Dear Dr. Luskin:
Is it possible for an autistic person to be so criticized, reprimanded, yelled at, or threatened by many different people during childhood that they learn to shut down and be still, then carry this behavior into adulthood? Their psychiatrist calls this "possum-like" behavior. Or are the autistic traits so strong that lack of movement and expression are not possible to restrain?
Dear Playing Possum:
Thank you for your question. I think you are asking if the behavior of “shutting down” is likely to be a learned behavior or an inevitable characteristic of ASD. You also are asking if the behavior can be changed. The answer to the first question is a clear “both/and” and the answer to the second is probably.
It is estimated that at least 75 percent of adults with ASD meet criteria for a mental health diagnosis such as anxiety or depression. Part of this may be due to a brain that is hard wired for anxiety but environmental stressors also are a large contributor to these conditions. The behavior you describe, and the likely thought processes that underlie it are consistent with fear of failure, hopelessness and other symptoms characteristic of anxiety disorders and depression. Therapy would have to address both the environment, so the individual has a safe place, and then the underlying beliefs that maintain the behavior.
While attitudes such as “I might as well not try because I will screw up and get yelled at” are learned through experience, some characteristics of ASD reinforce the learning. Many of my clients engage in “all or nothing” thinking, which causes them to set impossibly high standards for success that neither they or any other human is likely to meet. Individuals with ASD also struggle with flexibility, and some learn to avoid actions that may lead to changes with which they are afraid they cannot cope.
In addition to learned attitudes, those with ASD also have neurologically based differences in how they interact with the world. For some with ASD, this includes delayed response times and difficulty initiating movement. If they are expected to respond as quickly as others they may appear to be non-responsive because by the time they get ready to act, others have assumed they are not going to act and responded as such.
If the avoidant behavior is seriously limiting the life of the individual with autism, those who care about that person may wish to help them change. First, it is important to recognize that we never can force someone else to change. It is important to respect the autonomy of the individual with autism and allow them to make choices. However as family, friends, and caregivers, we can attempt to create an environment that encourages change. Some suggestions include:
- When offering the individual an activity or interaction, give them time to consider the options and act at their own pace.
- Provide as much information as possible - this is what is expected, these are the options, etc. Knowing how the individual prefers to receive information is important.
- Provide options for engagement that meet the interests and skills of the individual on the spectrum.
- Model that mistakes are okay by commenting on your own and other’s mistakes in an accepting way.
- The individual may benefit from working with a therapist or finding a support group of peers who understand the struggle.
- Be patient. Change often is slow and comes in small steps.
It is very important to convey the attitude that whatever choice someone we care about makes, we will support them. If an individual has experienced a lot of criticism and rejection, this is even more important.