I am prompted to expound on this topic because I am frequently in frustrating positions trying to explain to others why their well intentioned suggestions of rewards and punishments model will not work.
This is a long analogy inspired by Danny Raede of Asperger Experts and his analogy of trying to teach the soldier in combat to knit.
Defense Mode is what happens when a soldier in enemy territory and we are trying to teach him how to knit.
He might very well want to learn to knit but because he is in fight or flight survival mode he is unable to gain the ability to attend to the knitting task, or to anything you say for that matter.
The soldier comes home from that combat but his neurological makeup has been altered. Things that do not appear to us to be threatening such as a closed door or a firecracker now cause his body to react as if there were a real threat to his life and it goes into fight or flight mode with increased heart rate, adrenaline and decreased ability to focus on anything but survival.
With Neuro atypical people the threat might actually be light, sound, touch, smell, uncomfortable social interaction etc. Those threats have had negative feelings associated with them and the body reacts as if it needs to fight or flee, the way a soldier in combat might.
Even when the person can, using reason. rule out a threat the body continues to fight or flight. Cognitive function that was there one minute ago is now gone. The body is not only not listening to you, it is not even listening to itself.
You tell the soldier “If you don’t stop what you are doing and sit down and focus on learning to knit I’m taking away your gun”. You might be taking away the Ipad, opening the blinds, cooking bacon, or turning on music, effectively taking away the sodldier’s ability to defend herself against these sensory threats, it’s the same feeling.
This is not behavior but neurological dysfunction you can take away the gun but the soldier does not focus on knitting. He first fights with a meltdown but instead of recovering and working on knitting so he can get his gun back he goes into full flight, finds the safest spot he can, covers his head, freezes and shuts down until the threat is removed. He is not able to gain the cognitive function to learn to knit.
You tell the soldier “If you will stop what you are doing I will not only teach you how to knit, I will give you the best and softest yarn so you can make a blanket for your grandmother and she will be so proud of you. You can make a blanket for yourself so you will no longer be cold at night.” The soldier might be really inspired to make his grandmother proud and he might really want to be warm at night instead of miserable.
But as long as the body perceived threat of being shot at is there, there isn’t a reward that can turn his cognitive function toward knitting. Because he isn’t stopping and isn’t focusing on knitting he doesn’t get the reward, disappoints his grandmother and sees himself as a failure not only at being a soldier, but at being a person.
The fact is that if his body feels deadly fear, it doesn’t matter if there is no cause.
If we can respect him even when he perceives the firecracker as a threat and not indicate that this reaction was petty and ridiculous, we might get the soldier to a place where his body will no longer fight or flee, and only then can he be taught to knit, able to make his grandmother proud and able to help himself stay warm at night.
Who does not know at least one vet who in one on one situations will confess to freezing for reasons he cannot account for, who feels the world is against him, who is bitter that officers who never saw combat are deliberating on men that have, and have suffered for it?
This article is not for the soldier except that it may help him to explain this better. This is for the family, for the wife and children. If he freezes and won’t go out – don’t go crook on him, don’t tell him that he arranged the outing, don’t get angry – none of these things will work. Anxiety is a terrifying ailment and someone in the grip of it cannot be reasoned with.
Note: The author has a Master’s degree in behavioural psychology and 25 years experience with kids with special needs. She also has a Neuro atypical daughter afflicted with anxiety.
She has chosen the soldier analogy to try to get it through that civilians with anxiety might as well be soldiers back from war. The anxiety felt is the same, though the cause in the soldier is pretty clear. If a soldier feels the whole world is against him, it might as well be true. The same for a civilian.
And the same for a civilian who years ago was a soldier.
Another way to put it is that when you are up to your arse in crocodiles dont go on about draining the swamp. No one is listening to you.
And another is Rewards dont work? Punishment doesn’t work? So nothing works?
No, that doesn’t work either.
Last thoughts. The word anxiety makes light of the problem. A better word is fear, gripping fear, unknown fear.