April is Autism Acceptance Month

By Tracy Clarke, LPC, NCC, Licensed Mental Health Clinician
April is Autism Acceptance Month! This is a time dedicated to raise awareness, promote acceptance, inclusivity & connectedness, and celebrate individual differences and neurodiversity.

Neurodivergent and neurodiverse are terms that refer to people whose brains function differently from what is considered “normal” or neurotypical. Neurodivergence is the idea that there are natural variations in how people think, behave, learn, and communicate.

It is important to understand how neurodiversity plays a role in how people with autism connect with the community and resources they need. This includes mental health services.

Of the many barriers people with autism face, the lack of interoception impacts their physical and mental well-being significantly. However, interoception is not something that is largely recognized or understood. Interoception is the ability to sense what’s going on inside your body. It acts as your body’s GPS; it helps you know how you are feeling physically and emotionally. It is important because it helps you to tune into your body’s signals and respond to them in proactive and compassionate ways. Broadly speaking, interoceptive awareness provides information about two different states: body states and emotion states. People with autism often struggle with interoceptive awareness, which can make it harder for them to recognize and respond to their body’s signals, which can lead to problems like stress, anxiety, or difficulty regulating their emotions.

Several features of autism are a byproduct of interoception and include: emotional processing difficulties, alexithymia (difficulty identifying & describing emotions), lack of empathy, and inability to understand another person’s perspective. These affect how autistic people experience and express their emotions, which can lead to misunderstandings and difficulties in relationships and social situations. When it comes to mental health, there are several key challenges/barriers to consider. This includes emotional regulation, relationships, empathy, and perspective-taking. Because people with autism have deficits in interoception, they are often unable to connect their own emotions, or understand another person’s emotions and empathize with how they are feeling. This can lead to difficulties in social settings, the workplace, or even at home. As a result, people with autism experience anxiety and depression at high rates, usually due to the feeling of social failure, negative self-perception, loneliness, and isolation. Through mental health strategies, people with autism can learn how to improve their interoception skill and break through the barriers keeping them from having meaningful connections.

One of the most widely used therapeutic strategies is Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). CBT is a way of focusing on the cognitive processes that produce feelings. The approach helps by changing people’s behavior and attitudes with a deeper understanding of thoughts, images, beliefs, and attitudes; CBT offers strategies that can help to improve interoception awareness. With a deeper understanding of personal cognition and its relationship to behavior, people can change their lives through changing the way they think through mindfulness. Treatments focus on the processes of cognition, cognitive reappraisal, behavior change, mindfulness, and emotional regulation to reduce distress, improve functioning, benefit quality of life, and enhance wellbeing.

Mindfulness is one of the cornerstones of CBT and is an extremely effective way to connect to our bodies, thoughts, and emotions. Mindfulness strategies can help a wide variety of issues, but can be particularly helpful to people with autism, as it teaches them how to recognize and connect to themselves, which helps them better connect with others. Some effective strategies include mindful check-ins, body scans, and deep breathing.

Mindful check-ins are a simple and effective way to improve interoception skills. Mindful check-ins can be brief (a 10-second check-in) or can be a longer exercise. Mindful check-ins are characterized by checking in without judgment or evaluation to identify, label, and notice any of the sensations you experience. Mindful check-ins involve taking a few moments throughout the day to focus on your physical and emotional experiences and to tune into any signals your body is sending.

Body scans are another effective way of improving interoceptive awareness. Body scans involve an intentional way of checking in with your body and observing different sensations and feelings. You can do a whole-body scan or start with one or two parts and build up to a full body scan. Progressive muscle relaxation is another type of body scan that connects you to your body.

Deep breathing helps connect you to your body by feeling your lungs fill up with air and releasing it. It also acts as a natural anxiety reducer. It is easy to do on the go as well. Additionally, identifying emotions felt in connection with the body can improve interoception awareness.

If you have a loved one, work with someone, or spend time with a person with autism, these are some things you can help them with, to improve their interoception and increase overall general well-being. These skills are not limited to people with autism – all of us can use them to improve our own interoception and reduce our overall daily stress.