma.
With these various bits of research converging on the idea that the autistic brain is one that experiences trauma just by moving through the world around it, this, too, should start suggesting to psychotherapy new pathways for their autistic patients. It’s not, perhaps, about “treating” the autism, but about addressing the trauma.