What is Defense Mode?

A TON of our material focuses on something we often refer to as “Defense Mode.”

The term has popped up in most of our products, and we constantly find ourselves informing people of it and its debilitating effects on whoever is caught in it. It’s definitely a complex concept, one that dominates many people’s lives without them even knowing it.

But what is it?

Why do we call it a “success killer?”

Is there any way to avoid it?

We’ve received thousands of questions pertaining to Defense Mode and how it affects people with Asperger’s, so we decided to write a blog post on it. We sincerely hope this gives you better, clearer insight into this issue, and can’t wait to see what you get out of our teachings.

(We also regularly teach about Defense Mode through our free webinars. You can register for the next one here)

Ever wondered why your child violently lashes out at you and your family without cause or warning?

Or why they stay holed up in their dark, dirty rooms and waste away in front of a computer screen?

What about motivation, confidence, or social skills? Why don’t they have any of those very necessary, very important assets? Will they ever be able to live life in the happiest, healthiest, most fulfilled way possible?

If you’ve ever asked yourself any of these questions, then your child is most likely in Defense Mode.

Simply put, Defense Mode is brought about by an overactive fight-or-flight response that is triggered by perceived threats and results in a forfeiture of higher human functioning.

What exactly does this mean?

Well, it means complete cognitive shutdown.

Parts of the brain (the parts responsible for awareness, social connection, motivation, etc.) physically shut down when this fight-or-flight response is triggered. When we say physically shut down, we mean there is literally less blood flow to those parts of the brain, and they don’t work as well.

Because people with Asperger’s struggle with sensory over-stimulation, they tend to process EVERYTHING as a threat because everything is threatening to them. As a result, they are always shut off from the world because their fight-or-flight response is ALWAYS being triggered.

Basically, Defense Mode forces you to forfeit all higher functioning in a desperate, last-ditch effort to numb yourself and preserve your well-being. Additionally, your mind and body remain on high alert and are constantly busying themselves with ensuring your safety instead of enjoying and engaging in life.

When this happens, they are rendered completely incapable of thinking or feeling straight. Trying to “get” them to perform any task would be the conceptual equivalent of asking them to walk outside and fly to school. It’s impossible. In fact, heaping any type of pressure on them often leads to your child viewing YOU as a threat. They will go from trusting you to fearing you, which can make a positive relationship extremely difficult.

They aren’t trying to spite or frustrate you.

They aren’t trying to make your life a nightmare straight out of a Stephen King novel.

They’re living in constant terror. They can’t even think straight because their propensity for sudden overwhelm controls everything they say and do.

They’re terrified of everything, because most of what they know is fear and discomfort.

So, here’s the million dollar question, the holy grail of Asperger’s help: HOW do you get your child out of Defense Mode? What SPECIFICALLY can you do to help them grow, thrive, and become the person they want to be rather than the person they’ve been forced to be?

The answer is love. Let your love for them show in your everyday interactions. Create a safe place for them to process this terrifying overwhelm and let them know that they are valued and valuable.

Your first job is to make sure they stay far from whatever is triggering them until they can process the sensations they’re always feeling. If you’re at the grocery store and they start screaming because they smelled or saw something that triggered them, GET THEM OUT IMMEDIATELY. Keeping them in a traumatizing situation usually teaches them not trust you OR their environment.

Once you get them to a safe place, you can then go about connecting with them. Meet them in their world, and they’ll eventually learn to trust yours. Play video games with them. Go out and do something THEY want to do, even if it’s the last thing you want to be doing.

These simple, easy-to-implement solutions DO work. They’re incredibly effective, but you must be willing to try them first. For more strategies and tips related to getting your child out of Defense Mode, you can find our Deep Into Defense Mode course here, or join us for a free webinar.

Before I leave you, I want you to take a second and imagine how scary Defense Mode truly is. Think about terror gripping you whenever you step out of your house. Think about feeling assaulted by deafening sounds, blinding lights, and foreign smells everywhere you go. Imagine the crippling guilt, loneliness, and shame you feel when you can’t perform basic tasks because you’re unsure if that task is going to overwhelm or destroy you. And finally, imagine being terrified of life.

But like everything else, Defense Mode impacts everyone in different ways, with various degrees of severity. Some people remain completely submerged in their own suffocating fear, while others stand with one foot in, one foot out of Defense Mode. Regardless of severity, though, Defense Mode hinders, scares, and frustrates anyone dealing with it.

I really hope this post helps you see your child with softer eyes, because they aren’t trying to pester or hurt you. They are suffering, but they don’t know how to communicate how they’re feeling.

Please know that you can do this. It may seem tough, even impossible, sometimes, but I sincerely hope you keep on truckin’ and realize that your child needs you more than you can ever know.

If you’d like a more detailed explanation of how Defense Mode works and what goes on in someone with Asperger’s mind when they are in Defense Mode… register for our next free webinar.

Also, consider picking up a copy of the book “In an Unspoken Voice” by Peter Levine. Whenever someone joins the Asperger Experts team, we make it required reading.

162 thoughts on “What is Defense Mode?

  1. I recognize my 16 year-old daughter’s “Defense Mode” problem and hope there are more specific strategies to help her. She responds well to love and my participation in her world, yet she remains extremely low-functioning. There are health problems which flare up and take tons of time to heal (intermittent severe asthma…anemia…migraines). Lowering expectations & offering positive rewards helps slightly whereas negativity begets nothing, or worse. The gap between what she wants to do, such as obtain a job or attend a dance, with her inability to take the needed steps is massive. I’m heartbroken for my child constantly and just joined AE+ for ideas. Thanks!

  2. As strange as this may sound, I highly recommend tabletop RPG’s for people who have Asperger’s. Playing D&D as an undiagnosed aspie in my teens allowed me to be a part of a wide range of simulated experiences.

    These experiences ran from basic social interactions, to death defying combat, all from the safety of an environment I was comfortable in. The main advantage of this was that if I was about to make some kind of social gaff, or if I was misreading the social cue’s being described by the Game Master, then we could pause the game and discuss it. I could also “act out”, as it were (punching a bartender, insulting a king) and witness the results of my actions without having to suffer any actual consequences. I could then take this information, process it, and compare the results to previous experiences.

    Doing this allowed me to handle previously overwhelming situations since I had already experienced a similar, if simulated, version before hand.

    For those people who are trying to connect with friends, or loved ones, who have Asperger’s there are a multitude of gaming sytems each with a variety of settings (fantasy, sci-fi, superhero, and even gothic horror). Sit down and play a game with them. Watch how they react to the various situations they find themselves in. Let them act, and react, naturally without any judgement. Let them experience the consequences of there actions. Afterwards you can talk about the game; what did they like, what didn’t they like, why they did the things they did and what they were hoping to achieve. Create a shared experience, a shared world. Someplace where you can meet each half way.

    I know all of this might sound ridiculous to some (or maybe a lot of you), but you’d be surprised how much you can learn about a person simply by watching them slay imaginary dragons.

    1. I find your above comment fascinating, Jon. My Aspie (very high functioning and conversant) is 9 and loves video games. However, I’m a conservative mom who fears her son becoming a drooling video zombie. Nevertheless, I want to do what’s best for him and if I can learn how to open his world to video games that can help him better relate to people and circumstances, I’m interested.

      Any suggestions on where I can look for more info?

      1. There’s a wealth of information about tabletop games out there, but I think I’d start with Geek and Sundry’s Critical Role, and Will Wheaton’s Tabletop (you can find both on Youtube). That should give you a good idea of how these different types of games are played. For gaming systems I’d suggest the Cypher System, or Fiasco, for their uncomplicated rules and ease of use. Everything is a matter of taste, though, so you might have to search around a bit for something that you and your son can both agree on.

        Hope that helps. Sorry for the late reply.

    2. What is RPG and D & D??? Trying to help my son, who does hole up and play online video games with his friends- He finds it easier to communicate there and has trouble talking in real life.

  3. I am just in the beginning stages of listening to the Deep In Defense Mode and reading the e-mails I’ve been receiving. I am considering dropping counseling sessions that my son and I have been going to for 4 years that have done basically nothing because we didn’t have the correct diagnosis. He was diagnosed in May at age 14 and it’s been a total game changers. It’s like a whole new path has emerged. I am glad I have found this program and am hoping this will turn my son and families life around. It has been truly enlightening. I really appreciate all the real life examples that you give when you are describing a situation. I find that very helpful. I have not told him yet as I am trying very hard to find the right venue and timing to do it. I do not want him to use it as a crutch so I want to make sure to do it properly. I feel like it may be a relief to him to finally know. Thank you for your work and getting this out there.

  4. Thank you both so much for what you are doing for kids and parents. My 13 yr old son in not yet diagnosis AS, but we are sure the results with be that he is. I have gotten so much information that is already helping with Joshua and the rest of the family. Please continue your amazing work, there are parents out there that are at their last whit and have not idea where to turn.
    You have saved my sanity.

    Thank you so very much!!!!

  5. Thank you for this resource. My daughter struggles with ADHD and anxiety. I have suspected for years that she has sensory issues (she was a preemie). Watching your videos convinced me that a lot of her issues are sensory overload and defense mode. We all watched the defense mode video together this week, and my daughter spent an hour talking to my husband about how hard school was for her being constantly overwhelmed and afraid.

  6. Thank you so much for all the information you share on your blog. My granddaughter is on the spectrum and reading this information helps me HELP her!

  7. I am at wits end. I have a roommate who has fit the descriptions in your test (answering for him, he scored at 38)but he did not know why I was asking him the questions. He is always taking about zombie attacks, the end of the world, money collapsing, living off grid so he doesn’t have to deal with people, stays in his room 18 hours a day if he could and hates trying to work with other people.

    He TOTALLY and completely sounds like he is on this asperger spectrum. Now, what do I do as someone who is only his roommate? I cannot love on him, like I would if he were my child. I can’t love him as if he were my lover/friend, he is not.

    I do not like the atmosphere in my home and I need peace. Understanding that he different, I don’t want to just make him go, but, quite frankly, he is getting on my nerves. I pray and ask God what am I suppose to do and the only answer I get it be patient. Well, with that understanding, what do i do while I am being patient? I know that most of you “have to” deal with this because it is your child or loved on. I don’t so at the same time I am frustrated, I also know that there is something that can be done for him to understand that it is ok that his brain is wired different than mine and that I can learn techniques and strategies to deal with this. By the way, he is 34 male and I am a 47 yr old female. So, that has it’s own dynamic to it. If you all have any suggestions, thoughts, ideas, strategies, best practices ANYTHING that would help me understand how to help him see that he has to be a productive functioning adult and I am not taking care of a grown man financially or emotionally (since he is not mine to be on that level)any longer. It has been at least a year that he has been able to function and work and pay rent, etc. I am so conflicted with this issue right now. Otherwise, when he is functioning, he is amazing…friendly, helpful, paints my 7 yr olds nails, has long encouraging talks with her about how to train as a princess so she can be a queen, clean, neat, cooks…but then he goes into shell mode and it is a different person altogether. Any help is appreciated.

    1. I know that the writers of the show Big Bang Theory did not intend for Sheldon to have Asperger’s, but most of the world recognizes that he does. It’s very funny and yet touching in the way that his friends love him just the way that he is. (But they definitely express their frustrations about his quirks.) This may be helpful for you to watch, especially starting back from the older episodes. They I think that you should pray for the right time to tell your roomie, in a really loving way. Perhaps you could say, “I’ve notice how you do such and such. That led me to look into this test b/c I truly care about you. Here is a wonderful, helpful and insightful website about it. Just let me know if and when you’d like to talk about it.” There will probably be some really big Defense Mode reaction at first. Just give him the space that he needs while he processes it.

  8. Hi, I’m new here but really love what you have come up with through actual experience, and the site, and videos. Defense mode is the best explanation I’ve come across for feeling stuck inside. It’s been so hard since moving in with mom last year. Thank you for putting that out there about what the struggles like. It did not feel like that was something understood growing up…there were the labels and opinions that felt terrible. It’s been hard to reach out because of that, along with insecurities and fatigue. When I reach out to people at times it feels like things clam up and go numb where I used to feel more worth. How can a person get out of defense mode if they don’t fully have the warm, loving environment? There is a person underneath that wants to feel loved. I’m struggling but know there is someone beyond the damage. I don’t feel understood at all here. I feel out of my element living with a mother that I care about, but feel neglected by. We’ve both gone through hard times. Its tough when trying to leave or really relate..because of a co- dependent relationship. I also have a 14 year old son whose not been diagnosed but may have symptoms. He has not had much stability in life, but I’d like to see him feel loved, and less defense mode as well. My health has been really bad and made that hard and he’s felt abandoned. That includes my mom, because I know she needs love too. Its very frustrating because I know we all need to heal… but there’s been emotional bullying in the family, so you feel torn down often..especially when trying to reach out for help. How do you care for family, but not be in an abusive situation? How do you let love in like this? That’s real and not obligation..

  9. I understand the flight and response theory when there is a stimulus or sensory issue. I am uncomfortable rewarding computer time (the desired activity) to a 18 year old that is being rude, disrespectful and lying. I am concerned that years of using negative strategies had developed at pattern of behavior that is no longer directly related to sensory issues. Your message is always directed to the caregiver but what about expectations for the young person with aspergers. There should be some expectation for them as the world is not going to revolve around them.

    1. I appreciate your comment, Kelly. It’s true that a lot of advice is for parents/caregivers. Several years ago I asked the same question you are asking because the truth is, childhood is the only time anyone gets a pass in life. I want my child to be able to function as an adult. I found a curriculum by James Lehman titled The Total Transformation that helped me with my son’s aspergian behaviors. Generally speaking, the program positions parents as a coach to help kids learn to make good choices. It’s based on a most basic premise that everyone is responsible for their own actions. I went through the entire curriculum then redesigned parts of it to meet my son’s specific needs. We’ve enjoyed great success! I hope this information is helpful.


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