If you are familiar with hawthorn, your initial associations may not be as a supplement for neurodivergent folks. In Celtic mythology, hawthorn trees are known as ‘fairy trees,’ and as recently as 1999 a highway was moved so that one of these fairy trees would not have to be removed. Doing so, it was believed, would bring about bad luck and misfortune. And so they moved the highway instead.
Medicinally speaking, hawthorn is most commonly known as a heart medicine, and it certainly is a well-suited supplement for things like congestive heart failure.
But as a full spectrum heart medicine, it can also help with heart palpitations, a racing heart, or calming the emotional heart. And it is in that context that you may start to see how it could be a supportive ally for a neurodivergent individual presenting with symptoms like an overexcited nervous system, anxiety, agitation and hypersensitivity.
Herbalist David Winston, one of the founders of the American Herbalists Guild, finds hawthorn helpful for a restless or unfocused mind, and was one of the first to use hawthorn clinically for ADD and ADHD both in children and in adults.
Scott Kloos, founder of The School of Forest Medicine, also mentions it as being used by some for ADHD, and specifically mentions its ability to calm the nervous system to reduce anxiety, agitation, excitability and hypersensitivity.
Like many neurodivergent individuals, I tend to have an overactive mind and have a harder time accessing and navigating my heart space (realm of the emotions). I am also prone to heart palpitations, and if that happens at night, it can keep me awake for hours on end. I have found hawthorn to be a helpful tonic in regulating my heart energy.
While it is not native to the Pacific Northwest where I live, hawthorn grows so abundantly here that it is considered invasive. So it is a tree that I freely gather flowers from in spring and berries from after the first frost in autumn. You do not have to worry about over harvesting. I blend it with a few other herbs I collect throughout the year (self-heal, yarrow and sometimes others) and drink it daily. I call this my ‘Sensitivity Blend.’
In my experience, it has been best worked with as an ongoing preventative supplement (as opposed to a rescue remedy). Hawthorn is a pretty low dose supplement (Kloos recommends just 10-15 drops of tincture daily), and if you take too much it can actually cause some agitation. So it is not an herb you would take extra of if you were having a panic attack—although you could certainly add a small amount of it to a rescue blend that you prepare ahead of time for those acute situations.
Another reason hawthorn can be such a powerful ally for the neurodivergent is its protective properties. Hawthorn trees have some pretty intense thorns (it’s actually a member of the rose family). Katja Swift, co-founder of the CommonWealth Center for Holistic Herbalism, talks about how those thorns actually evolved to protect the tree from the giant four-ton sloths that would have otherwise devoured the tree.
There’s an image for you! I have heard that some wildcrafters will gather just the thorns from the tree and make a potent protective tincture from it, and I can definitely see the appeal of doing so.
Extra protection is something I think a lot of us with heightened sensitivity could use. The outside world can feel so intrusive—so much input coming in constantly, the intensity of the sounds, the lights, etc. And during the holidays, especially, we have to work so hard to protect our quiet space, to have time that is restful and healing and not just a constant, overwhelming drain on our energy. I love the thought of being nestled in the crook of an old hawthorn tree, its thorns keeping all the giant sloths of our time at bay.
And what a perfect tree to take refuge in! Hawthorn is a literal refuge for hundreds of other species. Both the flowers and berries are rich food sources at opposite ends of the year for moths, bees and numerous insects, and it provides excellent shelter for many a nesting bird. Hawthorn is like the great, protective mother nourishing and watching over her children. She has so much to offer.
Katja Swift sums up the protective power of those thorns beautifully: “When you feel raw and wounded, when you’re feeling like everyone can see you struggling and certainly they are all judging you for it – when you wish you could just enclose yourself in a nest of protective barbed wire that will keep the world out and let you be small and safe inside for a while: this is a time for (rose and) hawthorn.”
So now I want to circle back to the idea of the Hawthorn as a fairy tree. I actually think it has relevance. In Ireland, fairies are not cute little Tinkerbells fluttering around. They are an otherworldly race thought to live underground, and were thought to be the first inhabitants of Ireland.
The fairy folk—or Sidhe—can be mistaken for humans and their worlds do intersect at times—a Hawthorn tree, for example, might mark the entrance into the fairy realm.
In general, the Irish felt very uneasy about the Sidhe and did whatever they could to stay clear of them. Going back to the 17th Century, there are written accounts of changelings, which were described as fairy substitutions for human children. A human infant might be stolen by the Sidhe, and they would leave a changeling in its place.
The changeling behaved in ways that were deemed unnatural by the parents, and by claiming the child was not human, abuse and even infanticide could follow.
This is a hard historical reality to process.
But why is this important now? Recently there has been some discussion about whether these ‘changeling’ children were actually autistic and/or had other disabilities. As you read about changelings, “They are characterized by their poor response, resistance to physical affection, obstinacy, inability to express emotions, unexplainable crying and some physical changes such as rigidity and deformity. Some are unable to speak. Some characteristics of these stories, such as the initial health and beauty of the human child, the change after some period of “normalcy” and the specific behaviors of the changelings correspond to the symptoms in some presentations of autism.”
If someone was unusually gifted in one way or another, that could also be a sign of a changeling, and could arouse intense suspicion.
Is it possible that changelings were a concept that evolved in order to explain the mysterious differences in autistic children and those with other disabilities? It certainly looks that way. We did not have a word for autism until the 20th century, and it is well known that things like seizures were long associated with demon possession and the like. Before science, our mythologies provided a cultural framework to make sense of things we didn’t understand. Even today, we still commonly use the metaphor as the autistic mind being ‘alien’ to the neurotypical experience. We are the ‘Others.’
I find it fascinating that the very tree that is most emblematic of the Sidhe is now recognized as a tree with a strong affinity for the neurodivergent. The ‘Others’ by a different name. I suspect there is a much longer history of the Hawthorn tree being linked with neurodivergence than we will ever know. Perhaps we were taking shelter under hawthorn trees thousands of years ago, and that is how the tree came to be associated with the ‘Others.’ Who knows…
Whatever the story may be, the reality remains. Hawthorn can be a powerful ally for the neurodivergent. Its medicine will not be for everyone, but you will not know for sure until you spend some time with it and discover what it has to offer.
MY PLANT PERSPECTIVE: This is not medical advice. Plant medicine and wildcrafting have been my biggest helpers for emotional regulation and physical well being as an autistic woman. I am a serious plant lover, but I am not a doctor of licensed herbalist. Plants are complex, so do your own research (especially if you take pharmaceutical drugs as there can be possible interactions). Like people, even if plants check all the right boxes for you, you may not have chemistry with that plant so be willing to experiment. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below if you have discovered your own Neurodivergent Plant Helpers and are open to sharing your experience. Thanks for reading.
Kloos, Scott. (2017). Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants. Timber Press, Inc.
While many educators use Declarative Language on a regular basis, some parents may not have even heard of it—until they are told they have a child with something like PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance or Pervasive Drive for Autonomy). If you are not familiar with declarative language, it is when you make a comment or statement about a situation rather than a direct command. For example, in imperative language you might say “Give daddy a hug,” but if you wanted to use declarative language instead, you might say “Oh look! Daddy just came home.” This gives the child the space to come to their own conclusion about what they might want to do in response to the situation.
Declarative language is often recommended to parents with the best of intentions—they have just learned how the kid is wired and the experts are trying to give helpful strategies to manage life at home.
But often we are so focused on meeting the needs of the child that we can forget about the parent’s wiring and overwhelm and anxiety levels at the time we are making this recommendation. If they have an autistic child with a PDA profile and the family is recently coming to terms with this, chances are high that things have been rather stressful at home. Their child may have frequent meltdowns and may be violent towards them or other kids in the family or with classmates at school. The child has not been responding well to conventional parenting advice and so the parent may be feeling constantly judged by other parents because their child is so ‘poorly behaved.’
Now the parents are being asked to completely change the way they communicate with their child, as though they can simply flip a switch and use a brand new communication style. And if you’re in a hurry? Too bad! Now you’re not supposed to ask Johnny to just put his shoes on. Instead, let’s take an hour to sit and wonder out loud about what we might want to be doing to get ready to go…
Then you have to factor in the overwhelm. Remember that when we are already in a state of overwhelm, we are not in the best place to learn new things. If your house is burning down and someone starts to give you a lesson on investment strategies, you are not likely to retain anything you have been told. And yet we still are prone to introducing declarative language to parents in a very academic way that does not always take into account where the parents are at when they are getting this information.
I remember the first time I read about declarative language for PDA. I saw one of those infographics that is supposed to make everything simple and easy to digest. But almost immediately, I felt annoyed. As an autistic person, I tend towards very literal thinking and a direct, straightforward communication style. As soon as I saw phrases like “disguise all demands” and “phrase any requests indirectly” I wondered if the whole thing had been created by someone who was manipulative and passive aggressive. “That’s not how I communicate,” I remember thinking, and more importantly, it didn’t sound like a communication style I had any desire to emulate.
Luckily, that was just my first impression and I was not in a state of complete overwhelm at the time, so I dug into it further and started to get a more accurate sense of what it was really about. But it still took some practice to master given my innate bluntness and tendency towards a no-nonsense, straight-to-the-point communication style.
My literal thinking also got in the way. To me, the term ‘declarative’ did not make immediate intuitive sense. As one of my clients put it later ‘it sounds like it would be the opposite of what it is—like you are declaring something for all the world to hear.’
As many autistic people are direct communicators and literal thinkers, I think this is a pretty common clash that people initially face with declarative language. It is asking more of us than it is of people who are more comfortable with indirect communication. It is a stronger demand on parents who may have some demand avoidance issues of their own. Lately I have just been calling it the “I wonder” communication style, because defining that way it seems to be easier for my clients to remember how to use it. And starting a sentence with “I wonder” doesn’t feel sideways or manipulative—instead it registers as thoughtful and curious.
Then there is the whole idea of modeling. In Linda K. Murphy’s book Declarative Language Handbook, she recommends things like admitting your mistakes out loud in front of your kids and then troubleshooting out loud what you will do to correct the mistake. “Oops, I forgot to get food ready ahead of time for dinner tonight. Let’s see…what are some things we could eat that don’t need much prep time?”
Now personally, I love this idea and resonated with it right away. But I am a more talkative person (at least with people that I like). I have found that this can also be a big ask for my clients who prefer to keep their thoughts to themselves though, especially if what you are asking them to speak out loud is something that they did wrong. People don’t always want to draw attention to their mistakes.
I still think that if a child is getting triggered every time they make a mistake and they find it unbearable to ‘mess up’ in any way, it is incredibly helpful to have a loved one modeling that it’s ok to make mistakes and to show them how to step through that and make it right again. But consider that a child’s tendency to find mistakes unbearable may have actually been influenced by a parents discomfort with making mistakes. So asking a parent to start doing that may be intensely triggering the parent. They may feel really exposed by doing so. Again, it can be a BIG demand to make of them.
So taking all of this into consideration, I think the thing to remember is that it is not just all about the child. The parents are going through a lot and have perhaps been masking their own neurodivergence for a lifetime (often without even knowing they were doing so). There is so much to process and rethink. You can’t just tell them what to do for their child all at once and think that is enough.
The information is usually best delivered in small pieces to accommodate for the overwhelm and processing time many parents will need to start incorporating the ideas. You need to be sensitive and attentive to what is triggering the parents as they start using declarative language and adjust your pace accordingly. Let them know it’s ok to just try it out here and there in ways that feel the most natural to them, and to take breaks from it when they need to.
We all need to go at our own pace!
Well, I’m just going to come out and say it: I haven’t had a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in I don’t know how many years. And I don’t miss it! For me, holidays are harder now than when I was younger. I’m still me, but the ‘helpers’ I used to rely on to get me through the stress and overstimulation of the season no longer work. My body no longer tolerates alcohol or ibuprofen. Sleep deprivation costs me more than it used to and the recovery period is substantial. And my dietary restrictions have increased considerably—I did not have any life threatening allergies as a child or young adult.
Thanksgiving dinner? Really problematic for me with my dietary issues (as is common for many autistics). I actually could eat the turkey, but I don’t care for it all that much and there is no way my husband and I are going to get through an entire bird…Also, trying to coordinate multiple dishes to get done at exactly the same time (or at least all be warm at the same time) presents an executive functioning challenge that is overwhelming just to think about. No thank you.
So….what to do instead? Staying regulated is top priority for me. I’ll do a ‘nod’ toward Thanksgiving dinner—make some homemade cranberry sauce to have with a roasted chicken, perhaps a root vegetable gratin and some pumpkin custard over the course of the holiday weekend. No rush to have it all at the same time, just moving at my own pace and having a treat ready here or there throughout that time.
Same rhythm when it comes to connecting with family—I usually will not talk to more than one person each day because I have found that more than that gets overwhelming. I live on a small island and do not have any extended family members here with me. So I maybe do a Zoom call with nieces and nephews one day, then call my folks the day after, and so on. I prefer to see them in person at other points of the year when there isn’t the holiday traffic combined with iffy weather conditions that I could get stuck in.
Stepping back from Thanksgiving and trying to do something more low key that keeps you regulated is not a sin. Make it your own, make it a holiday you actually enjoy, and don’t apologize to anyone for going your own way!
Oh, and if like me you can’t have pumpkin pie but really miss it, check out this recipe for pumpkin custard. And if dairy is not your friend either, I can vouch for coconut cream being a delicious substitute for heavy whipping cream:
I don’t think prolonged power outages are fun for anyone this time of year. We all need to be prepared by having things like plenty of food and water, flashlights, extra sets of warm clothing and plenty of batteries.
But for anyone with sensory processing differences, there is a whole extra set of challenges that can come into play. If you are the parent of a child with autism, for instance, you may not yet be aware of what all can be problematic if you have not gone through a prolonged power outage with your child. And if you have a family member who is nonverbal or has alexithymia (meaning they have a hard time describing what is going on inside them), it may be hard to know what’s upsetting them during an outage, even if you have been through it before . So let’s walk through some of the key areas that are likely to make an impact…
Any abrupt change in the day is going to be a disruption, and if shifting gears is challenging, this can be really rough. There is likely to be some anxiety. Not being able to continue doing a preferred activity (like online games) can also cause a lot of upset.
TIPS : 1.) Be as patient as you can. Be ready with some ideas of what to do if there is an unexpected outage. If spending time outside is an option, that can be very regulating. Maybe have a special book/treat/activity set aside for this scenario. Knowing in advance the best ways to help your family member feel calm and supported are going to be very useful.
2.) Lean into the positive aspects: For someone who gets easily overwhelmed by fans and loud noises, leaning into the sudden quiet and lack of electronic lights everywhere is a rare experience. Keep your voice low if possible so there aren’t loud, jarring voices cutting through the quiet. Less going on in the sensory realm can be enjoyable and even meditative (at least for a time). If it is a widespread outage and a clear night, there may even be an amazing star full of skies you don’t normally get to see.
Not being able to cook in the usual manner can also be more than a minor inconvenience. If someone has a lot of food intolerances, are the items in your emergency storage things they can eat? Do they have a lot of sugar or things that could trigger further dysregulation.
TIPS: Don’t just think about ‘survival’ food when getting your emergency supplies in place. Have specific food set aside for family members with food sensitivities that will be nourishing and enjoyable to them (to the extent that you can).
LIGHTING CHANGES This is most problematic at night. A lot of flashlights and emergency lanterns use very harsh lights that can trigger migraines or other discomfort. The contrast between total darkness and the erratic beam of the flashlight is very uncomfortable for some.
TIPS: 1.) Experiment with ways to leave a soft light on in the room you are in (like a battery operated lantern). If you can’t switch out the harsh lightbulbs, try to diffuse the light a bit by putting a thin, light colored piece of fabric over the light (avoid anything hot).
2.) If flashlights are problematic, only use them when you absolutely have to. You can try turning them around to diffuse the light more. This lessens the extremely piercing beam of the flashlight that can be such a harsh contrast from total darkness.
3.) Experiment with different lights ahead of time to see if they are well tolerated.
4.) Get out all the things you know you will need at night while there is still daylight (meds, pajamas, etc.) and have those things all in a central location that is easy to access.
Needing to wear additional layers and perhaps different fabrics than usual can be upsetting. This can be especially aggravating if multiple layers must be worn overnight to stay warm and the bulkiness restricts movement and causes discomfort in bed.
TIPS: You can’t eliminate the discomfort of a lot of bulky clothes, but investing in a good base layer (like merino wool) will take you a long way. Merino wool is not itchy like lambswool, but will keep the heat in without making you sweaty. So having it at least against your skin makes a lot of sense. Wear it throughout the season so there is familiarity when it comes time to putting it on and you have already figured out if tags need to be removed for further comfort, etc. While merino is expensive to buy new, there is not usually a markup when you are able to buy it secondhand, so keep your eyes open for it at thrift stores, etc.
GENERATORS ARE FROM HELL
Gasoline or propane generators are incredibly noisy and they smell horrible when they are running. They also pollute the air and cause symptoms in those with respiratory issues. What is background noise to some may be impossible to filter out for those with sensory processing differences.
TIPS: It is a great time to switch to battery operated generators, but be aware that a neighbor’s old-school generator may still be a source of distress for a highly sensitive individual.
A lot of schools these days are doing some kind of emergency drill every month. The idea is to normalize them and have them built into the routine. Often kids with sensory processing needs will be told about it ahead of time to minimize distress.
In a real life situation, the lack of forewarning is unavoidable, so have realistic expectations about the time following and just be as prepared as you can be to make it as comfortable as possible. Try to practice patience. Be stocked up on all your sensory soothers and maybe have some ‘special’ ones for these occasions (like a super comfy blanket you can wear around the shoulders).
Remember that this is may be a challenging time, but that your preparations will go a long way towards minimizing the most challenging aspects of it.
I was thinking back the other day on when I lived in Spain in my 20’s. “All of my little oddities, anything I did that wasn’t quite right, it was all chalked up to being a foreigner,” I was telling my husband. “No matter what I did, it could always be explained by that.”
I recounted the time everyone was laughing at a joke, and I remained silent. “Somebody translate it for her!” They said. “She didn’t get it!” I tried to explain that I did understand the joke, but that I didn’t find it funny. Cultural differences, they assumed, and my partner (a Spaniard) translated it for me anyway.
“Sounds like the Coneheads!” my husband quipped, and I looked at him blankly. While I have certainly watched my share of SNL, the Coneheads were before my time and I completely missed the Coneheads movie that came out in the 90’s. He pulled up a clip for me and we watched it together.
In the first sketch “The Farbers Meet the Coneheads,” there is a new family in the neighborhood and the Farbers are having them over for dinner. The Farbers are the epitome of ordinary, while the Coneheads are quite obviously aliens. But the fact that they are aliens is always accounted for by the alternate explanation that ‘they are from France,’ where apparently things are absurdly different. The Coneheads continually slip up by saying or doing things that reveal their alien nature, but the ‘cultural differences’ line allows them to do or say just about anything. It’s ridiculous, but they were definitely on to something. (Watch the video here: The Farbers Meet the Coneheads: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrUOFs-hZ-M)
Dan Aykroyd stars in the sketch and would have done a lot of the writing as well. That jumped out at me while watching, because I remembered that he had gone public with being autistic (what we previously called Asperger’s) about 10 years ago. As it turns out, he was diagnosed in the 80’s, so he would have dreamed up the Coneheads before he even knew he was on the spectrum.
Was Aykroyd just ahead of the crowd in portraying the autistic experience? On the autism.org/uk site, they discuss how ‘Aliens and the concept of being from outer space is often used as a way of describing how it feels to be autistic.’ While that idea may be familiar to many of us now, it would not have been something you discussed with others in the late 70’s. The flat, monotone voice the Coneheads use is another feature that is now commonly associated with some autistic people, but that stereotype wasn’t around when the sketch came out.
So this all gets me thinking it can’t just be me and Dan Aykroyd…surely if we had a Masking 101 Handbook for closet autistics there would be a chapter on how hanging out with people from other countries can be a highly effective way of getting excused for your social oddities, right?! You might be able to go for years without being detected—think of that! There must be a number of us who stumbled upon this little trick at some time or another.
Of course having the ‘foreigner’ excuse it doesn’t get you completely off the hook. You still have to learn another language if you’re living abroad and then converse in it with other humans. They still expect you to talk.
Why are you so quiet? What are you thinking? What do you think of our country? Do you like it? I remember those questions now. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been silent, but clearly it had been a while. Too long.
I was sitting in the car, looking out the window, immersed in the passing female oak trees wrapped in the early morning fog. This was perhaps my first visit to Spain. The trees were so different, not rough and wild like the forests of the Pacific Northwest. It’s a gentle, hypnotic beauty you could get lost in. I heard the questions as though from very far away; realized they were expecting a response.
Searching for words then, trying to think of how to explain that I couldn't take in all these new things and be able to talk about them at the same time. I needed more processing time. My partner then answered on my behalf. “Come on….can’t you see she’s sleeping? Let her rest.” I dutifully closed my eyes. Yes, that’s it. It’s jetlag. It’s definitely jetlag, I told myself.
Luckily for me, I soon discovered cafe con leche (coffee with milk) and the world opened to me. I had thought I was unable to drink coffee due to my extreme sensitivity to it, and I also thought that milk was disgusting (I hadn’t had organic milk yet). But I discovered that my jitters and headaches were mostly due to the chemicals/pesticides, etc. in American coffee and I found the Spanish milk to be delicious.
It was like magic! Drink a cup of cafe con leche and suddenly the words were spilling out of me, my social capacity suddenly ‘on’ as though a switch had been flipped. Alcohol did something similar by night, but it didn’t work quite as well because sometimes German would come out instead. What can I say…
It is only now, years later, that I can reflect on the fact that caffeine and alcohol were less than perfect supports for getting me more socially engaged. Once the switch was on, it was hard to turn off (not to mention the hangovers). But hey, what did I know back then? Getting emotionally regulated was not even on my radar. I was just a clueless Conehead trying to get through the 90’s. It may not have been a perfect system, but we all did what we needed to get through…
You may have heard the phrase “if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.” That’s important to keep in mind when trying to determine if you or someone you love might be autistic.
People don’t always fit into boxes. But there are some common characteristics that do tend to show up frequently in folks who are autistic but flew under the radar as children.
Why is that the case? Well, our understanding of autism has grown tremendously in recent decades, and is now understood to exist on a spectrum that encompasses a much broader range of people. Unfortunately the diagnostic process has not yet caught up with current understanding.
The majority of autism specialists still only work with children (making it more difficult for adults to find someone who can assess an adult) and lot of the folks who don’t fit outdated stereotypes of what autism looks like are getting missed. This is unfortunate, since a lot of those outdated stereotypes are actually based on traits that are not part of autism itself, but rather with conditions that can co-occur with it. So, for example, while being autistic has nothing to do with how intelligent you are, others are more likely to pick up on your autism if you also have a noticeable co-occurring developmental disability.
The following list is not meant to be exhaustive or diagnostic, but rather a starting point. This is not medical advise. If a lot of these traits are showing up in your life, that’s something you may want to explore further. Keep in mind that a number of the things on this list are not ‘symptoms’ of any kind, but are rather characteristics of someone with a particular kind of wiring that may be advantageous or challenging depending on the situation.
List of Common Autistic Traits
- May have identified with labels like ‘introverted,’ ‘Highly Sensitive Person (HSP),’ ‘Social Anxiety,’ ‘highly independent’
- May have been diagnosed as ADHD, which may or may not totally fit
- Has sensory processing issues that can be either hypersensitive or hyposensitive (senses are either heightened or dulled)
- May have had difficulties maintaining intimate relationships or sticking with the same job
- Frequently in Fight/Flight (heightened sense of threat)
- Health profile that includes things like GI issues, migraines, sleep issues, hyper-inflammatory responses
- Hard to sit still and there is a typical movement pattern like hair twirling, pacing, restless legs that amps up in times of anxiety
- Literal thinking
- Tendency toward bluntness
- Can be perceived by others as rigid/intolerant of doing things someone else’s way
- Intense special interests/ deep dives into topics they are into (may do really well academically as a result)
- Hard to shift gears (getting interrupted really throws concentration)
- May be prone to getting stuck in an emotional state—takes a while to recover after getting worked up about something
- Rehearsing and replaying conversations internally
- Enjoys and needs time alone
- Thinks in pictures
- Good at pattern recognition
May be highly analytical
- Social interactions may be exhausting— issues in things like eye contact, not knowing how to end a conversation and rambling on, needing time to recover from events, having no tolerance for chit chat or being perceived as ‘only talking about themself’ by others.
- Prefers routine in certain areas (may eat the same foods every, do things in a certain order every time, etc.)
- May be hyper-organized/prepared (never show up to anything late), but there is an underlying anxiety behind it
- Can be hard to go with the flow
- Don’t like being told what to do and work very well independently
- Fitting into different social settings by suppressing some personal traits or trying to imitate what others are doing so as not to stand out
For further information, check out the following free guide:
Or check out the book “Is this Autism: A Guide for Clinicians and Everyone Else” by Donna Henderson
I first learned about Angelica Root about a month after I had Covid. Although I had mostly recovered, it still hurt to swallow and the right lymph node on my throat was especially painful to touch. None of the usual sore throat herbs were helping. Now usually, I interact with plants that are growing in my bioregion and that I can grow or wildcraft myself, but for this unusual lingering symptom I was forced to stretch a little further.
I happened to be taking a class on the Immune System at the time from CommonWealth Herbs, and heard that Angelica was a powerful lymph mover. So I decided to take a closer look at this plant that I was not yet acquainted with.
Like many autistic people, I am highly sensitive to medications and have had multiple nightmare reactions to pharmaceutical drugs. That’s why I turned to plants. But I have learned that it is better to try them out individually first (rather than through a formula/blend of herbs) because of how potent they can be. That way if I have a strong reaction, either positive or negative, I don’t have to guess which ingredient is responsible. As someone who spends a lot of time with plants, I am also well aware that they all have a multitude of properties. So while a plant may have the ability to help you with one particular symptom, it could also affect you for better or worse in numerous other ways you may not be expecting. When you are highly sensitive, you learn not to be sloppy when you dabble with plant medicine. You go slow, you do your research, and you observe what happens.
Since I did not have Angelica in my yard or in the woods surrounding my home, the next step was digging through all of my herbal medicine books to see what else I could learn. My first source is always ‘The Energetics of Western Herbs: A Materia Medica Integrating Western and Chinese Therapeutics.’ It’s nearly 1000 pages of in-depth information on how different herbs have been used around the world for the last 4000 years. If medicinal plants are your ‘special interest,’ this is the book for you.
So that’s where I initially stumbled upon a very key piece of information about Angelica. Amongst its host of medicinal properties, I learned that: “It will also balance and stabilize the autonomic nervous system as a whole—a perfect choice for syndromes of autonomic dysregulation…”
Ok, that got my attention. As a neurodivergent coach, those words really jumped out at me because addressing autonomic nervous system dysregulation is a huge part of the work I do. Most of us are not looking for a cure for autism or ADHD, and in fact we find that having differently wired brains is often a huge part of what allows us to be innovative, creative, and think outside the box. But many of us struggle with nervous system dysregulation. We spend way too much time in a heightened state of threat, and not nearly enough time getting rest and repair. We pay a high price for that.
I also read that it stimulates immunity, and is instrumental in the recovery phase of longer illnesses. This is an added bonus given that so many neurodivergent people are at higher risk for so many health issues, in part due to things like our hyper reactive inflammatory response and also because of our nervous systems not spending enough time in ‘rest and repair’ mode. So taking that all into account, I began to wonder who else had started looking into Angelica as a potential ‘Neurodivergent Helper Plant,’ and was not surprised to find I was not the first person to put two and two together.
There was an interesting paper put out by the American Herbalist’s Guild in 2013 called “Autism Spectrum Disorders and the Search for Answers.” Angelica is listed first in a formula for ASD symptoms that ‘enhance digestion, inhibit inflammation, reduce hyperactivity and help re-regulate immune and endocrine function.’ Later in the paper, they discuss how a significant number of people with autism also have digestive issues ‘which are clearly linked to increased agitation, irritability, hyperactivity and anxiety.’ Angelica is listed as an effective carminative herb for this set of symptoms.
That all sounded great, but just like meeting a person in real life can be quite different than reading their online profile, I still had no idea if I personally would have ‘chemistry’ with Angelica. Since I couldn’t go out and find some outside, I looked up pictures of it online, knowing that was better than nothing. I then proceeded to buy a bit in bulk and made a strong tea with it, so that I could take in the smell and taste of the herb as much as possible. Utilizing all your senses is so important when it comes to getting to know a plant.
In regards to smell, I found Angelica to be quite distinct. My first hit is that it smelled a bit like a particular soap my grandmother used to have, and there was something familiar that I could not quite place in the strong taste of it as well. Intriguing. As many herbs have to be taken over a period of weeks or even months before you feel their effect, I was surprised to find an almost immediate ‘shift’ in my mood. I felt both uplifted and protected.
Protected. It turns out that is a key word for Angelica. It has a fascinating history in regards to being a protective herb. Its latin name is Angelica archangelica. This comes from the belief in the Middle Ages that people channeled the spirit of the Archangel Michael through the plant. This angel protected humans from a variety of ailments through this plant medium and it became one of the most important medicinal herbs of that time.
If you have a more scientific leaning, perhaps you might instead say that a highly sensitive person could feel the plant stimulating their immune system, rallying the white blood cells to protect and defend against illness. Either way, it felt like a plant I wanted to keep close to me. And I was so distracted by how good I felt after drinking that tea that it was only hours later that I realized it no longer hurt to swallow. After all of the herbs I had tried that had offered no relief whatsoever, that was quite remarkable!
And so my intrigue continues. How many other neurodivergent people are out there that have discovered a protective entity in Angelica? I feel like I am just at the tip of the iceberg, and perhaps that’s why it’s the first ‘neurodivergent plant’ I have written about. Perhaps after I’ve had it growing in my yard a few years I will feel that I know more of its secrets, but that will take some time. So right now I’m putting out feelers, hoping others will share their experiences with it so that we can get more of this protective and regulating energy out into the world.
God knows we need it.
MY PLANT PERSPECTIVE: This is not medical advice. Plant medicine and wildcrafting have been my biggest helpers for emotional regulation and physical well being as an autistic woman. I am a serious plant lover, but I am not a doctor of licensed herbalist. Plants are complex, so do your own research (especially if you take pharmaceutical drugs as there can be possible interactions). Like people, even if plants check all the right boxes for you, you may not have chemistry with that plant so be willing to experiment. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below if you have discovered your own Neurodivergent Plant helpers and are open to sharing your experience. Thanks for reading.
Holmes, P. (2007). The Energetics of Western Herbs: A Materia Medica Integrating Western and Chinese Therapeutics. (4th edition). Snow Lotus Press.
In college, I had a quirky and beloved music professor who would stand up at the whiteboard with his T-rex arms, arms that flapped delicately when he became perplexed. Each morning he would start the class by reading us cryptic quotes that only he could make sense of. His speech patterns were completely his own. He wore numerous watches all at the same time and had a number of clocks hung around his office all set to different time zones. “A clock is the first sound I ever heard,” he told us by way of explanation.
This guy could play anything on the piano. To this day he was the best sight reader I have ever seen. He was the one who convinced me to become a Music Composition major, to start seeing the piano as a tool for orchestration, a way to envision all of the other instruments playing together. When I started orchestrating for large ensembles, it was absolutely thrilling to bring my scores to him each week and hear him flawlessly sight read all of the different parts at once.
And yet…this same man was unable to clap along with simple songs we would all sing together as a group. He somehow couldn’t keep a beat for his life unless he was looking at a score.
Looking back, it seems incredible that back in the 90’s we were unable to recognize what has since become one of the most cliche stereotypes of an autistic person—the awkward, white male savant. But so it was.
Fast forward 15 years or so and there I am teaching piano lessons, having my first known interaction with an autistic student. Her mother had called me, anxiously, asking if I would possibly be willing to work with her daughter, “even though she’s autistic.” Of course I agreed, although I was not really sure what to expect. I found the girl to be incredibly sweet and did not find anything about her that I would consider an impediment to learning music. If anything—the opposite. She did interrupt me frequently in her excitement to get started, but that did not bother me. She was clearly very musical and bright. When I played a line for her on the piano, she would sing it back to me in a clear, bright voice that was totally disarming.
But I was uncomfortable every time she came on account of her mother, who would hover in the other room listening, waiting to see if she needed to jump in if her daughter did something too ‘weird.' I have to admit that what really unnerved me about it was that it landed too close to home. It wasn't really this woman who was the problem (she was undoubtedly getting judged all the time for having a daughter who didn't conform to all the norms) and I was mostly likely picking up just the subtlest cues of anxiety on her end and getting triggered from my own experiences. The real issue was that something in her voice reminded me of how my stepmother used to talk about me. I hadn’t thought about that in some time, and I didn’t really want to go back there.
I was not diagnosed autistic as a child (that would have been unheard of in the 80’s as I was female, nonviolent and did well in school). But there were aspects of my personality that my stepmother found odd and unladylike, things she tried very hard to ‘correct.’ I was too loud, too blunt, too passionate about some things and completely oblivious of what was going on around me at other times. She had my hearing checked at one point because people would call to me and I didn’t seem to hear a thing.
When she talked about me to others, I felt as though I could hear the embarrassment in her voice, as though she were apologizing to them for her own inability to make me blend in better with the other kids. Never mind that I had read every book in the elementary school library, wrote my first symphony at 18 and was teaching college courses by 21. The important thing is fitting in and having the best manners…right?
In the years that followed it became increasingly common for parents to tell me their child was autistic and the discussion around it really shifted. Autism was becoming less of a stigma. These parents were totally supportive of their kids, and were thrilled that piano lessons were going so well for them. They were so happy to have connected with me! This was great to hear, although I was initially puzzled.
Was I somehow a magnet for autistic kids? Or was it something about playing the piano that drew them? I knew I had some sensory processing issues that autistic people share, so I thought perhaps there was a connection there. I decided I needed to do a deep dives into the literature and see what I could come up with.
That deep dive ended up being a real turning point in my life. So many traits that were considered autistic just seemed like totally normal things to me (like doing deep dives into subjects that fascinate me!). Isn’t everyone like that, I thought? But no, most people actually do not read every book on a subject they are interested in. Many people just read an article or two and call it good…
At some point I started reading the more recent literature on autism in women, and there was a definite ‘aha!’ moment for me*. One audiobook, in particular, I could only take in small doses at a time because it felt like someone was reading aloud the most embarrassing moments of my life. At the same time, there were many autistic characteristics that I felt pride in having but had thought were part of my own unique personality, not part of a larger neurotype. There was a lot to digest.
From that point on, my pattern recognition skills (another autistic trait) were ignited and I began to notice other people around me who seemed to be similarly wired. In the next few years, there were some girls I noticed those traits in and I wondered. A few years went by, and then they were diagnosed as autistic or made that discovery on their own. Other people were starting to recognize the female faces of autism too, and that was encouraging. It was still striking to me how many of my piano students had at least some of these traits as compared to the general population, and over time I began to come up with some possibilities as to why.
There is a lot about taking piano lessons that could be appealing to an autistic person. Piano is arguably the least social instrument as it completely holds its own as a solo instrument. Music is filled with patterns, and we tend to excel in patterns. We work with a teacher one-on-one and don't have to filter out classroom chaos. But the biggest factor, in my opinion, is the sheet music. There are plenty of people who learn to play piano by ear, but they don’t tend to take lessons. Why would they? But if you take piano lessons, you learn how to read music, to learn it intellectually rather than intuitively.
As a neurodivergent coach, I often tell neurotypical people who are trying to better support an autistic person in their life that being autistic can feel like you are acting in a play that you have never seen the script for. It is a mystery to us how other people just seem to know their lines. We do all sorts of things to create different scripts throughout our day, from writing out detailed schedules to instilling a lot of repetition in our actions, to rehearsing and replaying conversations over and over in our heads, and we can seem rigid and inflexible when things don’t go as planned and we truly have to improvise.
This makes classical musical notation an ideal 'script' for an autistic person. Everything that you are supposed to do is written out, and there is nothing that you are supposed to somehow know to fill in that isn’t filled in for you. In fact, you are doing it wrong if you don’t follow all the instructions to a T. It’s exactly what we need.
Which makes me wonder if music notation (and written language too, for that matter) was invented by autistics. It is well known that much of the technology of our times is developed by people on the spectrum—think Elon Musk and Silicon Valley in general. Can it be possible that the technology of writing was also an innovation of autistic minds? Both writing and musical notation have been criticized for their rigidity, erasing the spontaneity and improvised nature of the Oral Tradition (although of course also giving us a ‘script’ that can be preserved forever, something Oral Tradition cannot offer). It is worth giving some consideration.
I do want to clarify that I am not saying that all pianists are autistic or that all autistic people are going to love playing the piano. It’s not that simple. But in a predominantly neurotypical world, we by and large go through life in a space that wasn’t designed for us. That’s a big part of the challenge. When it comes to taking piano lessons and learning to read music, it’s the other way around. We call the shots, and for once it’s everyone else who is doing it wrong when they don’t learn the script perfectly. It’s no wonder that so many of us end up feeling at home in front of the piano, secure in our certainty that this is a space where we belong.
*I may do another post later on about what I ultimately did when I made this discovery about myself, but I want to keep this post focused on the piano connection and not my personal diagnosis.
PDA, which stands for Pathological Demand Avoidance or Pervasive Drive for Autonomy, is a type of autism where you see increased sensitivity to certain demands that can trigger the individual into fight/flight mode. Understanding that this comes from an intense need to maintain autonomy and that resulting behavior comes from being in a state of threat, interventions are most useful when they:
*Are designed to calm down the nervous system
*Help the individual maintain autonomy
Low-Demand Parenting is often recommended when a child has PDA (not to be confused with Permissive Parenting, which is not recommended for PDA because the lack of structure ultimately causes more anxiety). In this post, I take this a step further by encouraging a Low-Demand Households.
Why? Well for one thing, adults can have PDA too, and they don’t necessarily have kids. But regardless of how your family is made up, if anyone in the house has PDA, everyone is going to be affected. And if a child has it, chances are reasonably good that other family members have some PDA traits as well. In order to have a family system that is sustainable in the long run, everyone’s needs should be considered to avoid burnout.
Here are some key points to keep in mind when establishing a Low-Demand Household:
Goal is to keep everyone out of Fight/Flight - Family members learn to pay attention to each others triggers, sensory needs, and the things that bring them anxiety and try to do what they can to minimize them. Not all demands are necessarily going to trigger a panic response, so demands that aren’t causing panic do not need to be adjusted. Note that what feels like a demand may vary from day to day. Kids are not the only ones who are going to need breaks—so do parents! Keep in mind that modeling self-care and self-regulation for your child will help them get better at those things too. Speaking up for your own needs will be good for the whole family.
Collaborate as a Family - Family members talk together about things like which demands are avoidable and which are not. For example—does the family all need to eat dinner together at the table? Some families may say yes, others no. But there will always be some demands we can’t avoid, or times when not everyone in the family can have all their needs met at the same time, and we can make plans on how to make those things easier.
It is also totally valid for parents to bring up their own needs and you can ask kids for input on how to make it happen. For example, if the family is talking about how they will spend the weekend and a parent mentions that they would really benefit from being able to take a nap, the kids can help troubleshoot how to best make that happen. If they can feel like they are part of the solution, that’s going to help them feel important and valued. You could give some ideas and let them pick or come up with their own way of ‘helping’ such as keeping the dog away from the bedroom, shooing any neighbors away from the front door while mom is napping, etc.
Prioritize autonomy - No one is the ‘boss’ or ‘servant’ of anyone else in a low-demand household. Kids are given ongoing opportunities to gain new skills, get good at things on their own or with supports as needed, and speak their mind. They don’t get to call all the shots, but they always are part of the conversation. For example, let them join the discussion of how to do homeschooling. If getting up early is incredibly stressful for them, that can be worked into the school schedule so that it better fits their needs. Doing schoolwork is always going to be the expectation, but their input is important in figuring out how to do it in a way that works for them.
Use Declarative Language - This means speaking your thoughts aloud rather than making direct demands. Example: “I wonder if there is something that would feel good to your body to eat right now?” Instead of “Eat your lunch now!” This is another way of modeling to them how to work through conflicts and softens demands considerably.
Balance Flexibility with Clear Boundaries & Expectations - This is where the low-demand approach really differs from Permissive Parenting. The idea is that having unclear boundaries and expectations actually creates more confusion and anxiety, which we want to avoid as it makes us more prone to fight/flight. So for example, a parent might have a clear boundary that “sitting in front of the TV all day is not ok.” But in a low-demand household, the child would have plenty of choices about some other things they might do in the day. If they then decided to break the TV, there will be the natural consequence of not being able to watch it. Adding additional punishment is not likely to be in any way helpful.
Depersonalize Demands - Explain that some demands are not coming from you (the parents) but are things that everyone has to do (like brushing teeth) in order to have less anxiety down the road (dealing with rotten teeth). Instead of verbalizing those commands, make them part of the daily routines, put up post-its around the house, etc. to reduce uncertainty.
*NOTE: PDA stands for Pathological Demand Avoidance or Pervasive Drive for Autonomy and can be a feature of autism.
So perhaps things weren’t going so well at school (or maybe a handful of schools) and you decided you needed to pull your child out and try homeschooling. ‘Once things calm down and we reset we will get it all figured out.’ But the weeks turned to months and as time goes on, it feels harder and harder to get started and you are not really sure what to do at this point. Getting your child to brush their teeth may be an enormous challenge already….how are you ever going to get them to do math every day? It is easy to feel daunted and overwhelmed and find yourself stuck in the ‘freeze’ mode of the nervous system.
The good news is that homeschooling does not have to be an all or nothing scenario. It is likely to go better for the whole family if you phase it in gradually in a way that honors your internal rhythm and that of your child. There’s no way you can create the perfect plan ahead of time anyhow, because it is going to take some trial and error to figure out what will or won’t work for your child. By asking for their input at each step and continually offering them numerous choices for how to get things done, you will start to figure out what is helpful for them and what isn’t. The hardest part is getting that ball rolling again, so below are some pointers on how to make that happen:
Have Clear Expectations. Especially if you have been reducing most demands at home, it’s going to be important to help them understand that some demands are unavoidable and are things that everyone has to do (like going to school). Make it clear that while going back to school is going to be necessary, there will still be a lot of choice involved and that you are going to do whatever you can to do it in a way that works for you all. Knowing what the expectations are and what kind of support they will have will reduce anxiety in the long-term.
Start with creating a new habit, not hard material. At first you are just trying to get them back in the habit of doing school work, so make the school work easy and short. Don’t worry if they’re not learning something new yet, just get the idea of the new routine in place. If they’re not big on reading, start with you reading them a book or them listening to some kind of audio book. Anything. Even having them read one word to you is a start. Just get comfortable with the new routine at first.
Start with tiny steps. For example, instead of handing your child an entire math worksheet to complete, have a whiteboard that you write 1 to 3 simple equations on. 1+1 is a start. Keep taking tiny steps to build capacity. When you are ready to move on to worksheets, fold up part of the worksheet so that only one column is shown at a time. Seeing too many equations to solve all at once can be an instant overwhelm trigger.
Rewards! Your initial rewards will have to be the most enticing as getting started is the hardest part, and then you can pull back ever so gradually over time. Be sure to give the reward immediately so that they associate it with the task. It can be stuff they want, but also privileges like getting to spend more time playing a video game or maybe not having to do a certain chore.
Always give them choices. You might set out 3 different kinds of things for them to choose from so they feel in control of what they are doing. For example, playing an educational game, doing a little math, or some kind of reading. Keep it tailored to their special interests whenever you can. If there is a subject they are highly resistant to, give them choices about how to do it (online class, work alone, work with you, etc.).
Create a Routine and Stick with it. Remember that having routine and structure will ultimately reduce confusion and anxiety (even if they resist it initially). You can still put a lot of flexibility into it. For example, if every day you have Morning work and Afternoon work, they can get to it on their own clock. Keep using phrases like “whenever you’re ready” and realize that there will be some days it doesn’t all get done and that’s ok. Write or draw the daily schedule going from left to right like a timeline and keep it somewhere it is visible to them at all times (if you write it like a to-do list it may feel to them like everything has to get done at the same time and trigger panic). Use magnets/markers (bonus points if the magnet is Spiderman and that’s your kids special interest) to keep track of where you are in the day. For example:
Breakfast — Morning Work—Break— Lila stops by—Lunch—Afternoon work—Walk
Accept that you can’t prevent all outbursts. Chances are you have been doing a lot of work to keep your child in a calmer state more often, and doing everything you can to avoid them getting triggered. That is critical work, but it will also need to be balanced with very gradually increasing their distress tolerance so they become thriving and resilient adults. Try encouraging them to occasionally just be with something that is hard for them for a moment, then stop. Don’t keep pushing and don’t rush them. Remember that you can’t prevent all outbursts and that sometimes an outburst comes before a big breakthrough because it can be frustrating to learn how to do something new. Accepting that we will have discomfort sometimes is hard but important work. I like to use the metaphor of a baby learning to walk. If the first time they tried and fell down they just gave up and never attempted walking again, where would that baby be now? It wouldn’t be able to even get to its room on its own! Falling down doesn’t feel great, but the first time that baby is able to walk on its own, it’s going to feel amazing! Remember that PDA is also called ‘Pervasive Drive for Autonomy’ and that once they get past the initial frustration of approaching something hard, reaching the goal of having greater autonomy is going to help them be calmer in the future. This is not easy stuff, so try not to be too hard on yourself when you hit a rough patch.
Keep the long term view. It can be so hard to get through the day that we can lose sight of the bigger picture. You can help yourself and your child by talking to them frequently about what they want to be when they grow up and how you want to do whatever you can to prepare them for that. If they don’t know what they want to do, you can use their schoolwork as an exploration to help them discover more interests. Keep telling them that you want them to have as many choices as possible when they are older and that’s why you’re helping them prepare for that with the school work. Remember that they have a deep desire for autonomy and see if you can use that to motivate them to get good at things on their own.
Be informed. If you don’t yet know what requirements your state has on homeschooling, you are likely able to find out your state’s Homeschool Laws in a matter of minutes with the right Google search, and this is a really good thing to do to avoid surprises down the road. Some states require annual assessments, for example, which is something you would definitely want to know about ahead of time.
Go at your own pace, but keep going. As long as you get the ball rolling again, you will get where you need to go eventually. So do whatever it takes to get the ball rolling! Let the first few steps be ridiculously small because that is likely to be the key to starting up again. Celebrate and encourage even the tiniest step!