by Raluca Ciobanu & Ovidiu Brazdau
Raluca Ciobanu is an art therapist and works with children on the autism spectrum, using various methods focused on developing a better adult-child connection, and finding new ways to improve the acquisitions sustainably.
This research is based on our field notes and observations in the last five years, as we tested some methods to connect better with the individuals on the autism spectrum, and support their development. We prefer to list our observations in a simplified way and limit the additional explanations to the minimum.
If you wish to learn more about the psychological concepts used here, please take a look at these researches:
- Jeff Warren, “The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness.”
- Ovidiu Brazdau, “The Psychology of Becoming Conscious (Inner Growth Journeys & Awakening Journeys)”
- Ovidiu Brazdau, “Entheogenic Insights I: Psychology of DMT/Ayahuasca Experience”
Field observations and hypotheses
1. The autism spectrum includes individuals that have a dense synchrony of their inner systems (biological, energy, information), generating a denser-than-average pre-conscious awareness, perhaps as a mutation in our species, resulting in neurodiverse individuals.
Due to the dense synchrony, the information processing systems in the body need to develop a less-frequent self-identity, and life is still learning how to build higher-order phenomena such as systems thinking, conceptual thinking, meta-cognition, meta-attention, meta-emotions/feelings.
Also, due to the initial lack of second-order organization of systems, the conscious experience tends to remain in a nascent stage of developing complexities, resulting in a dominance of the pre-conscious awareness (“there is something there, but I cannot figure out what it is”), and a less active conscious experience (= awareness + cognition about the content of perception).
2. As an adaptation to the denser perception, nature has adapted the attentional styles and seems to have enhanced contextual & visual functioning in these individuals (as compared to the neurotypical person), as a way of meaning-making.
We are not implying that this inner configuration would always generate better performance at visual-spatial assessments; instead, we want to emphasize that the visual-spatial approach is generating meanings more rapidly, as an adaptation to the sensory data overload.
3. Sometimes the density of the autistic inner experience is very similar to the high-density energy experiences known as kundalini awakening, or to the experiences generated by the DMT molecule (as experienced in energy-spikes during ayahuasca experiences).
During group experiences with ayahuasca, participants experience a very intimate connection and information/energy transfers between individuals, as moments of “deep connection”, technically described as spontaneous samyama (merging, full absorption).
Samyama is a process of perfect and continuous fusion with the object of attention. Or, in other words, knowing an object by completely merging with it. In Yoga Sutras, it is said that this process leads to jnana, correct knowledge, or direct knowing. In modern terminology, we can say that a perfect perceptual, emotional, and cognitive empathy will lead to a correct understanding-as-perception.
For some people, the transition to new contents brought-in by absorption flows is not so smooth… as they may experience, all of a sudden, immersions in a landscape they see, or in a sound, causing a kind of “black-outs” and losing contact with external surroundings (if this happens when they are driving, well, it’s not okay). This is a sign that the witnessing awareness starts to activate, and the person is experiencing a new way of connecting with life, based on full connection, rather than thinking, feeling, or sensing.
Learning perceptual patterns and their function/meaning in a dense high-synced environment (as in individuals on the autism spectrum) is way harder than in neurotypical population who usually has a less dense inner environment, and only experience this high density occasionally (as in naturally giving birth, manic episodes, kundalini awakening experiences, experiences based on hyper-ventilation, or after staying in the dark one week).
The inter-connections and reciprocal learning observed during ayahuasca experiences provoked us to test if the information transfer and mutual learning also happen in the connection between the individual on the autism spectrum and their closest relationships (family, therapist).
4. We hypothesize that if the therapist/parent opens up to the dense configurations using attitudes such as mindfulness, or increased present moment awareness and witnessing energy awareness, the child on the autism spectrum may “click” and connect with the adult, and unconsciously “learn” how the information is organized in the adult nearby, and naturally “absorb” the patterns necessary to make more sense of what is happening around and inside.
We tested this hypothesis with some kids on the autism spectrum, and our observations show that just by being present in the same space with the child, as a witness, and using a unitive approach, the child naturally clicks with the adult, gets a sense of safety and becomes more creative. In time, it helps with the acquisition of meaning and self-identity structures.
Janet Adler, “Presence: From Autism to the Discipline of Authentic Movement”:
“Forty years ago, autistic children were described as those beings who never had an experience of relationship with another human being. In such a child there is no hint of an internalized other, a mother, an inner witness. There is no internalized presence. For a decade I worked in big and empty rooms where autistic children, one by one, filled the space with their absence until, because of a momentary presence, we experienced a connection. Such moments of grace created resonance within our relationship, revealing a glimpse of light.”
How does this deep connection/transfer happen? As the adult already has a meta-organization of information, the child unconsciously absorbs various structuring/patterning and start to use them (unconsciously), thus contributing to the inner development of identity (= habituated patterns).
Mike Johnson, “A Future for Neuroscience”:
“I suggest breaking EQ (emotional intelligent quotient) into entrainment quotient (EnQ) and metronome quotient (MQ). In short, entrainment quotient indicates how easily you can reach entrainment with another person. And by “reach entrainment”, I mean how rapidly and deeply your connectome harmonic dynamics can fall into alignment with another’s. Metronome quotient, on the other hand, indicates how strongly you can create, maintain, and project an emotional frame. In other words, how robustly can you signal your internal connectome harmonic state, and how effectively can you cause others to be entrained to it.
Autism might be reconceptualized along two dimensions: first, most forms of autism would entail less general ability to reach interpersonal entrainment with another’s connectome harmonics- a lower EnQ. Second, most forms of autism would also entail a non-standard set connectome harmonics. I.e., the underlying substructure of core harmonic frequencies may be different in people on the autism spectrum, and thus they can’t effectively reach social entrainment with ‘normal’ people, but some can with other systems (e.g. video games, specific genres of music), and some can with others whose substructure is non-standard in the same way.”
What parents/therapists can do to maximize this effect? Connect deeply with the child, habituate the connection, stay around, purposefully, and allow the transfer to happen over some weeks/months/years. After the connection is there, if the adult has access to post-autonomous ego mechanisms (as described by Susanne Cook-Greuter in ego development theory), the adult could feed the child with patterns and systems consciously. If the adult is in the conventional stage, the feeding still happens, but it requires an emotional connection. We are primarily referring to ego-awareness and perspective skills, witnessing awareness (developing an inner observer) and the ability to have meta-experiences (emotions about emotions, reflections about the thinking process, etc.)
5. Gazing into each other eyes is a powerful connection method, but it may temporarily destabilize the inner configuration of both participants. That’s why some individuals on the autism spectrum avoid eye contact (the collective experiences with ayahuasca show that looking into each other’s eyes during high-density peaks allows for a massive information transfer).
6. In the case of adults on the autism spectrum, the dense high-sync sometimes leads to an increased self-stimulation drive. In this situation, an option would be to learn to self-adapt to the denser inter-connections by learning to manage the energy body (as in the transition from ecstatic to enstatic, in the awakening journeys). In other words, learning to manage low-level kundalini-like experiences and spikes as everyday habits.
We noticed that the repetitive inner and outer movements of the individuals on the autism spectrum are supporting the inner experience by patterning some content, e.g., 30% of it so that the individual can access and process the other 70%.
7. We hypothesize that individuals on the autism spectrum may have a higher natural (endogenous) DMT production in the body, as compared to the neurotypical individuals, or they may have a different rhythmic patterning more similar to the synesthetic individuals.
Simon Baron-Cohen et. al., “Is Synaesthesia More Common in Autism?
“Synaesthesia is a neurodevelopmental condition in which a sensation in one modality triggers a perception in a second modality. Autism (shorthand for Autism Spectrum Conditions) is a neurodevelopmental condition involving social-communication disability alongside resistance to change and unusually narrow interests or activities. Whilst on the surface they appear distinct, they have been suggested to share common atypical neural connectivity.
In the present study, we carried out the first prevalence study of synaesthesia in autism to formally test whether these conditions are independent. After exclusions, 164 adults with autism and 97 controls completed a synaesthesia questionnaire, Autism Spectrum Quotient, and Test of Genuineness-Revised (ToG-R) online.
The rate of synaesthesia in adults with autism was 18.9% (31 out of 164), almost three times greater than in controls (7.22%, 7 out of 97, P <0.05). The significant increase in synaesthesia prevalence in autism suggests that the two conditions may share some common underlying mechanisms. Future research is needed to develop more feasible validation methods of synaesthesia in autism.”
The autistic tantrums may be a spontaneous reconfiguration of energy, as in kundalini spikes during ayahuasca experiences, the notable difference being that the child is entirely overwhelmed by the peak and cannot manage it and fades-out. Though, some people experiencing with substantial doses of entheogenic plants also fade-out or dissolve their identity into a temporary psychotic experience.
III. Some methods for developing a deeper connection with individuals on the autism spectrum
1. Develop better body awareness: contact improvisation and any authentic dance movement would help.
We recommend watching “Body and Earth. Seven Web-Based Somatic Excursions”, by Andrea Olsen
“Greetings, I’m Andrea Olsen, and I am delighted to share these seven movement explorations with you, developed with my colleague Caryn McHose. Relationship is a theme of our time: relationship to body, to place, and to global community. This series of short films offers resources for ease in the body by restoring inherent flow, our birthright. They are for anyone with curiosity about living more consciously.
Two underlying concepts inform this work: Body is Earth. Our bones, breath and blood are the minerals, air and water inside us. When you arrive in a new place, in just a few days the 70% of your body that is water is now from that watershed. The local eggs, milk, and greens that you eat shape your muscles and bones. Humans are nature too, not separate but same.
The second concept is that dance — and movement — are essential ways to experience this interconnectedness. Rather than superficial, peripheral, or extraneous, movement is central, essential, and core to what it means to be human in this time. Bodies have intrinsic intelligence formed from over three billion years of evolutionary history—since the origins of the first cell. Rather than seeking control over the body and the places we inhabit, we develop practices for deep attending.
To explore these concepts experientially, we begin with our feet. In Day 1 we orient to weight and to space and practice arriving. Day 2 we refresh fluidity, followed by Day 3 investigating breath and voice. In session 4 we remap verticality, and in Day 5, we explore the process of perception remembering how orientation and perception underlie every movement we make. In Day 6 we focus on balancing the nervous system. And finally in Day 7 we apply all these resources to embracing mystery, meeting the uncertainty and challenges of our days more consciously and with more spontaneous joy.
These seven movement explorations can be done individually, part-by-part, or linked for an hour-long practice. The verbal cues are meant as invitations, not commands. Follow what captures your imagination, finding your own inroad to embodied awareness.
You’ll need a space to move in that feels private enough for focused concentration, a yoga mat or other clean surface, and comfortable clothing. It’s helpful if you have a writing journal to reflect on the process. You can work alone or with a group, as we enter this journey together.”
2. Learn meta-attention styles (monitoring attention to attention), learn to divide attention
and practice open-focus attention, mindfulness and witnessing awareness
Attention is the “scanner” that connects us with various sources (internal and external), making all this information available for our awareness and the conscious experience. In the transformation process, it is necessary to break the addiction to “narrow” focus (tunnel vision) and to use a type of attention that is called “diffuse” attention, or attention to the big picture. Another term is “full view vision”.
Lester Fehmi, a researcher at Princeton who studied the synchrony of the brain wave activity, discovered that if we embrace the entire perceptive field, including the peripheral vision, we get a whole-brain-alpha-synchrony.
Lester Fehmi, “Attention to Attention”:
“How we pay attention determines significantly and immediately our experience, physiology, and behavior. How we pay attention determines our subjective experience of our own identity and our objective experience of internal and external sensation and perception. Also, we can learn to flexibly choose and determine how we attend. Certainly most of us have the ability to choose the direction of our narrow attention, in order to choose to experience any subset of available stimuli at any given time. With training, we can also choose to broaden the scope of our attention to include a more diffuse and integrated background awareness of available stimuli, even in multiple sense modalities simultaneously. Moreover, we can choose to flexibly pay attention in other ways which help us function more or less well in specific conditions.”
Fehmi describes four types of attention, based on the narrow/diffuse category, but also adding another characteristic – our connection with the world we observe. We can have an objective style, looking at things as if from outside, as an objective observer, or we can be immersed/absorbed in the experience, being in contact with all the objects in our attentional field.
The four types are narrow-objective, narrow-immersed, diffuse-objective, and diffuse-immersed. The style that includes all of them is called by Fehmi “open focus” attention: “Open Focus includes diffuse, narrow, objective, and immersed forms of attention – all occurring more or less equally and simultaneously, with a concurrent awareness of their presence. The ultimate goal of Open Focus training is to attain the attentional flexibility adequate for moving freely by degrees among and within attentional styles, including all, at times, simultaneously and equally”.
The idea that attention is a “spot” is still the current paradigm in psychology, but it looks like the attention is more flexible than we thought. Dave Carmel, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh, posits that attention is not something like… a “beam”, but rather, attention is a kind of “optical fiber” channel, with thousands of sub-channels that can acquire information from the environment, no matter if they are in the “narrow spot” or not.
Not being on autopilot requires us to become passively reflective, so that we feel ourselves and look at ourselves in every moment. The first step for de-automatization is the post-event self-observation, being conscious after the event occurred. When we observe ourselves during the event, acknowledging our actions moment-by-moment, we gain better clarity levels. As if we would have a mirror in us, which reflects us in every second. This is a process we call “the witness” or “witnessing awareness”. In other words, it is the awareness being aware of itself.
The witness is neither a conceptual structure, mediated by language, nor a superego that analyzes what is happening. It is merely a mirroring process, active in all life processes on Earth, and translated into our psyche as the experience of being alive and wide-awake. Some researchers call it fundamental awareness, pure consciousness, or non-symbolic awareness. The witnessing awareness mode is described by the first person reports as a continuously fresh-looking into the present moment, as a new zeroth-person perspective, where there is only a present-centered experience.
Learning mindfulness is a step forward toward the development of a stable witnessing awareness.
Jeff Warren, “The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness”:
“We must learn, said Smritiratna, to treat our thoughts the way we treat sounds or sights or smells. They are temporary bits of content that flit across the mind. They don’t own us.
Understanding this is crucial to the practice of “mindfulness,” and it was that topic we discussed in the evenings, chairs arranged in a wide circle, facing into the room’s empty center. If the bizarre phenomenological effects of the pce state revealed themselves only to seasoned initiates, mindfulness seemed to be a little more accessible.
“Keeping your eyes open,” Smritiratna told the group, “come to your immediate sense experience. What do you notice?”
We all squinted our eyes. Besides the visual stuff, what else was there? The monkey, obviously, but try to ignore him. There may have been an emotion of some kind, it was hard to tell. A blackbird chirped outside.
One of the Scottish women raised her hand.
“Yes, Jackie,” said Smritiratna.
“I notice my feelings, and also, um, that bird. So you have sounds and smells and general sensations.”
Smritiratna nodded. “There are four foundations to mindfulness. The first is mindfulness of body—both the senses, and the physical feeling of the body, the pressure of the seat against our backsides, the pressure in our bellies. The second is mindfulness of pleasure and pain—the two extremes we flit through on a daily basis. The third is mindfulness of mood. And the last is mindfulness of our mental patterns and thoughts. Try to identify all of these things, even if some of them may be unpleasant. Remember: every experience is bearable one breath at a time.”
3. Develop the ability to connect with space, stay present, and witness the individual on the autism spectrum, using the techniques from dance movement developed by Janet Adler.
Paula C. Sager, “Witness Consciousness in the Development of the Individual”:
“What makes Authentic Movement unique as a practice is that the mover is in relationship to a non-moving external witness. The primary intention of the external witness is to pay attention to her own internal experience while tracking the spatial, temporal, and physical journey of the mover. A seasoned witness, evolving from practice as a mover, typically has a well-developed inner witness, capable of separating her own experience from the mover’s and of discerning any tendency to judge, interpret, or project her own experience onto that of the mover.
The external witness, who typically sits on the periphery of the space, plays a vital role in supporting the development of the mover’s inner witness. For the mover, the process of becoming conscious of one’s experience while “in movement” (stillness can be a form of movement) is the ongoing practice of developing and strengthening the “inner witness.” After the movement portion of an Authentic Movement session, time is usually given to a transitional activity, such as writing, drawing, or working with clay or other art material, followed by a set time for verbal processing between the mover(s) and witness(es). The mover is considered to be “the expert of her own experience” and is therefore invited to speak first.
The witness is careful to be conscious of how she talks about her experience of witnessing the mover, often deliberately acknowledging her own experience as distinct from that of the mover. For some movers the experience of being witnessed is a relief. For others, especially at first, being witnessed can bring up feelings of ambivalence and discomfort. If the witness can convey a sense of “compassionate-enough presence”, the mover will likely, over time, develop greater trust and security.”
Other resources: “Looking for me” & “Still Looking “, by Janet Adler.
While working with children on the autism spectrum, we observed that using the narrow-focused attention too much may inhibit their activities and reduce the connection between the adult and the child. Although their attention is very dynamic, many children on the autism spectrum can notice the attentional style of the therapist/adult. After they learn to be in the same space, while acknowledging that they are being witnessed, they relax, allowing the adult into their inner space (which usually is merged with the outer environment). We tested this idea in some therapy sessions, and a few times, after the mutual attentional recognition has been established. The child learned that the therapist’s attention is not dangerous, so it was possible to watch the child for over an hour, without having them disconnected from the shared space.
4. Develop the mechanisms to connect deeply with the child as a whole and learn to access an expanded presence, specific to the “unitary mystical state”.
Jeff Warren, “The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness.”
“Robert Forman is a former professor of religion, and the author of some excellent articles in the Journal of Consciousness Studies. I think of him as a kind of mystical action figure. He transitioned into nondual consciousness a few years ago, neural tubes “unzipping” along the back of his neck with a long tearing sound, in his memorable description. It’s fascinating to think about how the various mystical states all relate to one another. Forman sees it as a progression outward. I tried to capture this sense in my comic panel. PCE = Pure Conscious Experience. DMS = Dual Mystical State. UMS = Unitary Mystical state.” […]
For Forman, there is a clear progression: first you tap into the PCE, then the PCE expands so it exists alongside the normal run of mental content and you get the DMS, and finally that “interior silence” balloons out beyond the confines of the body to include everything, so that, in the words of German idealist Malwida von Meysenburg, who describes one such UMS experience, “Earth, heaven, and sea resounded as in one vast world encircling harmony . . . I felt myself one with them..”
When we hear about “becoming one with the universe” we tend to roll our eyes, or turn down the volume on the Final Fantasy DVD. But it’s only a cliché because so many people have reported the experience, and not just New Agers. No one knows what’s behind these episodes—is it some oddball bit of brain activity, indigestion, or, as Forman himself puts it, “an encounter with Ultimate Truth?” But their very commonness—the fact that they happen both spontaneously and as a result of deliberate practice—suggests that they may have implications for the study of consciousness itself. Forman ends his paper with a caveat and a plea. First, he says, “Phenomenology is not science. There can be many ways to explain any experience, mystical or otherwise, and we should explore all of them.” But at the same time, he goes on, “in the absence of compelling reasons to deny the suggestions of their reports, we would be wise to seriously examine the direction towards which the finger of mysticism points. If the validity of knowledge in the universities is indeed governed, as we like to claim, by the tests of evidence, openness and clarity, then we should not be too quick to throw out the baby swimming in the bathwater of mysticism.”
Other exercises that may be useful for establishing a deep connection: use the short but intense gazing moments between child and adult to allow the information patterns to transfer; familiarize with high sensory/energy experiences, through tai-chi or dance, and learn to modulate the peak (this would help to keep the connection with the individuals on the autism spectrum when they are in high-energy peaks).
While we were studying the family environment of the children on the autism spectrum, we observed that some adults tend to have many unconscious anxieties, worries, or disappointments toward the child, and these tensions are becoming a part of the child’s experience. They are unable to discriminate what is their tension and what is the adult’s tension, so the child may reason that they are the cause of the stress they feel in the adults.
The unconscious transfer has to be very carefully managed, as the children may have moments when they experience any external tension as their own. In the art therapy sessions, we observed that if the therapist’s emotional life is too heavy, that would reflect in the child’s behavior and interfere with the inter-connectivity between the adult. It happened that some children managed to communicate with the therapist that they feel discomfort due to the therapist’s emotional overdrive. The solution in this situation was to acknowledge “Yes, what you feel in me is correct, I feel like this, thank you”, then to communicate that “It’s my responsibility to manage my emotions”, and then correct the energy, so that the child could learn that managing tensed/unpleasant emotional states is possible.
5. Learn about subpersonalities and observe them manifesting in the child’s actions and attitudes, as flows of behaviors.
The ego is formed as a result of our interactions with some essential events/activities in our life (e.g., job, relation with parents, food, friends, sex life). These events created specific patterns of thinking, feeling, sensing, and acting related to that event. In time, they form a web of patterns that activate in particular circumstances. These mini-identities are the subpersonalities.
In art-therapy sessions, we observed that the children tend to start up to 10 projects in the first sessions if they are allowed to do what they want. In the following sessions, as the connection between the child and the therapist began to emerge, the number of art projects generated in a session is significantly lower. After the body tension gets fluidified, the child becomes more attentive to the connection and provide more feedback on what they are doing.
Due to the intense sensory experience, in an individual on the autism spectrum, the subpersonalities are sequenced, and they interfere with each other and follow one after another in rapid succession (as compared to the typical population, where they are more stable and tend to be integrated into a habituated self-identity). In a few minutes, more than one subpersonalities may become active.
E.g., let’s assume that a child on the autism spectrum has 20 subpersonalities (mini-identities). In the 1st minute, due to the sensory input, subpersonalities no. 1, 7, 9, 10, 15 may become active and fade away quickly. In 2nd minute, the subpersonalities no. 2, 8, 11, 16 may be rolled. So if we analyze only these two minutes, it may seem that there is no coherent organization. But then comes the next minute, when maybe subpersonality #1 gets triggered and activates again.
In the inner experience of the child as seen from subpersonality #1 there are no gaps, 1st-minute events and 2nd-minute events are in succession (flow). For an adult observing the child, it may look that there is no coherency.
But, if the adult asks a question about something in the 1st minute, and waits for the answer in the 2nd minute, and there is no answer, the adult may conclude that the child didn’t provide feedback. Yet, in the 3rd minute, here it is, the feedback. Although, due to the interference of 2nd minute, it may be mixed with other stuff. Now, expanding this example to a day and the behavior of the child on the autism spectrum may become more familiar. It’s like, to connect with the child, the adult needs to learn delayed gratification (delayed feedback).
We hope that the perspectives we described here would be useful for any adult interested in finding new ways to connect deeply with an individual on the autism spectrum.
Our observations show that a deep connection style is already used by some therapists and family members of individuals on the autism spectrum, and those who seem to use this method, along with the classical approach, consistently produce excellent results, and that encouraged us to advance on this path and study the underlying mechanisms.
7th of July, 2020
References and notes