Autistic Brain Owner’s Manual Lesson 3: The Early Nerve Gets the Attention

Autistic Brain 3

Our brains starting at the brainstem work from the inside out. There are some types of experience that we process before we even think about them. These include first emotions and then visual input. Language and other higher thought comes later.

What this means is that your nervous system (and everyone’s nervous system) feels first, sees second, and thinks third.

For autistic people, language processing can sometimes be a challenge. It’s important to know how the brain works so that you can build on what’s already working.

feelings firstthen picturesthen language
Your inside-out brain processes emotions first, then images, then language and higher thinking. 

Feelings First

In every human being, no matter their cognitive level, emotions are functional. Emotions are precognitive. That means they are processed in the spinal cord, the brain stem, and the deep brain before they reach the parts of the brain used for thought.

Why does this matter? Because the early nerve gets the attention. Your feelings (including emotions and sense of safety from sensory soothing) will always win a battle for attention, even if they’re not acknowledged. They must be integrated with your thoughts through careful work training your attention to understand thinking, observations, and feelings at the same time. (I highly recommend the Social Thinking curricula for getting a boost in this area [not affiliated], but there are several programs or therapies that can help you integrate experiences.)

If you want to teach a child with autism, build from the inside of the brain outward. Use AAC or other tools to teach language for emotions first. Often progress is slow or non-existent because people trying to help start by trying to teach to the higher processing parts of the brain first. That’s backwards.

My formerly non-verbal, formerly profoundly cognitively delayed (less than 1st percentile), profoundly autistic son is now cognitively average for his age group with language growing with the help of AAC. He’s still autistic (of course!) and still working to develop communication skills, but he’s verbal now, too. The success in helping him function and grow into self-regulation skills comes after two years of intense therapies, including starting our pragmatic language with emotion filters from the beginning.

If you’re an adult reading this, the same principle applies. Sort your emotions and feelings first, because they’ll have your attention whether you intend them to or not. In order to help your brain work best and to clarify your thinking, start by checking in with your body. The pre-cognitive feelings you find there will give you important information about your physical state, and acknowledging your feelings will allow you to move on to more complex thinking, including speaking.

Seeing Second

After feelings, we think in pictures or concrete experiences. Like survivors of trauma, autistic people sometimes have challenges integrating the thoughts they see with what they understand or wish to do. I’m going to tell you how to use this fast form of thinking as a strength that you can build on.

  • Use pictures or symbolic language for teaching or scheduling.
  • Draw to help you think. Stick figures are fine.
  • Draw to help teach as well.
  • Follow the tips in my post to help Reduce Cognitive Load, which build on this visual strength.
  • Use AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) to communicate, teach, to remind, and plan. The motor planning needed to use these forms of communication helps to connect the different parts of the brain.
    • Even if you have fluent speech, you can get through tough times or help yourself thinking better with AAC sometimes. {Here are some samples of core vocabulary boards.} You use them by pointing at the different symbols to form thoughts and sentences. This builds connections between language and motor planning and helps overall function. (Tomorrow’s post tells you what to look out for when you hit a growth spurt from continued progress making cross-brain connections.)
    • Visual schedules access the quick to get attention sight neurons.
    • Some mainstream organization tips like using photo labels are a sort of macro version of AAC. Look for ways to meet your extraordinary needs in ordinary ways.
    • Complete AAC systems have the same learning curve as verbal language. If you’re starting from very low language understanding, it could take around two years to be able to communicate with sentences, just like neurotypical kids take about 2 years to talk.

I met a young man with severe speech challenges at a conference who was not given access to Augmentative and Alternative Communication until he was a teenager. At the time I met him, he was a successful college student, communicating with a speech output device. What his story showed me is that we can build on brain strengths to help communicate and integrate higher thinking no matter our age.

Thinking Third

You might experience your own thought processes as instantaneous. Though feelings and sight catch attention first, the speeds of the nervous impulses are so fast that we don’t usually notice them in order. The important thing to remember is that slow or foggy thinking or communication or fast-racing thoughts can both be due to feelings taking up our attention – even when we aren’t thinking about paying attention!

In a weird plot twist, we think better when we acknowledge our feelings. Why? Because doing so allows our brains to work across sections and shifts the places where our brains work hardest at a given time.

Movement, making music, using our bodies to produce language (through pen and paper, keyboards or AAC systems/devices), checking in with our bodies, and making art can all help to strengthen our focus on thinking. This shift in focus that enables us to pay attention to our ideas and to tell stories about our experiences is what neurotypicals mean when they say they need to “clear their head.”

Our brains are profoundly plastic.

Most of us have larger than average heads with more than average quantities of synapses. When we take care of ourselves by building on the natural order of attention, we can turn that plasticity into a strength.

Follow this blog to find out why Growth Spurts are Good in the next part of the Autistic Brain Owner’s Manual. {Parts One and Two of the Series.}

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