What Tips the Scales in Autism Behaviors: The Quest to Find Balance


Difficulty with resilience for daily activities is a common struggle in the autism spectrum. Dysregulation (problems staying calm and focused) can take many forms: outbursts, running away, or shutting down. Whatever the expression, the autistic individual can struggle to regain composure.


Those trying to assist the autistic individual in finding a calm state may use many strategies like medication adjustments, reasoning, and consequences. In the end, a more impactful approach is often taking a look at the level of demand (drain) on the individual versus the level of recovery (filling).


Let's take the example of Edward, a 60-year-old railroad worker on the spectrum. He has been at his job for 40 years and has always loved trains. His role has been repetitive for a long time, and he can manage all the steps without any real thought. He has been married to his wife, Sylvia, for only ten years. She has four grown children from a prior marriage and nine grandchildren.


At the beginning of the marriage, their routine in the evenings was quite comfortable. After about six months, Edward seemed frequently shut down and irritable. He snapped at Sylvia for small things. Rather than joining her for dinner, he would head down to the basement after work to fiddle with his model trains.


One evening, Edward returned home to find that Sylvia's son Kyle had dropped by with three of his children. Sylvia had invited them to stay for dinner and asked Edward to eat with them. He began pacing and murmuring to himself. When Sylvia started reasoning with him, he left the room and walked down to the basement. His wife walked after him, determined to make her feelings known.


Edward began lining up the model rail cars by year and function. He did not make eye contact and did not respond to his wife's conversation. His silence upset her so badly that her voice escalated, and she stood closer and closer to him to emphasize her points.


Suddenly, Edward grabbed a piece of the track and tossed it on the floor. Sylvia felt confused and upset that things had so quickly changed between them.


What Sylvia didn't know (until later) was that Edward's role at the railway had recently changed. He was working with different staff members and performing new functions. His lunchtime had shifted. He was now required to enter some of his activities into a computer program and to attend crew team meetings.


This extra drain at work was resulting in behavioral shifts at home. Edward's "go-to" activity for soothing and filling was working alone with his trains. The new demands at work and the unexpected presence of other people at home had triggered an episode of outburst that felt confusing and disappointing to Sylvia and her family.


One strategy toward decreasing outbursts would be to remove unnecessary drain as much as possible while adding soothing and filling time. Perhaps the railway employers could offer him his previous lunchtime or excuse him from meetings. Sylvia may wish to plan on Edward having time with his model trains immediately upon return from work. She may want to see if he could tolerate dessert together downstairs while they talked about trains. If the high demand at work is unavoidable in the long term, Edward may wish to consider shifting to part-time volunteer work at the local train museum instead.


Attending to the draining and filling balance can help reduce some episodes of outburst or withdrawal.


Emotion Dysregulation and the Core Features of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Obsessions, repetitive behaviour and routines (National Autistic Society)

Autism Behavior Problems

©2020 by Theresa Regan