Autism, Thinking Types and Chaos Dynamics
About ten years ago I wondered if we were doing science wrong when it came to Autism. Our science takes the average person and finds a single straight-line cause and effect. What I wondered is maybe the science for Autism would look more like weather patterns in particular climates, like Chaos Patterns. In this way, the effect the environment had on an individual would depend on that individual. If Autism is a consequence of early life (or before life) stress, then Autism could be the trade-off consequences of the amplification of personality traits. Traits related to information processing, immune activation, energy saving strategies and threat prevention.
Diversity of Cooperation
We evolved for thousands of years in villages where the majority of the village were stabilizing individuals who were socially oriented. They allowed us to get along and work together. While the other peripheral personalities were more flexible; the artists, explorers, leaders, warriors and storytellers.
The combination of personalities, both stability and flexibility, allowed for the growth of communities. Diverse personalities like these are found in humans and animals the world over. These personalities are also found to have reciprocal stress reactivity, neurobiological correlates and immune activity. This makes sense. A personality is going to be driven by hormone levels, neurotransmitters, and brain structures. Our brains may also have corresponding needs or types of fuel needs for different types of thinking.
These peripheral minds process information differently so they may be uniquely vulnerable to alterations in resources and information overload. So imagine an early life or pre-life combination of factors that create stress– too much to do and not enough resources to do it. Stress is a communication for change and adaptation to maintain homeostasis. If the body makes a change to homeostasis to compensate for the experience of stress, if it becomes reprogrammed, that individual may now be living with the consequences of an amplified world. They are living by overly averting danger, saving energy, seeking resources, and making trade-offs. They have their dials turned up and they have to deal with the ramification of that volume; sensory overloads, meltdowns, over-programming, over-reacting, under-reacting, and bottlenecks of information and development.
One of the key points in taking a stress perspective and following the rules of stress is the concept of sexual dimorphic stress patterns. Sexually dimorphic brains are “ruled” by the sex hormones estrogen or testosterone. While generally more females have female brains, it is not that iron-clad. Males can have female-brains and females can have male-brains. These two types of brain are on opposite sides of a spectrum. They have opposite ways of handling stress depending on their hormone base. In Autism terminology describing the different thinking types from Temple Grandin. The Word-Thinking brain would be an Estrogen brain, whereas the Pattern-Thinking type would be a Testosterone brain. These opposite thinking patterns may be a grey-white matter difference among many other structures, genes and neurotransmitters. Dimorphic brains have many opposite reactions and compensations to stress.
In personality theory there are many ways to describe the “Social Minds” and the diverse “Peripheral Minds”. Dr. Helen Fisher describes temperament personalities and the subsequent neurology. For the Peripheral Minds I would suggest the personalities would be; the Negotiator, the Director, the Explorer and to a small extent or the extreme version of the Builder. Whereas the typical or average Builder, Dr. Fisher says the predominant personality (42% of the population), would be that of the Social Mind, or as describe by the Autism community, a Neurotypical.
My favorite depictions are from Dr. Michael Lessor. He refers to his character types as; the Star, the Lover, the Dreamer, the Warrior and the Guardian, these would be the “Peripheral Minds”. Whereas the Stoic, from his description, which makes up 40-60% of the population are the “salt of the earth” or the Neurotypical. These personality profiles are derivatives of the Big Factor Five. Which are accepted personality traits with suggested correlates in estrogen, testosterone, dopamine, serotonin, other substrates, brain structures and biological basis.
Moving to a Chaos and Stress Model
This is important to autism research because much of the research approaches autism as a generalized whole. We take a large group of autistic individuals and test something like melatonin on that group. What we get from studies may be a generally positive response. But what really happens is that one group responds very well (we might assume it’s a good genetic match), another group won’t respond or has a diminishing response and another small group may respond poorly. We then decide that melatonin works (and over-apply it) or doesn’t work enough and neglect to use it. It may also be that we use it only as a single linear application, like for sleep, but not for the larger picture of stress rebalancing in particular subtypes. (Melatonin may have an evolutionary foundation as it is thought to be a first line of defense against oxidative stress). So when we see studies where it works for one group but has the opposite effect for another, this may actually be telling us that it is a powerful oxidative and immune channel modulator.
Each Thinking-Type is Like a Unique Building
Stress is often thought of as a single entity or action (like a cortisol response). Or that stress is equal for everyone. However, stress is the way we communicate, adjust and adapt to our environment. How we make adjustments is unique because of the many stress “hubs” and the engagement of different stress structures, chemicals and genes. Its like different buildings with each building having say 8 stories. A Word-Thinker may make more use of oxidative floors 3-5-7, while a Pattern-Thinker may make more use of oxidative floors 2-4-6. Melatonin is a stress modulator, but it may only influence one floor (and may be on the estrogen-side of the spectrum). So what stresses one person out, may not stress another person out. It depends on the management, interaction and activation of the entire building. We might assume that Word-Thinkers may have the opposite reaction to an oxidative stress channel or intervention than a Pattern-Thinker.
Core Experiences of Those on the Spectrum
What individuals diagnosed on the autism spectrum have in common are significant difficulties in the areas that can also be considered stress programming issues, or things that “stress” us out. Social communication, emotional regulation and unique sensory experiences with sound, light, taste, etc. And behaviors that sooth us or “saves energy”, such as repetitive behaviors, an over-focus on specific areas of interest, stimming behaviors, or eating routine foods.
Chaos Patterns of Outcome Diversity
So a Word-Thinker, amplified, may be more likely to lose language whereas a Pattern-Thinker amplified has too many thoughts and may need to talk out-loud to filter out the noise to get to or work out their thoughts. Stress amplifies empathy in Word-Thinkers making them completely overwhelmed by others and tuned out to them, while it decreases empathy in Pattern-Thinkers in some ways enhancing their science-y features but also making social skills a mystery. Word-Thinkers downregulate to pain making them oblivious to certain sensory stimuli, whereas Pattern-Thinkers upregulate to pain sometimes making them avoid social pain or developing patterns of PTSD. Those on the spectrum use self-stimulating behaviors for several reasons; to soothe themselves, to stimulate interoception (sensory diet) and to block pain (with pain). They also have several reasons for picky eating; for self-medication, for threat avoidance and for sensory overload avoidance. Each of these reasons may give some indication of their base Thinking-Type (although, like a PLINKO board, when the environment pushes can end up anywhere).
A New Model
It is my feeling that a model that starts with the initial conditions of Thinking Types is a worthwhile model to explore. We could start asking better questions, get better answers, and discover new patterns to the diversity of outcomes. It may also lead us to a better use of interventions and their application. Without chaos dynamics and a stress perspective we could misuse or dismiss treatments that could be helpful. I think it’s important to consider a change from the science of average to the science of diverse interactions.
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