A Simple Way to Understanding Schemas in Autism and Reducing Anxiety

Schemas are grouped pieces of information the brain can access quickly to understand a specific event or situation. For example, we may have a preconceived idea of what someone is like simply by the way they dress, how they talk or where they come from. A schema that may dictate to us that a person will be very nice because we already have an understanding that people who we group into the same category are nice too. Chances are this person will be nice also.

Schemas work on a variety of levels. Our brains group together a series of data which it calls upon to understand an environment, ourselves as people and events. For example, you will know that when you go to a restaurant, you wait to be seated at a table, ask for the menu, choose your meal and your drinks and so on. The reason why you know this information about restaurants is because your brain has a schema that tells it how to behave.

We have different schemas which provide our brain with different pieces of information depending on the environment. For example, there are role schemas (which tells us about social occupations of certain people when we see say, uniforms; soldier, policeman and so on.) There are also social schemas which we use to define events. These can related to anything from what to do when we go to the dentist to seeing a news item of war or protest through media like television. We adapt what we see, feel and experience into an understanding of the event.

Of course, we have schemas which define how we feel about other cultures and backgrounds different to our own. In this aspect, the schemas we sometimes have can be based on negative experiences. This can be associated with the anger and frustration people feel against racism, segregation, prejudice and in some parts of the world; religion.

So how does this sit with Autism?

Our brains all work in the same way. In other words, your child’s brain still has schemas for different things, such as eating dinner, getting dressed, going to school and so on. These schemas are defined by previous information of a situation or a memory of a similar event. With Autism, the brain can sometimes not know what is expected of it when faced with a situation where it feels anxious, stressed or confused. When it feels like this, this may be when your child expresses an unusual behaviour. What other people might find surprising is how the child is reacting. This is because they have their own schemas that tell them this behaviour doesn’t fit with their own understanding.

There is a reason why sometimes people don’t readjust their schemas more appropriately. It is because they are triggered by automatic thought. This was one of the elements of CBT which Beck recognised as being a factor in depression, anxiety and stress related conditions. The key is to interrupt the automatic thought and all the brain to connect to the schema a new thought, or a new piece of the puzzle. The essential part of this exercise is to use repetition. Once the piece has been ‘fixed’ into place, then they will be able to adapt to the new schema.

This has been highly successful with my own son who has Autism and who has used these new ideas for social and communication skills, with great effect. It has also been very helpful for stressful situations such as hospital appointments, dentist appointments and exams at school, allowing him to go into the transitions of life, no matter how big, with renewed confidence and less anxiety; the real barrier, I believe, that holds back many people on the spectrum from reaching their true potential.

Michelle is a Autism CBT Consultant and an NLP Practitioner. She has written a long list of books on her own theories of autism and the treatment of it. A mother of an Autistic teenager herself, she has used her own personal experiences as well as her professional skills to recreate old teachings and new strategies in social and communication barriers.

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