As a pediatric therapist, I have been treating children on the Autistic Spectrum for 20 years. It is well known by most moms that if they have a child on the spectrum they understand the term “sensory defensiveness” or more common, “fight-or-flight.” This manifests itself as behavioral issues but is a result of an unbalanced autonomic nervous system. When the sympathetic nervous system is stuck in a mode where it constantly increases our response to stimulus, or “upregulates,” it triggers sensory defensiveness in children.
What is the Fight-or-Flight Response?
The fight-or-flight response, refers to a physiological reaction that occurs in the presence of something that is terrifying, either mentally or physically. The response is triggered by hormones that are released that prepare your body to either stay or fight or with a threat to run away.
The American physiologist Walter Cannon was the first to describe this response in the 1920s. Cannon realized that a chain of rapidly occurring reactions inside the body help mobilize the body’s resources to deal with threatening circumstances.
During the Fight-or-Flight Response:
The body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the sudden release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous systems stimulates the adrenal glands triggering the release of catecholamines, which include adrenaline and noradrenaline. This stress can be emotional, it can be physical trauma and insults, or nutritional/toxic. When the sympathetic nervous system upregulates it prepares your body for danger and uses the bodies energy, body, oxygen, and nutrients, and functioning for that task! The heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration increases, the blood moves into the extremities for stronger function and all functions are geared toward survival.
That is very exciting and amazing that our body can perform and change directions with such intensity. However, the body can get stuck in this mode and it holds the body into this stressed range which proliferates disease and dysfunction. The biggest problem is that this system was meant only to be activated when necessarily, not to be lived in indefinitely.
In this state the body cannot heal, digest, or repair itself. It is also in this state that the defensiveness to the environment can prevent a child or adult from actively and appropriately connect to his or her world!
As a therapist, my goal is to help shift this sympathetic nervous system into a more balanced state. This is where sensory integration plays a huge role. I am certified in Sensory Integration and have spent most of my career learning of ways to decrease this fight or flight mode. Sensory integration techniques work but they take a lot of dedication and consistent time involved in specific activities by the therapist and most importantly the parents!
My most favorite tool is the Dolphin Neurostim, and I call it, “Sensory Integration on Speed” because that’s exactly what I see when I treat my sensory defensive clients with it. It instantly provides the nervous system with some balancing and over consistent treatments I actually see behaviors begin to change and abilities increase.
From my 20 years of practice, and seeking to treat this population, this is my tool of choice!
Kelly Armstrong, OTR/L, MPP