Reframing Autistic Behavior Problems as Self Preservation: A Freudian View

Autistic disruptive and injurious behaviors are often seen as problematic. Sensory overload significantly distresses the autistic brain and triggers a halt in all cognitive abilities. Oftentimes, such ‘shutdowns’ might even be undetected sub-clinical seizures. Physiologically, the abrupt onset of sensory overload shutdowns are characterized by eye twitching, headaches, rage, and episodes of staring blankly into space.   

Freud observing autistic girl case study. Artwork by HennyK.com

Freud observing autistic girl case study. Artwork by HennyK.com

The overloaded system will attack with a fight-adrenaline for the purpose of staying alive. The threat of the fire alarm assaulting the autistic nervous system is greater than a herd of wolves chewing away your camping tent. We cannot measure a panic response that is driven by a system made hyperresponsive by extreme perceptual distortions, which are highly individualized. We also cannot judge a behavior as abnormal or a problem, when the survival and sanity of the autistic person is dependent on the behavior’s execution.

Sigmund Freud argues that man learned to survive by making use of all utilities and resources accessible to him. For the continuity of the species, “with every tool, man is perfecting his own organs, whether motor or sensory…[enhancing or] removing the limits to their functioning (Freud, 1989, p. 43)”. For example, early humans extinguished fire with the stream of their urine. The extinguishing of fire is not a problematic behavior when understood as a purposeful act with an intention to advance the needs and functioning of the individual.

For autistic people, stimming and flapping are tools for self regulation. The more they do it, the more they are listening to you, or concentrating on the task at hand. The more sensory information you force them to integrate simultaneously, the more you are forcing them to revert to their primal need to just survive. When the mammalian brain goes into survival mode, you no longer reserve the right to pathologize the response as a behavior problem.

Source: Freud, S., Strachey, J., & Gay, P. (1989). Civilization and its discontents. New York: W.W. Norton.

One thought on “Reframing Autistic Behavior Problems as Self Preservation: A Freudian View

  1. Really great article. This has always been my understanding. Unfortunately, anything labeled “Freudian” has been discounted for too long. There is a rationale, based on self-preservation, for autistic behaviors. Unless one understands this he will continue to “blame the victim” and consider these behaviors as only something to be changed, instead of looking at how to identify and eliminate the stressors that provoke them. Clearly the behaviors are a sign of overload. Until the person has been returned to a state of calm, his only focus is on combating the stressor, not learning to tolerate it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s