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Defense Mode: Why people with Asperger's seem stuck & shutdown so often

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Danny Raede


Defense Mode is one of the 4 core pillars of the AE Model. This is a state in which someone with Asperger’s is scared, frustrated, or angry, as well as shut down and & withdrawn. In Defense Mode, everything is harder because you are constantly trying to protect against an imminent, perceived, but extremely vague threat. The perceived threat creates the same anxiety as a true life threatening situation. Fortunately, the vast majority are not actual threats, but merely signals that the brain perceives as threats.

In scientific terms, what is going on is a complex biological, neurological & psychological rat’s nest of “problems” that all compound on each other (but have roots in low vagal tone). Simply put, there is simply too much to process at once. Most of it is internal and unseen.

From an outside perspective Defense Mode can look like someone who is unmotivated, unwilling, uncooperative or “rude”. I’ve heard it called Oppositional Defiant Disorder, PTSD, lack of motivation, video game addiction and all sorts of other names.

With limited understanding, all of those are accurate to a point. They miss, however, the key understanding of Defense Mode: People with Asperger’s and Autism are in Defense Mode and shut down because they are scared, upset and/or angry, not because they are trying to spite you, or be rude, or defiant. And yes, it sucks as much as you might think. To complicate matters, it is scary to be angry with the people who support you when you are in are in Defense Mode. Add a fear of abandonment to the mix and it gets really complicated.

When you are in Defense Mode, since you spend the majority of your resources fighting your feelings, the outside world and anything you perceive as threatening, you have very little leftover resources for day to day functioning.

Someone who is in Defense Mode also has a hard time regulating their emotional state, connecting with others, not obsessing over 1 singular thing completely and finding their way in life (both metaphorically and physically).

So until you get out of Defense Mode, it is very hard to learn social skills, make friends, be productive in school or a job, and take care of yourself and manage the overwhelm and stress that can come with everyday life.

However, once you get OUT of Defense Mode, everything changes. Because you are not fighting your feelings with all your resources, you suddenly have 100x more energy than you used to. Your body and mind begin to work well together, and you feel like you’re gaining all sorts of super powers.

In reality, those super powers are just parts of your body and mind getting out of the freeze loop and turning back on. It is pretty super, though.

How to tell if someone is in Defense Mode

So how do you know if someone is in Defense Mode, whether that is you or someone else? Usually people who are in Defense Mode are shut down, retreated into themselves and withdrawn.

They tend to flip flop between fear or anger and shutdown, have health or gut issues and generally seem on edge all the time. In short: They are on edge and defensive. A lot.

Defense Mode is the underlying cause of 99% of the issues we work with our clients & customers on here at Asperger Experts. Once you get out of Defense Mode, it’s like a light switch gets turned on.

Suddenly you can see. Suddenly everything is easier. Suddenly you “get it”.

So how do you get out of Defense Mode?

The more you fight, the more you are in Defense Mode. That means resisting your feelings, your environment, your relationships and your body and mind.

The more you accept, trust and allow your feelings (whatever they may be), environment, relationships and body & mind, the less you are in Defense Mode. Connections become more apparent and valuable.

In short: More connection (with anything or anyone) = Less Defense Mode.

More separation (from anything or anyone) = More Defense Mode.

So, the ways to get out of Defense Mode involve building trust in the areas of feelings, sensations, environments, relationships and your bodymind. Here are some of our favorite ways to do that:

Being With It - This is the simplest of them all. Allow. Let all your feelings be as they are. That means not controlling them, manipulating them, trying to change them, avoiding or resisting them, or stuffing them down and ignoring them. Let them be as they are and observe.

I promise that if you do this for 1 min, and fully commit to not changing anything and simply observing it all, it will change your life.

Holding The Space - In short: Patience. Give yourself some space to just be. Without judgement. Without the need to be productive. Without the need to fix. Just forgive, accept and give yourself time. Holding The Space is also a great thing to do for someone else.

Thich Naht Hanh & Oprah do a great job explaining how to validate & hold space in this short video.

Reframing Stress

Did you know stress is only bad for you… if you think it is? That’s the conclusion of a brilliant TED talk by Kelly McGonigal.

She found that, when tracking people over time, the ones who suffered from stress were the ones who believed stress was bad for them. Those who didn’t believe stress was bad, but instead saw it as their bodies way of gearing up to meet a challenge suffered no ill effects from the stress in their lives.

You can watch the entire talk here.

Understanding How Defense Mode works (at a deeper level)

As I’ve said, one of the best ways to get out of Defense Mode is to simply understand how it works on a deeper level, so you can know what to expect.

To get a deeper understanding of Defense Mode, you can go ahead and purchase our Deep Into Defense Mode course. As with all our courses, if you don’t love the results you get, we are happy to give you a full refund any time with a year of purchase-- No questions asked.

We also routinely hold weekend workshops on getting out of Defense Mode. They are limited to 50 people per venue and have historically always sold out. Dates, Locations, Registration & more details can be found here.


Meditation techniques (like Transcendental Meditation) are a great tool to learn how to settle, be calm, and get comfortable with true relaxation. We use them all the time here at AE with great success.

Sometimes when starting a meditation practice, people report that it makes them feel worse. This is especially the case for people in Defense Mode.

What they don’t know is that their body is just releasing the old, pent up trauma & discomfort they have bottled up for so long. We HIGHLY suggest that if that is the case for you, you seek out a Somatic Experiencing or TRE (Trauma Release Exercises) practitioner, who can assist you in the emotional release in a healthy, controlled manner.

Different people need different techniques. The point is taking steps to honor and accept your own experience, and use it as a guide in your search for the right method for you.

There are multiple paths up the mountain, but they all lead to the same place.

So where do you go from here?

Take a moment to go over this article again and reflect. Then start to work on building trust and getting out of Defense Mode.

You can also purchase our Deep Into Defense Mode course, where you'll learn in depth about the 4 main ways to get out of Defense Mode, how to create a safe space for someone in Defense Mode, and our process for helping you build trust and connection with your child with Asperger’s.

Or, if you'd like in person help, join us for an in person weekend workshop on getting out of Defense Mode.

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