Autism Signs Can Lessen in "Predictable" Environments: Study

Autism research is constantly overturning assumptions about the disorder. With each new study that comes out, it seems more and more clear that autism is a different neurology—not a disease. And this simple truth is challenging professionals to re-think how they "treat" autism and forcing parents, like myself, to consider how we interact, parent, educate, and nurture our children on the spectrum.

A new study out of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne really has me thinking about how I can create the most successful environment for Liam, my non-verbal 7-year-old with autism. In this study, researchers (testing rats) discovered that "unpredictable environmental stimulation drives autistic symptoms at least as much as an impoverished environment does, and that predictable stimulation can prevent these symptoms."

To put that into everyday terms: An unpredictable household or environment is just as likely to cause autistic symptoms in my boy as one that lacks stimulation or engagement, and I can help him control those symptoms through predictable stimulation.

What this also means to me is that some of his most challenging "classically autistic" behaviors—social withdrawal, screaming, biting, stimming—are likely in response to an environment that's overwhelming his sensory system, is changing to quickly, or that he can't predict what will happen next. (And to be fair, when I'm in an environment like that—one that's loud, unpredictable, and rapidly changing—I feel anxiety, stress, and just want to withdraw and hide. The thing to understand here is that what's a "normal" environment for me—the grocery store, the coffee shop, the library—could all be considered unpredictable and stressful for Liam and kids like him.)

This study's findings also appear to support the Intense World Theory of autism, which says that the brains of people on the spectrum are hyper-functional, which "leads to an experience of the world as intense, fragmented, and overwhelming." Again, this highlights the fact of difference, not disease, and it means that as Liam's mom, I have to think about ways I can make the world less intense, fragmented, and overwhelming, so he can have a high-quality life and learn and grow without too much fear, stress, and anxiety.

So, what does this mean in practical terms? According to the study: "enriched environments that are non-surprising, structured, safe, and tailored to a particular individual's sensitivity" will produce the most success.

Easier said than done, perhaps, but I'm working hard to create this sort of environment for Liam—especially important since we're moving across the country in a week, our house is a wreck of boxes and piles right now, and he's leaving his school and all his therapy staff. I think it has to do with giving him a clear schedule, keeping him engaged, and letting him know what comes next in every situation. I also think it means taking him places in the world, so he can learn what to expect at the grocery store, coffee shop, and library.

What do you think? How are you creating these environments for your kids on the spectrum (at home, school, or in other places)? Are you seeing successes or failures?

Feel free to share your tips, stories, and ideas in the comments or on Facebook, email, or Twitter. I'll bring them together into a future post so we can all brainstorm ways to create the best of all possible environments for our kids on the spectrum.

Jamie Pacton lives near Lake Michigan where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons, Liam and Eliot. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter @jamiepacton

For people with Autism, one of the biggest setbacks can be sensory overload. Crowds, loud noises, and changes can all cause confusion or upset a child with sensory sensitivity. Video courtesy of interactingwithautism.com

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