Advocate: You don’t have to be an expert

You don’t have to be an expert to be an advocate.

Sometimes, you, as a caring citizen, may see a person with autism, who is very upset, and you may want to help. Although there is no way to know exactly the situation you might be experiencing, we wanted to provide some ‘tricks of the trade’ that may guide you through those situations as a caring advocate, even if autism is not your area of expertise.

Lizard brain vs. wizard brain

All of us have higher and lower brain functions. I have heard it referred to as ‘lizard brain’ and ‘wizard brain.’ Lizard brain is responsible for our primitive reactions, such as the classic ‘fight, flight, freeze’ responses. Lizard brain assesses that a risk is present and immediately mobilizes the body for action. Digestion may shut down, resulting in those ‘butterflies in your stomach.’ Blood may flow away from your fingers and toes, resulting in cold hands and feet. We all have experienced this at times. Maybe you thought you were going to get in a car accident and for many hours later, you could still feel that adrenaline in your muscles. For me, I feel the upset stomach and a whoosh of energy to my thighs. All of this is activation of the sympathetic nervous system to protect us from danger. 

Long talks with lizard brain? As one might guess, this is not the time for deep and inspiring conversations. That would be wizard brain. Wizard brain can think through scenarios, problem solve, synthesize information, and make good decisions. Lizard brain does not. Keep in mind that by most estimates, the lizard brain has been around for 500 million years; whereas, wizard brain about 12,000. Who do you think talks louder? 

You may have heard the parable of the woman who goes to see a sage for some wise advice. She wants to know how to get closer to her father who has fallen ill and become a bitter man. The sage tells her to bring her a lion’s whisker and then he will answer her question. 

As the story goes, the woman finds an angry lion hiding in a cave. The lion initially growls at her, and she is reminded to keep her distance. She gradually approaches the lion, cautiously, every day. Each day, she gets closer.

The lion grows used to her presence. Over time, she gets closer and more comfortable with the lion. After some time, he even lets her lean up against him and take a nap on his silky soft fur. One day, a loose whisker falls out of the lion’s snout. She snaches it up and takes it to the wise sage for advice. To her dismay, he does not offer any advice. Instead he says, “You already know what to do.”

Now, pause… let’s be clear. We’re not saying anyone is an animal. Hey, we all are! We’re saying that when people are upset, we cannot think straight. We can get caught in lizard brain mode. If you are the calm person in the room when someone is upset, especially an autistic person, you might well think of the lion’s whisker. A gradual, quiet, slow, and non-threatening posture will take you much further than the alternative.

Here’s some simple examples:

  1. Do not expect eye contact: although certainly many people with autism can make good eye contact, many autistic individuals find eye contact aversive, intimidating, or even scary. He or she may not look at you, that doesn’t mean the person isn’t listening. 
  2. Don’t talk so much: For people some individuals with autism, especially younger kids, too much talk is just too much. 
  3. Stay calm yourself: individuals who are upset are scanning for safety. If you are upset, you are adding to their safety concerns. Stay calm. Send the message that everything is alright. 
  4. Try to ‘get outta there’: In my many years working in the schools and comforting crying, sometimes screaming kids, I usually found it very helpful to leave the area where the situation erupted. If possible, take a walk. Sometimes, a long walk down the hall is all it takes to calm down. 
  5. Wait time: if there is one mistake ‘rookies’ make around upset people with developmental disabilities, it’s rushing them. This is certainly an issue when a person is being seen as ‘non-compliant’ because they are just standing there. A lot of misunderstandings can be avoided if you just wait a bit. Let the person take his or her time to process what is happening. 
  6. Take deep breaths: If you are sitting next to an upset person, it can help to… Just. Sit. There. Breathe with that person. This will help activate everyone’s parasympathetic nervous system and allow more clear headed thinking. 

And before I close this out for today, I want to thank you for caring enough to learn about this form of advocacy. I appreciate each person’s attempt to bring more compassion and empathy to their day as they venture out in public. 

Maybe you will see a mom struggling with her crying kid in the supermarket, and instead of being annoyed, you will acknowledge the mom’s hard work, or show her kindness in some way. 

You might see a kiddo in your child’s class, and while volunteering, you hear him scream and bolt out of the room, with a staff member swiftly following behind. Maybe instead of annoyance, you will feel that everyone (including that kiddo) is doing their best. 

I will close with this, if you have an autistic person in your life, your willingness to simply pause and be present can be a huge asset and a ‘life saver’ for them. If you do nothing more than sit calmly, that might help a lot. If you did this wrong in the past, I bet they will forgive you. Try again tomorrow. And together with autistic people, who are truly some of my favorite humans on this planet, we thank you. Your compassion and care are needed in this world.

Many thanks,

Dr. Marcy Willard