"You're smart when you're calm."

October 29, 2012
Chelsea Budde

Thankfully for me and my personal and professional life, there is no shortage of brilliance in the autism universe.  I've had the privilege, beginning in 2004, to see dozens of people through conferences and seminars who've become my autism heroes over the years.  Their knowledge of autism and related experience has made me a better mother and educator.

Tony Attwood's was the first presentation I attended.  At the time, I had a five-year-old son with PDD-NOS and a three-year-old daughter with Asperger's.  I just attended a seminar last week and enjoyed another entire day of Dr. Attwood's rich teaching, five years into Good Friend on the professional side and now the mom of a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old on the personal side.

One of the things clinical psychologist Dr. Attwood reminds his patients with ASD is that they're smarter when they're calm.  If they can keep their anger and anxiety levels low, they'll be able to think more clearly.  He compares that frontal lobe of the brain to a filing cabinet full of past conflicts and resolutions.  When the emotional fervor rises, it locks the cabinet and access is denied.  So if an IQ test were administered in this emotionally wrought state, the measure would be significantly lower than if the person were able to access that important information.  It's not that the person's intelligence is lost, but that it's not functional.

The truth of Dr. Attwood's statement resonates beyond the population of people with ASD to those of us with "typically-developing" brains.  As parents, when we get flustered by our children's behavior, we may respond by raising our voices, executing ineffective punishments, or making impractical threats or promises in the heat of the moment.  Teachers, some of whom are chronically under-supported in their challenging roles, may resort to the abhorrent practice of bullying themselves, and could even get so stressed out that they manifest symptoms associated with trauma.

Thankfully, there are plenty of preventative measures and practices that can help us all remain calm, and therefore smarter during crises.  Simple breathing exercises, over-practiced during calm times, can be very handy when stress levels rise.  Those who practice yoga, meditation, and/or visualization, or use guided imagery (even Cognitive Picture Rehearsal for our students who need visual supports), also report better quality of life.  Progressive Muscle Relaxation may help identify tense areas of the body and then release that tension.  And whenever possible, taking a weekend away or finding some respite care can provide a whole new perspective when returning to a challenge.

What do you do to stay smart during a crisis?  How have you helped your child develop and access coping strategies?

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