A Note on Downloads

The content in this entire Coping With Autism page can be downloaded as part of a single document below.

Also, downloadable from this page is 'Matt's Daily Health Guide', my attempt to summarize general health related behaviors that I think everyone should consider. There are many recommendations therein that can be used to guide your care of your child, and yourself.

Healthy Relaxation

Calmness is a very important aspect of human life. In pre-modern times, calmness was a skill that was practiced by humans to counterbalance the excitement and stresses of their day. Calmness could be induced by many activities, from watching the stars, to shaping pottery, to shared grooming, to dancing aroundb the campfire. Calmness was also not much of an option – it was built into the fabric of the day. After dark, the tribe needed to be banded together for mutual defense. Also, there wasn’t much in the way of stimulating activities that can be done in the dark.

Calmness is not just a state of mind, but also a biological response to certain environmental conditions. It has its own very specific characteristics, which are very different than those characteristics of a body under stress. The name for this is the Relaxation Response.

A Brief Technical Discussion of the Relaxation Response

The relaxation response is an inherent physiological mechanism to reduce neural excitation and stress response activation. Training in the relaxation response can cause a dampening of neural excitation in the limbic system, the area I argue in My Theory is particularly abnormal in autism. And, since relaxation has become scarce in America and other westernized societies, the continual failure of humans to trigger the relaxation response is a potential mechanism for the development of excessive neural excitation in the nervous system, which is what I argue is at the core of autism.

The physiology of the relaxation response is fundamentally a physiology of lowered arousal and much of its therapeutic effect derives from this quality. According to Gellhorn, relaxation is a result of a loss in excitatory tone of the hypothalamus and a diminution of hypothalamic-cortical discharges. In agreement with Gellhorn, Taylor has suggested that relaxation involves a decrease in the arousability of the central nervous system. A more current reinterpretation might be that the relaxation response represents a neurological desensitization of the limbic system and / or its sympathetic efferents.

Behavioral studies support the notion that the relaxation response is capable of dampening a form of adrenal gland responsivity. In one study, Allen used a specific sound to trigger what was assumed to be posterior hypothalamically mediated arousal in 653 subjects. He found that after training in the relaxation response for a period of approximately 10 weeks, subjects demonstrated a dampened physiological responsivity to the auditory stressor. This study is similar to numerous ones which have shown improved capacity to relax dampens responsivity to external stressors.

Many researchers agree that cognitive distortion, rumination, and overall cognitive excitation can give rise to states of neural excitation and generalized neural and physical arousal. Similarly, evidence shows that a reduction in cognitive arousal via the relaxation response contributes to a reduction in excitatory tone and a neurological desensitization effect as well as a reduction in abnormal and troubling psychological states. In reviewing the literature, one is struck by the recurrent theme of an increase in self-efficacy derived from consistent practice of the relaxation response, as well as the sense of control engendered by the physiological self regulatory skills developed.

What all this means is that the ability to trigger the body’s ability to relax reduces level of neurological arousal in the human nervous system. This reduces the transmission of sensory signals from the peripheral nervous system to the brain, which reduces the impacts of external stressors on neural function. This is a particularly important skill for people on the spectrum, because their nervous systems are wired to be overaroused and to transmit too much information to the processing centers of the brain.

Ways to Trigger the Relaxation Response

There are various ways to trigger the relaxation response. 


One of the problems of modern life is that everyone just has less space. And by space, I don’t mean physical space. I mean mental space. Everyone needs some time to relax. Everyone needs to be bored on occasion. Everyone needs to have extra capacity to draw on, which you don’t have if every moment is filled with some activity or another than was planned previously. If you don’t have space, after a while, you start to feel out of control, because even though you may have chosen previously to order your life in a way where you are constantly busy, you may not have understood the consequences of your choices and the demands that would be placed on you.

Modern life has resulted in everyone seeming to program their lives to have less space. Some of this relates to the amount of time we spend in cars getting from one place to the other. Some of this relates to the activities that are available to us that may not have been around in the past that we are constantly encouraged to partake in. Some of it relates to the mass media convincing us that we need to do certain things and possess certain stuff in order to be good people. Some of it also relates to a cultural shift in America towards competitiveness.

Whatever the cause, this evaporation of space is being transmitted to our children. Their lives are often programmed as tightly as ours. They rush around from place to place with us. They feel the pressure to perform and to conform. They feel our pressure and frustration that we don’t have any space. Their stress levels elevate with ours. They need more space. They need time to just play and relax and read. They need to be bored on occasion. To help our children regain some space, we need to start with ourselves. As a country, we need to slow down and chill out. This does not mean watching more TV or playing more video games or chatting more on the internet.

     Meditation, Relaxation, Massage, and Breathing

Meditation and progressive relaxation techniques have been shown to be excellent at restoring homeostatic balance. Meditation, relaxation and martial arts have all been shown to lower blood pressure, an indicator of stress. Massage works in many people to greatly relieve stress. In a study of nurses, researchers found that 60 per cent of the staff - 54 per cent in summer and 65 per cent in winter - suffered from moderate to extreme anxiety. But this fell to just eight per cent, regardless of the season, once staff had received 15-minute aromatherapy massages while listening to relaxing new-age music.

These techniques can be very valuable with autistic children. While it may be difficult to get an autistic 5 year old to meditate, it may be possible working with a professional to help a child learn to relax, using progressive relaxation techniques. Also, an autistic child may benefit from a short massage by a massage therapist who understands the tactile abnormalities of defensive children.

Deep breathing exercises can be learned by anyone, including small children, and very quickly result in the activation of the relaxation response. Belly breathing in particular is effective at inducing relaxation. Belly breathing involves actively pushing out the belly when a breath is being taken, forcing the air coming in from mouth down to the bottom of the lungs. This is extremely deep breathing, and this type of breathing is particularly relaxing.


Science does not understand how acupuncture works. For a therapy to be scientific, three standards must be satisfied. It must be effective. The effectiveness must be repeatable. And the mechanism by which the therapy works need be understood. Acupuncture fails this last test, and is therefore not scientifically sanctioned. However, it has been proven over and over at being effective at relieving stress.

I believe acupuncture works through downregulation of neural excitation, which then reduces stress responsiveness. I think the reason science doesn’t understand acupuncture is because science doesn’t understand neural excitation – this is the same reason science doesn’t understand autism.

Regardless of whether I am right, acupuncture has been shown to be very effective in helping some autistic children. Starting acupuncture treatment may be challenging depending on the child. Tactile defensiveness may prove too much to overcome. Getting the child to stay still long enough to make the treatment work may also be difficult. You know your child and whether such a thing could be tolerated. But, the benefits are likely to be great if you can overcome the logistics. Also, even if you can’t get your child to do acupuncture, try it yourself. You likely could use some mitigation of stress yourself.

     Use of Fantasy / Daydreaming

Reading for pleasure is an activity that many people engage in as a technique to manage stress. It provides an escape from the stresses of one’s daily life, an ability to mentally engage in another world without the full load of stressors. Fantasy books in particular provide an escape that helps those with overly active stress responses normalize their nervous system. I strongly believe that those who enjoy games like Dungeons and Dragons, and those who like shows like Star Trek, tend to be people whose stress responses are overly active, such that the fantasy associated with the subject matter helps reduce stress response activation.

Daydreaming is another important element of stress response mediation. Recent research has indicated that daydreaming seems to be the default setting of the human mind and certain brain regions are devoted to it. I have a suspicion that daydreaming is an important component of human mental function. Sometimes, we just need to let our minds wander. Constantly staying on task is stressful to our minds. And, I suspect our modern world of going to place to place, and task to task, constantly thinking ahead and planning prevents adequate levels of just letting the mind wander.

     Reduction of Muscle Tension

It has long been known that muscle tension can lead to stress and anxiety – thus, if you can learn to reduce excessive muscle tension, you will reduce excessive stress and anxiety.


Your Contact Information

Your Feedback