I have autism, and from a happy circumstance the summer I turned 11, I learned that there were things which could make my quality of life a lot better, and others which could make it a lot worse. My life since then has been shaped around discovering what hurts the symptoms of autism, what helps the symptoms of autism, and why, what is the science which makes sense of this.
I have the hope that if I explain why autistics do the different types of behaviours which make non-autistics feel so alienated or upset, that empathy and support will be a more likely reaction. If I can make it easier for you to explain autism behaviours to extended family, colleagues, educators, friends, or anyone who might be working with or supporting someone with an autistic spectrum condition, you may be able to improve the social quality of life for the autistics you care about, immediately.
So, why do autistics drone and bang their heads? First I’ll explain what droning is (it’s quite different from tuning). Droning is humming or singing a single note for long periods of time, taking breaths, and keeping going. It sounds something like “Mmmm”, “Nnnnn”, or “Ahhhh”.
I used to do this as a child when I had to vacuum, to drown out the dissonance of the vacuum motor’s discordant tri-tonal whines. Autistics drone as a form of white noise, to shut out less pleasant or more distracting sounds and other sensory input (earplugs can also be a real boon). It’s a coping mechanism, and it works quite well.
If you went on an airplane, you might use (or see) noise canceling headphones that will create a waveform opposite to the one of the airplane’s noise, to cover over the noise of the airplane so that you can focus on what you want to focus on, or so you can sleep, if you want to sleep. This is a little different from droning.
Droning is one way of creating your own white noise, or your own background noise to drown out other things so that you can focus on what you want to focus on. And droning really helps as an aide to paying attention, by shutting out or drowning out distraction.
You might not think that banging your head has much in common with that, but it has the same goal of drowning things out, except that it’s for covering a much louder signal. The signal head-banging is usually drowning out is either emotional pain or physical pain, with either external causes, or internal ones.
When I’m banging your head, I’m using pain that I control to drown out pain that I cannot control. Why would it be better to bang my head than to just deal with the pain that I’m feeling? Research from after the Holocaust spent a lot of effort on discovering why, when, and how people could do horrible things to each other.
One of the things that they discovered is that when someone else is in control of how much pain you’re feeling, and how long that pain lasts, you have a lot less tolerance for pain than when you have control over how much pain you’re experiencing, and how long it lasts. It’s quite a startling difference between the levels and lengths of pain which can be endured.
When we’re banging our heads, we are drowning out pain that we have no control over with pain that we do have control over. Believe it or not, from the inside, head-banging feels very empowering and protective.
Rather than trying to forcibly stop an autistic from droning or head-banging, it would be better to investigate dietary, hormonal, detox, and other interventions to decrease pain and inflammation in the brain and body. And it would be worthwhile noting whether the head-banging is resulting from emotional stress, and discovering whether that stress could also be reduced.
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Thanks for this great article. As you know, I have not had any formal assessments for autism, but I do identify as a highly sensitive person and many of the traits that charactize the autistic spectrum are ones that I can relate to. After reading your article, I tried droning while experiencing stressful noise on my way to and from work (I find myself getting a little strung out and tired after these kinds of noises). I found it really effective – I felt energized and soothed at the same time. I noticed it was most effective when I very carefully modulated the pitch and strength – I think this attention gave the additional benefit of a mindfulness practice.
It appears that autistic children come equipped with some naturally occurring skills to thrive with their nervous conditions. Sometimes what can seem like “disordered” behaviour is actually a highly intelligent adaption!
I wish I had thought of this strategy when younger, but now that I know it, I will use it often.
Thanks for your note! My research is pulling me more and more towards a view that autism itself is a highly intelligent adaptation. What if, when a mother was experiencing stress while her child was in utero, that child was born a highly sensitive person? Just as autistics do, HSPs have gestalt, systems-thinking brains, and gain less pleasure from social interaction than neurotypicals do — and more pleasure from learning and problem-solving.
Can you see how this would be an adaptive response, worth the extra vulnerability, because of the potential problem-solving capacity added to the species? Then suppose that this extra vulnerability, which had not evolved to deal with today’s range of stressors (in the full, ecological sense), proved to be particularly affected by humanity moving outside of its optimal ranges of tolerance. While the whole population is getting cancer, allergies, and other diseases with greater and greater frequency, HSPs and their children are also getting autistic pathological symptoms in higher numbers.
Nature doesn’t make mistakes that perpetuate, unless there is a survival advantage to that particular variation. So glad you’re finding some of these strategies helpful; I expect we autistics figure them out because we’re so desperate to get out of the discomfort we’re in. My favourite time and way to use the droning now is a form of Tibetan-type head-toning, when I have to drive in difficult conditions such as snow-storms. Hope more of this series proves useful to you as well,
Thanks for getting in touch, Jackie