"Dear Asperger Experts,
We are struggling and could really use some advice. We have been trying for months to talk to my son with Asperger’s (age 17) about some of his ongoing issues, and these conversations continually hit a brick wall. He has NO interest in learning basic social skills, getting a job, doing his homework, practicing basic hygiene, eating healthier… the list goes on. In fact, it seems he only cares about playing video games. He almost never leaves his room! When he does come out he’s usually angry, sullen, and impossible to talk to. Last night he had a severe meltdown which ended with broken dishes all over the kitchen floor.
I know most teenagers are moody, but this feels extreme. He’s been this way for years and I don’t understand why. HELP!
It’s deeply frustrating when we see our children floundering and feel powerless to help them. There’s no doubt that your son would benefit from a deeper understanding of social skills or from a better homework routine. However, what many people don’t realize is that trying to teach social skills (or anything else) is the last step in the process when working with someone on the Autism Spectrum, not the first. Metaphorically speaking, before we can build a roof to keep the rain off our heads, we need to build the walls and foundation. Step one in building your foundation is to help your son get out of Defense Mode. Those other steps, such as teaching and communication, come later on.
We define Defense Mode as a state in which someone with Asperger’s is scared, frustrated, or angry, as well as shut down and withdrawn. Think of it like this: Imagine a soldier who is caught in the middle of a firefight. Bullets are flying overhead and explosions are booming in the distance. The soldier will be on constant alert for any kind of threat, and the slightest trigger could send him over the edge into full-on fight-or-flight. He’s physically, mentally, and emotionally overwhelmed.
Now imagine that the soldier's sweet, kindly grandmother comes hobbling up to him. Grandma really wants to teach him to knit, and she wants to do it now. After all, knitting is an important life skill and he really needs to learn it.
How effective do you imagine Grandma’s teaching is going to be? Can the soldier actually learn anything in that moment? Can he devote mental and emotional resources to this new task? Probably not. Additionally, how is the soldier going to react? He’s probably going lash out, run away, or shut down. Defense Mode always manifests in one of those three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. Grandma will naturally be surprised by this. After all, when she lovingly offers to teach someone knitting the last thing she expects is to get yelled at.
In a nutshell, that’s what Defense Mode is. That’s the philosophy that underlies everything we do here at AE.
The difference between your son and the soldier is that (hopefully) there aren’t any bullets and explosions involved. Instead, your son is repeatedly traumatized by his own experience of reality. If you want to really understand the science of this you can find a lot of recommended books and awesome material on our website. That said, here’s the short and sweet version:
According to the Intense World Theory and the science of vagal tone, individuals with Asperger’s feel some sensations and emotions differently and more intensely than the average person. If we look at it on a stress scale of one to ten, a neurotypical person might experience an itchy shirt tag or a tense moment of anxiety as a level three; they don’t get overwhelmed. An individual with Asperger’s, on the other hand, could have those exact same experiences and to them it feels like a level ten. Oftentimes, it’s so much that they can’t cope. They become traumatized, so they shut down and go into Defense Mode.
When someone finds themselves in Defense Mode, safety becomes priority number one, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. For example, they may try to feel safe through bursts of anger, following rigid routines, or escaping into video games. Anything that gives them a semblance of comfort, control, and certainty. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with trying to seek out a feeling of certainty. It is a basic, psychological need that all human beings have. The issues arise when the means to that end (i.e. the behaviors) become unhealthy or problematic, such as playing video games for sixteen hours a day. These sorts of difficult behaviors, combined with the natural permutations of life, often create circumstances that lead to more stress and overwhelm, which leads to more Defense Mode, and it keeps on spiraling ever downward. Then just rinse and repeat. Eventually, given time, Defense Mode becomes their default setting; the only reality they’ve ever known.
Before the soldier can even attempt to learn the ancient art of knitting doilies he first needs to get to a place where he feels completely safe. Before your son can learn social skills, change his homework habits, feel motivated to get a job, or willingly take a shower in the morning, he needs to get out of Defense Mode. Then, and only then, will effective communication, problem solving, and growth be possible.