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Autistic social engagement challenges - a schema approach ( content)

This is a blog that was originally posted at in 2021. This site is being rested, and some of the content is being shared here. These are not written from a therapist's perspective, but a personal perspective.

I think I had always assumed that the social communicative differences in autistic people were somehow set in stone. I think I had assumed that, in my own case (before more recent self growth and development, and also education about neuroscience and cognitive behavioural theories), with very few exceptions such as when communicating with my spouse or close friends, organic social engagement could only truly be alleviated by masking, to some degree.

But what I have experienced in the last six years has shown me that, by taking into account elements of neuroscience, cognitive behavioural theories, polyvagal theory and general personal development, the social engagement ‘schema’ – schema being a pattern in the brain – can be improved in autistic individuals. (Without 'social skills' training).

The social engagement system I don’t think I had ever used the term ‘social engagement’ in terms of a system until I read about polyvagal theories. (Incidentally, I am aware there’s a book by Holly Bridges targeted specially to the autistic market, called ‘Reframe Your Thinking Around Autism: How the Polyvagal Theory and Brain Plasticity Help Us Make Sense of Autism’ – but I haven’t read it. From what I know, I imagine some people will love it, and some people will not.)

Autists have different levels of social engagement

I noticed when I started researching neuroscience and polyvagal theories with an autism lens, that what I would call my ‘social engagement schema’ improved. Now, I want to make it clear that I understand fully that this will be an ebb and flow – that personal experience, environment and all of the usual challenges will affect how ‘socially capable’ we are (or want to be). If I am out of 'spoons' (emotional energy units), if I am overwhelmed, tired or am experiencing all of the usual triggers, naturally this part of my brain will respond differently.

I also acknowledge that it is different for all people, and that in the first place, autists have different levels of social engagement (or interest in it!) to begin with. I just feel that my capacity for social engagement in the natural sense, not the masking sense, developed or expanded when I purposefully educated myself about the processes. (I imagine that it can also shrink, if left unattended).

A while back on a CPD course, I had to undertake an exercise in ‘free association’ (google ‘Freud free association’, and you will get the gist!) that was so excruciating, it made my cells shudder – and this foreboding was true for many of my neurotypical peers too. As I undertook the ‘talking about myself’ exercise, I felt vulnerable, awkward, scared and all of those other emotions that sit alongside these fragile ones. (‘I am autistic! I like structure! I like control – I don’t do spontaneity!’, my mind whirred.) But I did it, as a person that isn’t a ‘talker’ and an ‘over-sharer’; as a highly sensitive person; and as an introvert. And at the end, I felt a little empowered. It occurred to me that while my social engagement schema had improved, it wasn't through masking. It was through neuroplasticity of the brain, and self-efficacy. (That feeling of ‘I can do this’).

Here are the two main factors that I believe helped my social engagement system shift -

1.Personally applying polyvagal theory The parasympathetic nervous system is coordinated by the vagus nerve, and one of its two pathways – the ventral vagal, which responds to cues of social engagement and safety – can actually be influenced by ourselves, via breathing, muscle relaxation and even the reduction of negative thoughts. Because, yes, these thoughts bring physical body changes and sensations.

The graphic above is by Justin Sunseri and shows the primary autonomic nervous system states as well as the mixed states. We can help to ‘shift’ our states to something more helpful (and train ourselves to access our social engagement system) by making choices to do things that release energy in the way that’s needed. E.g. walking or running, music, art and creativity, using movement like dance or somatic work, humming, chanting and singing, specific skin tapping, meditation and grounding exercises. 2.Utilising CBT techniques.

Social engagement issues are closely linked to our belief systems, our negative automatic thoughts: (e.g. ‘They think I am weird – I AM weird! I am not good; I am not enough’ etc), and our self-efficacy. That’s our perceived ability to cope. In focussing on behavioural therapy concepts such as self-efficacy, assertiveness and disinhibition, and through improving my own personal boundaries, I improved my capacity for social engagement without masking. This is more authentic and autonomous. (I am not saying I don’t or won’t mask, far from it. It’s a tool we autists all need to use sometimes, at varying levels; that’s my opinion at least. I am not saying that masking is healthy, but that sometimes it’s a necessary life-tool. Let's say you are heading home and, in order to not appear rude, 'need' to talk to your neighbours, or at least smile; even though you may not feeling like engaging. By engaging we are masking, even though it met their need, not ours.)

Let me be explicit by the way, that if I am talking about any kind of assertiveness therapies relating to autists, I am referring to the work of talking therapists like A.T. Beck, Albert Ellis, Andrew Salter, et al. E.g. talking therapy to help autistic people with issues such as anxiety, self-efficacy, confidence, relaxation, self-esteem and social anxiety. I do not advocate coercive skills programmes.

So there you have it, my musings about the fact that our capacity for social engagement as an autistic individual isn’t a card we’re dealt with, that’s finite. It’s malleable, and it’s influenced by areas like reduced anxiety, improved self-efficacy, enhanced confidence, improved relaxation skillsets, boosted self-esteem, and an understanding of the issues of social anxiety, which in turn is often based on negative self-beliefs that we CAN challenge, and change.


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