People with autism very much want to have fulfilling experiences, but it is difficult. One of the reasons for this difficulty is that our nervous system is very sensitive. We have challenges with sensory processing. Sensory processing is the ability of the brain to process and send signals to the nervous system, which turns the signals into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. Until I took a community college course about Intercultural Communications, I did not know about the concept of behavioral flexibility, which comes more naturally to neurotypicals (those without autism).
As explained in my book, A Full Life with Autism (Macmillan 2012) Behavioral flexibility is the ability to select an appropriate behavior to fit different communication contexts. It also refers to “environmental mobility” that requires a person to cope with different kinds of people in different types of circumstances. A person can select a method of communication from a host of options (ie selecting appropriate strategies). The way I see it, behavioral flexibility is the ability to switch our behaviors according to the settings we are in.
I think behavioral flexibility is an interesting term in both the neurotypical and the autism cultures. The difference is it comes a lot more naturally to neurotypicals because people with autism have a harder time understanding that flexibility.
Autistic people have many factors that stand in the way of being flexible with their behaviors due to sensory processing issues. People with autism are extremely sensitive to noise, lights and many times, touch. We also need direct instruction with regards to how we might behave in different environments. For example, I need to know what the rules of expected behavior are. When I was younger I learned the rules of going to the library. My nice tutors would give me the rules: “Touch books nicely and keep your hands to yourself and help put books in the red bin.” If I followed the rules I got to go for French fries after spending time with the books, if not, I had to immediately leave the library that I loved.
Neurotypicals have behavioral flexibility and adapt their behavior according to different factors such as: very small groups vs. large groups. Neurotypical people change their behavior depending on the social group such as whether they are in church or in a bar. The group of people you are with also changes your behavior. Being in Las Vegas with your family is different than being there with your male buddies.
I really don’t understand neurotypical flexibility because I am not one. For a person with autism like me, it is difficult to be flexible because my sensory system is behaviorally intensely feeling everything. We work hard at learning to moderate our responses and to become flexible; it does not come naturally to most of us on the spectrum.
Those of us with autism work hard to learn over time to self-regulate our responses to the everyday environment. As an example, here are five every day sensory experiences that are problematic for me but that I have learned to tolerate or adapt to:
1. Bright lights: My body feels very badly from bright lights: it just hurts. Very bright lights can make me need to leave a room.
2. Eye contact: I cannot process visually and auditorily at the same time, so I cannot give eye contact when listening to people. I choose the listening over the seeing, to understand what the person is saying.
3. Loud noises: My body doesn’t tolerate loud noises well. My top need is for an environment that is not noisy. For example, at Starbucks there are different noises, such as the coffee machines and people speaking at the same time that is painful for me.
4. Challenging smells: It is difficult because my nose is sensitive and smells everything. I cannot block out the unpleasant ones. The smell of objects and people is distracting and challenging. At Starbucks, I can smell the coffee and the nice perfume people are wearing. I can also smell the deodorant and hand cream on people and that is distracting. The bad smell of smoker’s fumes on their clothes is challenging.
5. Random touching: My body doesn’t like to be touched by random people. I need to prepare for people touching me because it can be very painful. If I know the person, usually I can prepare for their touch that I am used to. Strangers are difficult because I don’t know how their touch will feel.
The good news is that over time and with therapy we learn strategies to help us tolerate situations and environments, and we are able to participate in activities even with these sensory challenges. We learn also to give ourselves time to recuperate after having been exposed to too many environmental stressors.
Organizations such as the Autism Research Institute assist families in many ways, including in understanding how to help their children with sensory challenges such as using sensory integration therapy. The role of the therapist is to provide the child with sensory information which helps organize the central nervous system, to assist the child in inhibiting and/or modulating sensory information, and to assist the child in processing a more organized response to sensory stimuli. With such help, children can learn to have more behavioral flexibility, giving hope that they can have fulfilling experiences throughout their life.
Youth Representative for the Autism Research Institute