I am fascinated by the fight or flight response that Bass has when under a lot of stress. It has been a scary and oftentimes stressful experience as a parent to know how to begin to deal with the extremes of fight or flight. It has been helpful to me to learn the basics of why it happens, and then to begin to learn different ways to help Bass cope with those intense feelings.
What does fight or flight look like for Bass? Well, when faced with a stressful situation, in the past, he has needed a physical release for what is happening. For awhile, he would just run away. He would run blindly down the road. It would take us hours to find him, many times with the assistance of police. (More on police and Asperger’s in a future post). We still have that reaction on occasion, but it has gotten much better. We created other releases that are safe and acceptable. The rule is that he DOES NOT leave our yard, and in most situations, he can now abide by that. Other acceptable releases for the fight or flight response in our house include walking laps around the outside of the house, using the punching bag in the garage or the kicking bag in the yard, or listening to music. When he is using music to cope, we do not put rules on volume, within reason. If he needs to listen to his music loud to begin to reorient himself, we allow it.
I will make the disclaimer now that I am NOT a professional. I am just a mom who has found that by learning as much as I can about Asperger’s, I feel less out of control when things get out of control! I hope that some of the things we have learned are helpful to you, but please don’t take my word as law! I don’t ever want to have that kind of power! 🙂
So what is fight or flight? It is a basic human response to a stressful situation. When confronted with a stressful situation, we are faced with two choices. We can fight or flee from a threatening situation, or we can fight or flee towards something that is needed. In many situations, we use a combination of fight and flight to achieve what we need to survive the situation.
The physiological responses of the body in the fight or flight mode can be drastic, ranging from acceleration of the heart and lungs, constriction of blood vessels in parts of the body and dilation of blood vessels to the muscles, dilation of pupils, loss of hearing, tunnel vision, and more! It is understandable how scary and confusing these physiological responses could be to a young child if they don’t have the ability to pause and reflect on why they are feeling this way.
One of the most important things I learned in order to help Bass when he’s feeling under stress is that there is a moment where the brain pauses to take in information. Is this a dangerous situation? Why? What is my response going to be? It has taken some practice to get Bass to pause in that moment, to realize that he has a moment to figure out what the intentions are of people around him, to develop a plan, and then to respond to the situation. This has been a huge part of helping him. I think it is also important to note that I don’t believe we could ever have gotten to this point without medication to counteract some of those physiological responses and some counseling to begin to help him process information in a new way.
I know that there are many opinions on medications and children. I want to say that this was an agonizing decision for Jon and I. We entered into medication only when faced with a dire situation, and then we did so with caution and education! We honestly probably waited longer than we should have, but it is difficult to accept that your child needs to utilize brain altering chemicals.
We researched every medication that was recommended to us, and we took it SLOWLY! When we did not like what a psychiatrist was telling us, we were not afraid to say NO! That brought its own set of issues, but in the end, he is OUR child! And we also take into account what Bass has to say! It is, after all, his body! We entered into medication by informing Bass that medication will in all likelihood be a lifelong need for him. We educated him on what he was taking and why, what his medications are, what they look like, and what doses he takes. He can tell you a lot about what and why he takes medicine and what it does for him.
There is new research that is showing a relationship between dopamine abnormalities in the brain and Asperger’s. Dopamine is a catecholamines neurotransmitter, or brain chemical involved in communication between neurons. Catecholamines are a part of the “fight-or-flight” instinct and also stimulate pleasure pathways in the brain. Elevated levels of dopamine can cause an increase in pleasure-seeking activities, which explains the repetitive behaviors and fixations that are common in Asperger’s. On the flip side, dopamine levels over long periods of time also decrease, causing irritability and fatigue.
Neuroleptics and antipsychotics may be helpful in controlling some of the symptoms of Asperger’s, because the medications block the dopamine receptors in the brain. Much more research is needed to understand how and why the brain works the way it does for those with Asperger’s, to help control symptoms that affect their lives. There is no quick fix or easy answer. I hope this very basic explanation of what happens in the brain can help you as a parent pause and reflect on what your child is going through in those moments filled with panic or anxiety. We all feel compassion for what our kids go through on a day to day basis, but in those moments of fight or flight, it has helped me to have some of the information that leads to a full understanding of how their body works and why. It has helped us make more informed and educated decisions on how we as parents should be helping Bass. And it has certainly given me more compassion for why he is reacting the way he does and what steps I can take to help him learn better ways of coping.
Here are some links to posters we use in our house. We have these in our office (where Bass goes to listen to music, on our dining room bulletin board, and hanging on the frig!
The speakingofspeech website has a TON of social stories and visuals for a wide variety of topics, from friends, daily living skills, interrupting, turn-taking, and much, much more! Great website! We have found that Bass is a visual learner, and having these posters around are great reminders for all of us!