Working Successfully with Asperger’s and ADHD Requires a New Perspective
Jul 25, 2014 01:34PM
● By Katja Swift
Someone identified with ADHD or Asperger’s shouldn’t be considered to have anything wrong with them. Perhaps an imbalance, or a range of balance that is not currently normative, exists, but that should not be interpreted as a disease, condition or diagnosis.
Up until now, society has understood brains in a limited way, but it is now recognized that the brain isn’t just one organ. In the book mBraining, which is a synthesis of the latest research in neurology and cognitive science, the authors suggest that in addition to the head-brain, there is also a heart-brain and a gut-brain.
These aren’t figurative analogies; a web search of “enteric nervous system” yields piles of new studies, such as those at Columbia University Medical Center and David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), about the affects gut function has on mental health. Similar information is building about the nervous and endocrine functions of the heart, which it turns out, is not just for pumping blood.
Joseph Chilton Pearce, author of a number of books on human development and child development, explains, “The idea that we can think with our hearts is no longer just a metaphor, but is, in fact, a very real phenomenon. We now know this because the combined research of two or three fields is proving that the heart is the major center of intelligence in human beings.”
Pearce, who is part scholar, scientist, mystic and itinerant teacher, and keeps in close touch with brilliant men and women in scientific fields, says that molecular biologists have discovered the heart is an important endocrine gland. In response to our experience of the world, Pearce says it produces and releases a major hormone that profoundly effects every operation in the limbic structure, or what we refer to as the “emotional brain.”
The Three-Brain Axis
Much like the Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal (HPA) axis, the three brains can be considered another existing axis. In order to function properly, all three brains need to be in some sort of balance, which may not be equally distributed. It is suggested that those that are balanced more in favor of the gut will have particular talents in certain areas; perhaps they will be better at making quick decisions or handling emergency situations. People that are balanced more in favor of the head may be better at writing software or databases, and those balanced in favor of the heart may have stronger powers of empathy. These balances are just like any other constitutional balance—some people have larger or smaller skeletal frames; others have hotter or cooler tempers.
Therefore, consideration can be made that “normal” or “neurotypical” does not really exist. The term “neurotypical” came into use in an attempt to move away from comparing folks identified with Asperger’s or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to people that are “normal”. While this move was an important step, “neurotypical” is still too constricting; it still implies that there is something more normal, at least by merit of being more common, than something else.
It is more useful—and more accurate—to work instead with the concept of “normative”. Normative is defined as something based on what is considered to be the usual or correct way of doing something; conforming to norms. Relevant to Asperger’s and ADHD, the terms neuro-normative, socio-normative and culturally normative each describe a state that is considered normal or appropriate by society in this time and location. Even so, that norm is volatile; it is trendy. The norm itself does not imply absolute value, only that in this moment and in this time, this is valued by a certain segment of society, for example, what is considered to be beautiful.
A Shift in Language
Why is the shift in language so important? Because with current standards of “normal” versus ADHD, or even “neurotypical” versus Asperger’s, a statement is made that something is wrong with one of the people in the equation. The idea that three brains exist in a range of balance can help with an understanding that someone identified with ADHD or Asperger’s shouldn’t be considered to have anything wrong with them. Perhaps an imbalance, or a range of balance that is not currently normative, exists, but that should not be interpreted as a disease, condition or diagnosis. A person with a fiery temper is not pathologically wrong; it might not always be convenient, but there’s nothing wrong with that person. In fact, sometimes it can be quite handy to be fiery, especially when setting healthy boundaries. Similarly, a person that cries easily during sad movies is likely more sympathetic to friends in need. Everyone is affected by these types of imbalances—sometimes they are useful, and sometimes they are uncomfortable.
People that can be grouped as Asperger’s (which is itself a normative scale), may have in particular strongly developed head-brains and might have damaged or compromised gut-brains. The Autism Research Institute cites numerous studies that those diagnosed as Asperger’s and ADHD tend to fall abnormally into the high end of gut dysbiosis (a microbial imbalance in the digestive tract) and the high end of gluten/casein sensitivity. Is there anything wrong with the person, or a pathological diagnosis to be made? It is conceivable that this person’s head-brain is simply full-speed ahead without the grounding balance of his gut-brain due to damage and impaired development in the gut.
Further, it may be that the heart-brain is also suffering. Much like the HPA axis in the endocrine system, it is suggested that the brains each try to compensate when one is functioning below its optimal level. This may result in either the person feeling emotions too intensely, or, for protection, shutting them down altogether.
Damage to the gut can be identified as a diagnosable pathology, which is useful not as a way to identify what is “wrong” with a person, but because restoring gut balance will help restore overall balance. Even those without ADHD or Asperger’s often have imbalances in this way, but theirs stay within the bounds of the current norms and are shared by enough people to be considered “normal”.
The difficulty for folks with Asperger’s, is that their imbalance is visible to others in a certain, more obvious way. Someone else might have a similar imbalance level in the gut-brain or heart-brain without the over-development of the head-brain, but that person is not considered to be on the sprectrum, because they get by as “neuro-normative” and do not stand out among others. This isn’t to mean that “normative” gut-brain and heart-brain imbalances don’t cause discomfort; imbalance is uncomfortable for everyone, but while discomfort is experienced, a particular person is not diagnosed with a problem because they fit in with the general trend towards gut- and heart-brain imbalance in our society.
Furthermore, interpersonal relationships are difficult for everyone. We all experience little misunderstandings, annoyances and grudges, because getting along with each other is hard for everyone. If a particular group is identified as having this difficulty in a roughly similar way, the group is labeled as flawed and attempts are made to cure its members, which is the case with Asperger’s and ADHD.
Perhaps this group should be identified as people that are more highly sensitized to a problem currently endemic in society right now, just as a person that lives in a highly polluted area might have more sensitive skin or be more prone to asthma.
The current cultural obsession with normativity is itself a problem. Everyone is not supposed to be the same; each of us is supposed to possess different skills and talents. Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., author of The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired, states, “More people are understanding that ADHD brings with it special abilities as well as difficulties, and that appropriate career selection can be an important part of determining whether one will be successful or unsuccessful in a particular job.” A person identified as ADHD might feel comfortable and happy as a forest ranger, but because certain types of jobs are more highly respected than others, that person might be raised to pursue a profession that is uncomfortable and poorly suited to his nature. Two types of over-development that are currently socially acceptable are an NFL football player and a lawyer. Each of these people, during their maturation and training, will choose parts of their nature to develop, or even over-develop. The resulting imbalance is socially acceptable, so they are considered “normal”; concluding that “normative” imbalances are arbitrary. Recognizing that “normative” is just another fashion allows each person’s talents to be seen much more clearly, and allows practitioners and family members to help each individual come to a range of balance that will be most comfortable for them.
No one grouped in the spectrum of Asperger’s/ADHD is the same; each is an individual, and each feels the advantages and discomforts of their personal situation differently. One may feel great discomfort in a situation where another does not, and it is those discomforts that must direct the work of finding balance within each person. Rather than saying, “We better fix this about you, so that everyone will think you’re normal,” practitioners should focus on what makes each individual feel more comfortable in his or her world.
Therapeutic Remedies for Creating More Balance
Out of balance? Whether on the Asperger’s/ADHD spectrum or not, here are some things to try:
• Remove food allergens, commonly gluten, dairy, corn and soy
• Add more vegetables and whole foods
• Get adequate protein and fat daily
• Get plenty of sleep; no one is socially graceful when they are tired
• Go for a walk every day
• Consider working with an herbalist to find plants that will help you feel more balanced in tricky situations
Katja Swift is an herbalist and healer with 18 years of clinical experience. She is also Director of CommonWealth Center for Herbal Medicine, located at 25 St. Marys Ct., in Brookline. For more information, call 617-750-5274 or visit CommonWealthHerbs.com.