Reframing autism: how working with the body can build emotional and physical resilience

Holly Bridges is an award-winning Australian therapist, keynote speaker and the author of the internationally acclaimed book, ‘Reframe Your Thinking Around Autism’. Holly has developed the Autism Reframe Therapy program (A.R.T.) which incorporates the principles of co-design and brain plasticity. She works with families and practitioners, teaching techniques that help to restore the connection between the brain and nervous system.

Holly has had a lifelong passion for working with the body/mind and she thrives on making complex psychology simple and available to people. This impulse to simplify and convey has taken her on a vast journey where she is now a leading light in autism therapy. Through her critically acclaimed book, Holly has helped thousands of parents, autists, educators and therapists perceive a more positive and helpful way of perceiving autism, and she has affected hundreds of families from the severely challenged and non-verbal, to adults with Asperger’s, right through to the very young with her simple and effective A.R.T. techniques.

Working with the nervous system can be a game changer for kids on the autism spectrum. A.R.T. (Autism Reframe Technique) is a new way of working with autism that appreciates the way the nervous system impacts our ability to operate in the world. A.R.T. is based on The Polyvagal Theory and the way that the vagus nerve works within the body to help us interact with our environment.

The Polyvagal Theory states that the body has a learnt response to pain and fear and can go into an involuntary shut-down as a safety mechanism. It shows that we humans have three main ways of interacting with our environment.

1. Physically, we can be in an open state where we are calm and our social faculties (eyes, ears, face, voice, connection to our heart and feelings) are all online and available for us to use. In this state our digestive system is operating easily and our cognitive faculties, like executive functioning and working memory are also online.

2. Depending on what is happening in our internal or external environment, we can also be in a flight/fight state where the body is focused on excitement or threat and a lot of our social and cognitive faculties go a little offline as we are focused on the ‘threat’ and the body diverts energy to safety. Here, our taste buds and our digestion also turn ‘down’ as we don’t need to be tasting and digesting food when we are about to run or fight. The eyes and ears also start to shift to the danger response, and here they are less able to process a wide range of light and sound.

3. Lastly, in order to keep us safe – in times of extreme danger- our body can go into an involuntary, immobilised state. For example, if a lion gets too close and you cannot run, fight or stop still in your tracks (freeze), the body has another option; it will take over to make so you are not interesting to the lion. Here you cannot move, make a noise, blink or feel. This is your best option for survival and often the lion finding you inanimate, will walk away leaving you free to warm up and walk away unharmed.

If the body has very early in life had an experience of threat – for whatever reason – it can get stuck in an immobilised state and think that this is normal. The person can grow up and be really smart, they can be all kinds of wonderful, but not have a lot of choice when it comes to how they are going to respond to the world because they are, more or less, in constant state of shut-down.

When we look at autism, there are a lot of similarities. Communication, social connection, motor movement and control, taste and digestion issues, executive functioning, working memory, noise and light sensitivity all require the body to be in a good enough place. When we are immobilised (to a greater or lesser degree) we don’t have full access to all our faculties. When we are in a constant state of flight/fight or immobilise, our bodies can hurt; we can experience too much pain, or none at all. We can be hyper alert to everything, or have hypo-reactivity. Ultimately, we don’t have full control. Doesn’t this sound a lot like the symptoms of autism?

To regain control, we need to teach the body how to be in a more parasympathetic (calm) state. It is virtually impossible to intellectually teach this to someone who does not have a good relationship with their body. This is why most of our therapies fail. When we teach the body how to be in a deeply relaxed state, we give people a chance to feel better, to make better decisions, self-regulate and live in a way that makes them happy, because they start to have a choice as to how their body behaves.

This is not about fixing autism. Autism is a genetic and environmental disposition that is multi- layered. While this is true, it is also true that autists often suffer from a variety of physical and mental issues that can be greatly assisted by helping the body to become more robust. When our body is more fully online, we have a greater capacity to live the life we want to lead – at any age!

To learn more about Holly Bridges and her work with the Autism Reframe Technique (A.R.T.), visit: