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The science of feeling safe

Understanding the way our autonomic nervous system works

· Brain Mind,ASD related,Health

There is a growing interest in the research of  the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and understanding the findings provide insights to teach people coping mechanism to deal with thier anxieties and stress related problems.  Our ANS plays a part to help us safely navigate the ordinary demands of a day.  It comes into major play if there are extraordinary challenges that we sometime face - eg . in any given crisis.

We all experience this one time or another ... have you ever felt 'butterflies in your stomach" ? or a deep sinking feeling in your gut?  or feel your heartbeat pounding so loudly inside your chest?  Thats your ANS kicking in and sending messages to your sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves ( our on and off operating switches) - they are also important in modulating many vital functions in our body such as our breathing, digestion, sensation and heart rate.  

When the switch is turned on - your sympathetic nervouse systems activate your fight or flight responses.  When it is turned off - your parasympathetic nervous sytem restores the body to a state that makes you feel calm.  This ability to successfully 'survive' to the changing enviornment relies on your ANS's ability to respond and recover.  

It is noted also that people on the spectrum has ANS that are very dyregulated.  That is why they feel overwhelmed very easily.  Severe meltdowns over minor issues are often reported to me during my consultation time with caregivers.  Can you imagine prolong state of dyregulation and its effects on the person?  When one is OVER stress all the time and is unable to modulate - the entire system breaks down - our brain health suffer - the person suffer and those around the person also suffer.  

In my course of work over three decades among people with disabilties - I am sadden to witness programs that pushes these people to function in a learning environment that constantly put them on the edge of high stress.  While the child is screaming and crying the program continue to carrys on - the therapist does not show empathy - to the struggling child nor seek to offer a different course of action to calm the child.  Such program only seal the child's learning to a dead end (the brain releases stress hormones )- criteria of success in these program is the ability to complete the task.  While it does achieve the goal - completion of the task - I'm afraid it leaves behind emotional scars to want to engage in meaningful learning.  

Thankfully there are also other approaches now that takes into consideration the child's emotional state and teaches coping skills to enable the ANS to stay calm and collected.  One such program is Mediated Learning Experience (MLE).  MLE takes into consideration the ANS system of the child because the ability fo recognize and regulate autonomic states is fundamental to the success of treatment to safely navigate through daily life.  MLE pays attention to the neuroceptive state (the social radar : perceiving threat or safety) of the learner.  

During coaching sessions with the Caregivers, this phase is often emphasis and taught - I use the analogy of the Emotional Bank to teach caregivers how to MLE emotional safety to their child.

The science behind them are slowly shared with Caregivers as intervention goes on.  

1.  The neuroception of safety - bringing a sense of connectedness, enjoying the moment of doing an activity together, joint attention and intention, curiosity, compassion.

2.  Teaching the caregiver to look out for neuroception of danger - how the child interpret the learning environment, dealing with anxiety and anger in a empathic manner.  Ignoring or not paying attention to these emotional state in the child does not solve any problem at all !!!

In our MLE classes, caregivers learn the process to socially engage their child - to whisper when the activities gets too tense for the child, to read facial expression in order to connect with the child - the simple act of smiling when the child looks at you - the tilt of the head is often a sign of safety and an invitation to connect.

ANS working in the midst of MLE ... such a beautiful sight for me to observe.

One parting question to leave you to reflect ... how does your child deal with mistakes?  and how do you view the learner when mistakes are spotted?  -  how is your emotional state ? 

The next time you catch yourself ... having strong reactions to your child's mistake ... STOP ... breathe ... try another way ... learn the MLE way.