I am Octopus

I am Octopus

I often liken working with the nervous system to making friends with an octopus.

 Octopi are really smart, sentient beings that have a mind of their own. We can’t boss them around and make them comply, they will only do what we want if they choose to; if they deign it is safe enough to do so; if it is meaningful to them.

If you’ve seen that wonderful documentary ‘My Octopus Teacher’ you will have seen how he makes friends with an octopus and it ends up swimming around on his chest. This only happens because of a bond of 100% trust and 100% no agenda. Anything less and the octopus would not have engaged.

It’s the same with the nervous system. We can make people comply, we can make them do what we want, but we only get real change when we humbly engage. We have to make the work meaningful and there has to be an implicit respect for the innate and highly sophisticated nervous system of the person in front of us.

No matter what they are presenting on the outside, each person is an intelligent, observant, sentient being who we are lucky enough to serve.

When we provide this level of respect and we have something of use to offer, all manner of things become possible.

To learn more about this way of working please join me for my online course that includes regular live calls to support you in your journey

Earth Unreal
Image Credit: @enricosomogyi

Why do toddlers climb on everything?

Why do toddlers climb on everything?

Toddlers climb on everything to train and integrate their nervous system with their environment. It is a fun and complex task that takes up all of their time.

During this time, they learn all about their orientation schema. They are building spatial awareness, fine and gross motor skills, how the weight of their body mobilises in reference to their environment. As well, their brain is making and integrating maps of their body at higher and higher levels of sophistication. The baby is learning to be embodied.

So what happens when this doesn’t happen? What happens if the person was immobilised at birth? What if their nervous system was in a shut-down mode and they could not mobilise their body? What if they could not build and integrate that spatial awareness of self?

Many people on the autism spectrum, and people with intellectual disability fall into this category. They have never truly been in their body. They didn’t get to make friends with it when they were little. They didn’t get to move it and to learn what it could do. They didn’t get to make internal maps and schemas of the body that let them know what was happening inside them. They were estranged from their body.

“It’s part of the ORIENTATION schema! They are learning about spatial awareness, force, weight, and the abilities of their body. They are building gross-motor skills and developing risk taking skills that will actually help prevent injuries as the get older.”


Often the body hurts, or the brain is in cortical shock which leaves the tiny system in a lockdown, safety state. The developing nervous system is then unable to move freely and spatially orient the body. In this state often the eyes and ears are locked in a certain pattern, the vestibular system is locked in a pattern and the person becomes accustomed to this being their truth.  

These babies end up being big people who do not have a good relationship with their body. They have poor interoceptive skills – they don’t know what’s happening in their body. Their body is stuck in a loop and this has modified how they see themselves and how they see the world. 

This then becomes a fixed loop that is confirmed and maintained by medical and allied health practices that tell you you have a lifelong and mostly fixed, condition. 

But what we know about neuroscience is challenging this. 

Firstly, because the brain is so clever it will, in its confinement, in its constriction, make other pathways and develop other skills. You often see people with autism and intellectual disability being highly insightful and empathetic; they might have amazing memory or analytic capacity. Sometimes they have incredible ability to connect with nature – one ID client of mine could hear the snap peas open in Spring! (her mother only knew of this when she asked why she was always standing out under the washing line for hours listening intently!).

Not only this, we also know the brain can change at any age. So what are the actual possibilities for people with these difficulties? Can we help soothe the body? Can we help wake it up? Move it out of its immobilised state? If we move it out of an immobilised state, does the brain then access capacities that were maybe not as ‘broken’ as we thought? Were some of the functions – executive skills, coordination, communication skills, demand avoidance… more about the body being stuck in a fixed state and the brain followed?

What happens when we release the body from its fixed state? Does the brain open up? Do a lot of these capacities come back online? Can we open and assist the system to do all the mapping and integrating that it couldn’t do before? Can this affect who these individuals are and how they orient in the world? Can it allow them to know themselves anew? 

The answer is yes.

What I am seeing time and time again is that the brain has an amazing ability to ‘get to work’ on these issues the minute it is given free reign to do so. If we can re-mobilise the body – in a way that is meaningful and accessible for the individual, the brain/ body is very open to growth and change. I have a forty-year old client with severe intellectual disability who has shifted in ways that were unimaginable. She is now choosing her own clothes, getting her own breakfast, articulating her wants and needs and her staff and family are having to totally renegotiate who and how they are with her. They are now not calling all the shots and she now has a say in her life – because she can.

I have a thirteen year old young female client with ID whose interoceptive capacity changed after a few short sessions, so that she could know when to use the toilet and when to vomit before it happened. We did not formal training on these issues, we just worked with her body. 

Another client with cerebral palsy began walking with a lot more ease and strength in her ‘weak’ leg, as well her speech, hearing and hand-eye coordination also improved. Again, with working to realign her with her body.

There is so much we can do when we take a step back from what we have been told is true and start to look and listen to the potential and innate wisdom of the body and what it can do.

If you want to know more about this exciting new pathway to change, please see my book or my course.

Showering felt very dangerous to me

Showering felt very dangerous to me

Processing everyday sensory information can be difficult for autistic people. Any of their senses may be over- or under-sensitive, or both, at different times. 

These sensory differences can affect how they feel and act, and can have a profound effect on a person’s life. National Autistic Society.

In a recent interview I did with a long term client, he said to me I used to be worried about blacking out in the shower. Showering felt very dangerous for me.

Now this was hugely significant. It was a big statement. I had to stop him talking to go back to what he was saying – which was no small thing as previously it had been so challenging for him to speak – but I really needed to understand why he found showering dangerous.

This client had spent years in a highly immobilsed body where speaking, moving, initiating executive functions required enormous effort. Every little thing, even thinking and processing information took time. I knew this, but what I had never understood was that his sensory overload was so high, that the sensation of being in the shower – with the water spraying, the sound, the heat, the confined space – whatever it was – all impacted his already overloaded system to a point where he felt he would black out.

I was stunned. I thought of all the behaviour reports I had read and the protocol we always have for people on the autism spectrum where we teach them steps so that they can ‘self-care’. As professionals we decide that these people are avoiding certain behaviours; that they have PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance, my great bugbear); that they have no interest in showering and taking care of themselves; that we need to teach these behaviours; skill them up – all the while potentially missing the point that they may be in a valid and extreme state of anxiety over their personal safety.

Think about it. If you couldn’t control your body blacking out in the shower, would you want to take a shower? The answer is no, you would avoid it.

What always irks me about behavioural profiles is the lack of appreciation of the challenges of the sensory system. The ‘pathology’ is seen as a psychological deficit, one that must be managed and directed. How much literal, physical pain do we put people through by ‘knowing’ what they need? How much time is wasted by not accepting there must be a valid reason for the person’s behaviour – even if we can’t know it, or they can’t speak it?

The point is that these people do know precisely what is going on and often, for whatever reason, they can’t make their body operate the way they want it to. They generally know exactly HOW to take a shower and self-care – they just can’t. It’s not pathological in a psychological sense – in fact it’s not a pathology at all if you assume that pathology means disease! It is more like an involuntary inertia of the body, an imbalance of the autonomic nervous system that plays havoc with your body’s operational software and ability to effectively engage with the world.

This young chap, less than a year into the program, started to take showers; he has initiated a self-care routine. He has begun to cut his hair and to be most considered about his appearance. He is doing so because he can. He is doing so because his body is not shutting down so much and he is getting better sleep. Now that he does not have to fight his body and mind at every turn, he has choice and control over his day.

He has choice and control over his day because he has worked very hard in the last three years with me and his dad, to invite his body to move out of its fixed state. We have progressed with very gentle physical exercises and understanding, to motivate the internal system to move out of a hypo-alert state. We have at no time engaged in a behavioural protocol or investigated his psychology. Over time, his body has begun to learn how to stay in a more regulated place and this has allowed his whole operating system to re-engage. He is talking with ease, he is smiling with ease, he is cracking jokes with his dad.

This young man, now, can share what he knows. He can share his wisdom and his trials of living in a highly shut-down state that even his parents, who are devoted to him, could not know. They didn’t know he was scared of blacking out in the shower, because he couldn’t tell them. He can tell them now!

A.R.T. Training as Internal Martial Arts

A.R.T. Training as Internal Martial Arts

“A technique which begins from perfect stillness enables you to execute the movement in a coordinated and efficient manner which, in turn, allows your body and mind to reach a balanced harmony. Furthermore, by increasing your efficiency of movement, you can release unnecessary tension and relax more completely.”

Aaron Hoopes

For people who train in the martial arts one of the most important principles is the relationship between stillness and motion. Understanding how stillness is the basis for motion allows you to establish true balance and control within yourself. Stillness is where you collect and center yourself for the movement to come. Your power lies in the stillness of the mind and body.

No matter what movement you perform, no matter what the goal, it all happens first in the body.

This has been practiced for millenia by Kung Fu masters, they learn to shut out external senses and move the focus inward through moving the body. It requires literal experience, movement of the body, to bring awareness of self and mastery of the impulse to act. Through this practice you gain maximum control of actions and thoughts.

All things stem from this stillness. This is what is known as extreme yin. It is the action before action. It is the source of deep will and connection to the body.

To have this knowledge is a basic human right, yet most people have no experience with this type of training. We do not teach it. When we do train people, it is often from a very ‘yang’ perspective – fight, control, mastery, without first learning and attending to the initial source of all power, the yin.

Attaining stillness requires the body to be in the correct state. It requires the enteric nervous system to be dominant and the sympathetic nervous system to be quiet.

This is called your Hara, or Dan-tien.

Usually we seek to gain this by mental stratagems and mental focus. We seek to master the body by suppressing it, by cognitively forcing or manipulating it into submission, thereby gaining control of the self.

Extreme yin is different. It is accessing the power from within. It is where thought and motion are effortless, there is not need for control, because you have control. It is found through working with the body, not training the mind.

Because most people have not learnt this skill, they are often at the mercy of their emotions and of the will of the sympathetic nervous system. When they go to therapy to learn how to alleviate anxiety; cope with depression; self-regulate – they are given cognitive strategies or pharmaceuticals that work mostly as a bandaid to suppress the distress in the mind.

Instead, when we work with the body, when we retrain the physical system to align with the mind, when we find our stillness – all manner of things begin to change, because we have found our source of true power. In this state, our executive functioning, our working memory, our digestion, coordination, capacity to make good choices – all improve.

A.R.T. (anxiety reframe technique) is a modern technique based on ancient principles to achieve a high level of self-mastery. It teaches internal balance and control, through gentle physical movements that allow the body to move into a softer state so that it can realign and find its true power.

This technique is excellent for anyone wanting to gain a greater level of self-mastery. It is especially beneficial for people who have poor interoception (connection to the body). Unlike breathing techniques, cognitive training and behavioural management; this technique is focused on soft movement and it is accessible for people with autism, adhd and ID.

With a respectful, neurodivergent focus, A.R.T. puts you in the driver’s seat and together we quietly find the place where your power and ability resides.

Polyvagal Theory & Autism

Polyvagal Theory & Autism

The Polyvagal Theory is based on the work of Stephen W. Porges PhD. This theory is based on the vagus nerve and the way that it works within the body to help us interact with our world.

In a nutshell The Polyvagal Theory suggests that we have three main ways of operating: we can be in an open state where we can be calm and our social faculties (eyes, ears, face, voice, connection to heart), digestive and cognitive faculties, like executive functioning and working memory, are all online and available for us to use.

We can be in a flight/fight state where the body is focused on excitement or threat and a lot of our social and cognitive faculties are less online. Our taste buds, our digestion also turn off as we don’t need to be digesting food when we are about to run or fight. Energy is diverted and conserved for our safety. As the eyes and ears start to shift to the danger response, they are also less able to process a wider range of light and sound.

Lastly, in order to keep us safe, 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. It is in this state that we start to disassociate and go into meltdown.

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. So many people are living in a highly constricted body state.

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.

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.

Brain Plasticity & Autism

Brain Plasticity & Autism

We used to think that the brain was fixed and not capable of change, but it’s not true. The brain is capable of changing – at any age – and when we work with the body as well as the mind, we have an even greater capacity to make positive changes.

People on the autism spectrum, whether they can speak; whether they are hypo or hyper reactive; whether they are five, fifteen or fifty are all intelligent and all have highly sophisticated nervous systems that are capable of learning.

When we work directly with the nervous system and avoid overly complicated social and cognitive tactics; when we work with transparency, clarity and have an inclusive and empowered approach -we can make magic happen. However, it’s not magic, it’s the brilliance of a brain/body system that wants to be free and when it is shown how, with kindness and grace, it has an amazing, adaptive capacity to grow and develop and let people be more of who they want to be.