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autism and environmental overstimulation

autism and overstimulation

The Purple Philosophy

Autism and Environmental Overstimulation

Whether you have a child or know someone on the spectrum, understanding a few things about autism and environmental overstimulation is crucial to a successful interaction. Environment can make or break an individual’s success. If a child with autism is struggling to engage or is escalating into fight or flight, before you respond consider the surroundings.

Take a look around…what is the surrounding environment like? Are you in a busy or high traffic area? Is it noisy? Are there other people around? Is it possible the lights too bright? Do the walls contain images filled with colors and words and pictures? Can people pass through at any moment? Is the ceiling high and echoey? Might there be background noise that is distracting like a loud fan, a noisy appliance or a buzzing light fixture? Any or all of these factors can increase anxiety and aggression for someone on the spectrum which impacts the ability to learn or remain regulated for quality engagement.

When you are teaching a skill or even just engaging with someone on the spectrum, it is crucial to start in a low-stimulatory environment. Of course what is “low-stim” for one person is going to differ and be somewhat specific to each individual. One person may be able to handle a moderate amount of background noise while being highly put off by light or smell, for example, and another person may be extremely sensitive to noise. You must know the person with whom you are seeking to engage. If you do not know him or her very well, always choose the least stimulating environment.

Don’t forget that you are stimulating, too. Your mannerisms, way of speaking, tone of voice, your overall demeanor and affect are all factored into the equation. So, when with someone on the spectrum, keep verbal communication to a minimum. As they begin to grow competent in the role or skill you are teaching, even if it’s just turn-taking in a general conversation, gradually increase the complexity of the environment over a period of days, weeks or months depending on the individual.

Want to read more?

  1. To read the latest THS posts, go here:
  2. To learn more about how we set up our environments, look here:
  3. For information about the Dynamic 12, click here:

The Purple Philosophy: What does regulation sound like?

Shhh. Don’t disrupt the mindful engagement!

When someone is regulated their mind and body is attending, organizing and processing environmental, emotional and cognitive information appropriately.

When someone is regulated, they will be more confident and competent as solving functional problems and adjusting to social demands.

We can observe this confidence/competence objectively; The body is still, the mind is focused and the heart is trusting in the partner or the process.

Objectively observing and determining the function of behavior is the foundation of ABA. In this field, the word behavior is often discussed in the negative – abehavior to be changed. But if we go further than that, we can see that a lot of behavior is a symptom of deeper deficits.

Behavioral symptoms, such as aggression, are LOUD and that is a good thing! If we can see or hear it, then we can find what is really happening with the individual.

Most of the time, what we identify as a behavior is really feelings of incompetence to overcome a challenging situation causing anxiety and fear. Anxiety and fear lead to fight or flight behavior.

It is critical to not simply change or suppress this loud behavior before understanding it.

If we build confidence and competence in overcoming challenges, the “behavior” will become regulated – engaged, attentive and quiet.


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