Making Sense of Autism

  1. Are you confused about autism and what it actually is?
  2. Does your child refuse to respond and cooperate with you?
  3. Do you wish someone could explain what’s going on and why he doesn’t learn anything?

Autism or Autisms

Autism and autistic-like behaviours are a common developmental deviation of early mental-emotional development that has no clear pathology or treatment and no known genetic aetiology.

Based on a deep understanding of the function and origins of autism, we can develop healing and creative ways of responding that are very different from the behavioural techniques often adopted without success.

1. The Function of Autistic Behaviours

Sensation-dominated sense of being

Autistic behaviours include rocking, banging, hand-flapping, toe-walking, spinning objects, constant humming or shouting and other often obsessional sensory movement rituals and stereotypical behaviours, even self-injuring activities like head-banging, hitting or biting themselves. Continue reading ...

They are used to produce rhythmic movement-sensations in the child’s body that are predictable and tranquilising, because they are under the child’s control.

These sensory and movement activities can be understood as auto-sensory forms of solitary self-soothing and an attempt at self-regulation through an obsessional interest in rhythm and movement. They are not meaningful and playful. Their hypnotic power results in a compulsive sensory cycle that blocks emotional and cognitive development. The longer the child remains in this self-sufficient sensation-dominated pre-thinking state of psychological development, the more difficult it becomes to get out. If auto-sensuousness is not restrained and the mother/parent or caring others cannot make their presence sufficiently felt to modify the situation, then autism can become an entrenched way of life.

‘Me’ or ‘Not-me’

The autistic child insists that he can ‘do it all by himself’ and has no need of anyone. He insists on shutting out all ‘not-me’ experiences, that are felt to be alien and dangerous. Only ‘me’ experiences are safe. Continue reading ...

In fact, ‘me’ experiences are felt to be soft, beautiful and blissful, while ‘not me’ is ugly, hard and frightening. But this crude attempt at mental organisation damages the child’s development as an individual, because to have a sense of ‘me’ requires some sense of ‘the other’ and of the ‘not me’. By ‘me-ifying’ everything with a focus on sensory bliss and rejecting all new experiences as ‘not me’ and unwelcome, the child becomes trapped in what can quickly turn into a sensation-dominated prison.

The child’s ‘triumph’ of being self-sufficient and not needing anyone, becomes an addiction to auto-sensuous movement sensations like constant jumping, lolling on the bed all day, running away, often involving idiosyncratic objects like twiddling sticks, tapping walls, repeating the same words and other repetitive activities, that he does all day long like basking in the contentment of his proud and self-sufficient aloneness.

In order to avoid his awareness of feeling so alone and being a separate person to his mum, the child insists on feeling stuck to and ‘at one’ with the mother, like constantly grabbing their mum’s head, wanting to push their face into mother’s face or body, insisting on being carried on dad’s back or hugging in a way, that is possessive but ‘doesn’t give’. Entangling the ‘not me’ mother becomes more important than developing the skills to control and manage their own potentialities and to adjust to the ‘not me’ world and to use its possibilities, which seriously stunts the child’s psychological growth and primary identification processes.

Autistic Objects: The Hard & the Soft

The use of ‘autistic objects’ is a common way by autistic children of ‘me-ifying’ the world. These are not toys. Autistic objects have no imaginary qualities, and the child does not actually play with them. Continue reading ...

Unlike the teddy or ‘blanky’ of other young children, autistic objects are almost always hard. They could be anything, but they are not in fact experienced as a thing, and many autistic children will easily exchange one object for another. It is not the actual object that matters to the child, but the predictable sensation that he can create with it in his body. The autistic child’s obsessive activity with the object, like spinning a string, banging the wall with a spoon or twiddling a stick, gives him a sensation of slid substantiality and continuity of the self as well as experiences of blissful excitement and sublime ecstasy.

The autistic object is experienced as an extension of the child’s body. If you try to take it away you are likely to be met with resistance and outrage. It is valued for the hard-edge sensation, which makes the child feel solid and that his soft ‘me’ inside is protected by an impenetrable sensation-shell. Its aim is to get rid of any sense of the unknown and unpredictable, which is experienced as a scratchy ‘not me’ coming at him from the outside and threatening to disturb his ‘me’-ness in a frightening way.

The trouble is that the autistic object inhibits development, because it is used to block any interested exploration and meaningful contact with the ‘not me’ world of relationships. Once the child feels less vulnerable, because he feels firmly held in clear boundaries, reliable routines and appropriate expectations, the use of autistic objects will decrease.

Negativity and Confusions: ‘I’d rather not’

The common response by the autistic child to any new or ‘not me’ activities tends to be protest, refusal and resistance. His ‘I’d rather not’ attitude to life can easily become a default position, a habit, an addiction, an identity, and a secondary hard-wired physical response. Not one that promises developmental progress. Continue reading ...

This attitude of negativity is very controlling and disabling for everyone, including the child. A result of his confusion and lack of meaningful emotional experiences, this negativity is difficult to deal with, because as soon as we engage directly with it, we get trapped in its vicious cycle of mutual refusal. What is needed instead is for us to become interested without being pulled into the vortex of his negativity, - which is an art.

‘Instead of the experience of the ‘not me’ becoming a stimulus which facilitates cooperation, learning and other ongoing psychological activities, as in healthy mental development, it becomes a focus for negativity and confusion.’

(Frances Tustin)

Excitement and Thrilling Sensations

Exciting and thrilling bodily sensations seem to be the autistic child’s idea of what life is all about. Enveloped in his familiar rhythmic sensations of spinning, jumping, flapping, shouting and an insistence on predictable sameness, he feels that he’s in paradise or has found nirvana. Continue reading ...

But this is a terrible trap, as the excitement that the autistic child seeks from his sensory touching and movement activities prevents meaningful exploration, creative problem-solving and an interest in learning from experience.

Because the child looks so happy, parents are often tempted into allowing sentimental self-indulgence and doing too much for him, unaware that when left unmoderated these blissful states of mind can quickly become habits with tyrannical potential and increasingly resistant to change. What the child needs instead is a compassionate and disciplined response from another human being who can empathise with his painful feelings while remaining rooted in common sense.

Tantrums and Tyrannical Behaviours

When disturbed by the experience of external reality, i.e. when asked to make an effort, to tolerate some frustration or to postpone his instant sensory gratification, the blissful excitement of Oneness can quickly turn into a tyrannical tantrum of Twoness. Continue reading ...

Excitement and ecstasy as well as tantrums are patterns for getting rid of overwhelming physical sensations that are too intense. The child suddenly finds himself at a terrifying edge of an emotional abyss or black hole with no internal survival strategies.

Although frightening and upsetting for both parents/carers and child, these often volcanic explosions and tantrums are actually a hopeful sign, because they involve an attempt at integrating the hard and the soft facets of early experience, while requiring the soothing containment from the mother or other caring persons at the same time. When handled with a combination of empathetic understanding and firm containment, these are opportunities to help the child to learn to tolerate and regulate his impulses and to create more benign internal mental structures through the mediating influence of caring human relationships.

Raw states of feeling and primal ways of thinking

The autistic child is stuck in sensation and autistic states of mind that involve naïve states of feeling. Parts of their free floating and undifferentiated form of awareness is similar to the creative artist’s aesthetic awareness and attention. Continue reading ...

But unlike the artist who can go in and out of such states of mind, the autistic child is trapped in them and cannot get out. He lives in an all-or-nothing world.

 ‘It seems that for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential.’

(Hans Asperger)

These primal ways of thinking and raw states of feeling are part of very early mental development that are completely pre-verbal and not part of our usual conscious awareness. There is therefore a risk of hastily imposing our sophisticated constructions and treating the child’s emotional expressions and behaviours as if they came from ‘the same world’ as ours, thus plugging the hole in our understanding, - like an autistic object.
This can prevent us from getting in touch with these early and raw states of being in ways that help the child to feel understood and to build sustaining mental-emotional structures in his internal world.

2. The origins of autism - Autism as a Defence against Unpredictability

Alone with ‘Nameless Dread’

Autism appears to be the result of an auto-sensuous avoidance to a pre-mature awareness of feeling separate and alone, that was experienced as traumatic by the very young child. Continue reading ...

The sympathetic nervous system in panic is best soothed by being with someone who ‘gets us’ and can attune to how we are feeling. A baby’s experience of a mother who ‘doesn’t get it’ or is momentarily unavailable, is normally a common experiences, - unless it’s catastrophic. But because of a lack of feeling ‘rooted’ and emotionally connected in caring relationships, the autistic child seeks refuge very early on in their own bodily sensations rather than in the ordinary give-and-take of human relationships.

Instead of looking for the sense of rootedness in the healthy give-and-take with his mother, between his mouth and her breast, between ‘me’ and ‘not-me’, which sets the scene for the healthy development of a sense of identity, security and self-confidence, the ‘baby in shock’ seeks his comfort in his own body sensations, and becomes trapped in an armour of sensuous protection. He holds himself together by focussing his attention almost exclusively on his own inner bodily rhythms and sensations, including sounds or visual patterns, that make him feel safe, because he can create them himself, which means that they are completely reliable. He now needs no one. He can comfort himself.

Autism as a Defence against Unpredictability

This involuntary psycho-somatic response to the subjective experience of panic or ‘nameless dread’ and sudden sense of aloneness in the early months then became a way of life for this child. Continue reading ...

It is an automatic psychological reaction to a fright that was experienced as traumatic stress long before the baby’s mind had developed sufficient internal structures to process such an experience or unpredictability, i.e. long before the organising functions of purposeful movement and of thinking and language were established.

From then on, things can easily become complicated. If the mother notices not soon enough, or tries too hard, or not hard enough, or her voice, touch, timing aren’t exactly what the disgruntled baby expects, then the child may not find a way out of his solitary and autistic sensory comfort zone.

Autism as Infantile Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

At some moment in the early months this baby felt suddenly startled, vulnerable and utterly alone: a momentary experience of shock. Continue reading ...

The normal response to terror or panic is to run away (Flight) or to defend yourself (Fight). But the human baby is very helpless: he can neither run away (he cannot walk) nor defend himself (he cannot yet control his limbs). The only way, a tiny baby can run away or defend himself is to shut off his awareness of the frightening ‘not-me’ world and to turn inwards to his/her own bodily sensations (Freeze). A sensitive baby may get stuck and stay in this psychological solitary state of an Infantile Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Unless sensitive help comes quickly and early enough, and ideally before the baby starts to walk, a vicious cycle can quickly be set in motion. If a child’s psychological state of mind is dominated by a sense of panic and ‘nothingness’, of feeling frightened, unsupported, let down and as if falling endlessly, then an infantile autistic state can result, in which elements of the child’s emergent self survive in either a shell-like or entangled form, but essentially in a dormant state.

The Polyvagal Theory of Trauma

The science of how body and brain interact and can result in psycho-physiology of autism is described by the neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Porges. Continue reading ...

His poly-vagal theory about our developing nervous system is a massive paradigm shift in understanding behaviour as it shows how the body’s physiological states are interconnected with and vital to understanding the mind. The vagus nerve is the communication highway of the body. It regulates our gut and heart, mobilises our body into action and responds to stress with fight, flight or freeze reactions. It ‘directly supports the behaviours needed to engage and disengage with the environment.’ 80% of the vagal system is sensory. A vagal system that is on high alert for too long results in many of the symptoms or physiological difficulties associated with autism, like digestive problems and visceral pain, restlessness and disrupted sleep, shut-off and avoidance behaviours, emotional disengagement and inability to learn or understand what is going on.

‘The social engagement system is how we engage with the world. … The world comes in and we come out, through the social engagement system.’ (Holly Bridges, 2015) But in times of stress, the social engagement system gets shut down. A child who has spent too much time during their first 18 months with their social engagement system turned off, does ‘not learn to control their social software, to drive it, and so it ends up working more on autopilot’ (Holly Bridges) with their fight – flight – freeze system dominating everything.

Born for Relationships

However, what the very young child does not know, is that in order to develop, the human mind NEEDS the nurturing relationships with his mother, parents and other caring adults, that are almost always available. Continue reading ...

The human mind cannot build itself alone. It needs the to-and-fro of relationships. Unique to mammals, our brain’s social engagement system is the new evolutionary software of human beings. Babies are born with it. Otherwise the helpless human baby would not survive. It develops before birth, and human babies are born with neural pathways that control their muscles to enable them to engage with the world, e.g. to suck, to reach, to laugh, to cry, to communicate and to turn their head towards positive or away from negative stimuli.

Babies are born with:

  1. the capacity to recognise shapes, rhythms and patterns as an organiser of experience.
  2. an intrinsic interest in social relatedness. This has been lost in autism.

3. Creative Solutions to Autism

It takes great patience and perseverance to help the autistic child to give up his solitary focus on sensation-dominated activities, to develop some frustration tolerance and to allow transformation into a world of shared concepts and mental activities like thinking, language and learning. Without it ... Continue reading ...


Without it, the child’s failure to comprehend and understand results in being shut out from meaningfulness and trapped in emotional isolation, where animate is not distinguished from inanimate and meaningful human relationships are not achieved.

The autistic child needs help to accept and differentiate between their own sensuous inside ‘me’-world and the outer world of ‘not me’ experiences that don’t always accommodate to their needs and wishes, but that also protects and offers new interesting experiences and loving relationships with parents and others. They need disciplined order and routines to counteract confusion and to foster a sense of security and predictability.

Low functioning’ children can grow up ‘high functioning’ adults, if supported to develop their innate gifts in a home environment that fosters warm and firm-but-kind relationships, rather than in institutional settings.

Without it, the child’s failure to comprehend and understand results in being shut out from meaningfulness and trapped in emotional isolation, where animate is not distinguished from inanimate and meaningful human relationships are not achieved.

The autistic child needs help to accept and differentiate between their own sensuous inside ‘me’-world and the outer world of ‘not me’ experiences that don’t always accommodate to their needs and wishes, but that also protects and offers new interesting experiences and loving relationships with parents and others. They need disciplined order and routines to counteract confusion and to foster a sense of security and predictability.

Without it, the child’s failure to comprehend and understand results in being shut out from meaningfulness and trapped in emotional isolation, where animate is not distinguished from inanimate and meaningful human relationships are not achieved.

The autistic child needs help to accept and differentiate between their own sensuous inside ‘me’-world and the outer world of ‘not me’ experiences that don’t always accommodate to their needs and wishes, but that also protects and offers new interesting experiences and loving relationships with parents and others. They need disciplined order and routines to counteract confusion and to foster a sense of security and predictability.

The Most Important Elements to Help the Autistic Child to Get Better

  • holding on to common sense, i.e. counteracting passivity and indulgence
  • firm-but-kind boundaries
  • reliable daily routines
  • clear and realistic expectations at the appropriate developmental level
  • active participation in every day household tasks

The Risk Of The Permissive Approach

Parents of an autistic child need guidance and practical support to be able to weather the child’s outbursts and frustrations and to create the stable, supportive and disciplined home environment with clear family rules, daily routines, boundaries and realistic expectations. The home consultant ... Continue reading ...


can also help to clarify and work through emotional, conscious and unconscious family dynamics and processes that affect and are affected by the child’s situation.

The risk is often that parents get confused by the diagnosis and try to satisfy all the child’s wishes by indulging his sensation-dominated controlling demands, instead of setting human limits to the child’s omnipotent illusions like an alive and caring ordinarily limited human mother/parent.

It is a great misconception to think that children with autism or autistic-like behaviours need extra sensuous gratification. A permissive approach that allows the child to indulge in his aimless or obsessive habits is exactly the opposite of what is needed, if we want him to get better. As Dr. Rick Solomon says ‘A habit in motion stays in motion’. If we don’t challenge them in thoughtful and consistent ways, we risk feeding the ‘bad habits’ rather than supporting the child and the healthy development of his personality.

Without it, the child’s failure to comprehend and understand results in being shut out from meaningfulness and trapped in emotional isolation, where animate is not distinguished from inanimate and meaningful human relationships are not achieved.

The autistic child needs help to accept and differentiate between their own sensuous inside ‘me’-world and the outer world of ‘not me’ experiences that don’t always accommodate to their needs and wishes, but that also protects and offers new interesting experiences and loving relationships with parents and others. They need disciplined order and routines to counteract confusion and to foster a sense of security and predictability.

Without it, the child’s failure to comprehend and understand results in being shut out from meaningfulness and trapped in emotional isolation, where animate is not distinguished from inanimate and meaningful human relationships are not achieved.

The autistic child needs help to accept and differentiate between their own sensuous inside ‘me’-world and the outer world of ‘not me’ experiences that don’t always accommodate to their needs and wishes, but that also protects and offers new interesting experiences and loving relationships with parents and others. They need disciplined order and routines to counteract confusion and to foster a sense of security and predictability.