Reframe Your Thinking Around Autism: a book review

I had a strong personal reaction to this book. As a result this cannot be an academic, impartial review; what I have tried to do is present the general themes and ideas, along with my responses.

Holly Bridges is an Australian writer with a degree in psychology, who works with children and young adults using her own therapy practice “Autism Reframe Technique” or A.R.T., and travels widely to speak about her ideas. She describes this book as designed to describe the scientific basis for her practices.

There is no original research discussed; the book covers Bridges’ understanding of the work of others, primarily that of Dr Stephen Porges, a professor of psychiatry in North Carolina, who also provides the foreword. Dr Porges is the originator of “Polyvagal theory”, which is claimed to describe how visceral experiences affect the nervous system and our resulting behaviour. By understanding how the nervous system responds to threats, goes the theory in part, we can retrain our bodies to recognise “false positives” and self-regulate. There are many people who have found this way of thinking useful and thought-provoking. However, despite the theory being first proposed in 1994, there has still been no experimental verification, it’s not widely accepted, and it’s not hard to find criticism of both the theory and its adherents.

I was initially put off Bridges’ book by the tone and writing style. The style is simplistic to the point of being patronising while the concepts are discussed using scientific terminology without citations. There are a number of child-like illustrations which I personally found rather bizarre. If you can understand the role of the vagus nerve in creating unease do you really need a picture of a sad stick person with a spiral in their tummy? Bridges describes Polyvagal theory as “something new” (title of Chapter 3). As shown above, it’s not new, and there’s no effective evidence corroborating it. In fact, a bit of Googling shows there’s plenty of evidence contradicting it. So it’s not really a theory, as my old Physics teacher would have emphasised, as theories have been tested and substantiated; it’s a hypothesis, and a shaky foundation to build a therapeutic practice on. Bridges’ book contends that autistic behaviours result from stress in very small children or even babies in utero which overloads the nervous system and causes “Immobilisation”, that is, inward focus, lack of social engagement, shutting down. If action is not taken to help the child regulate themselves, per this model, they will remain in the immobilised condition and not develop effective emotional connections.

Some of the concepts presented here without question are so problematic I had to stop reading and recover my composure. For example, Bridges states that autism is probably not genetic in origin but may be caused by vaccinations or emotional trauma to infants. She also claims that everyone is at least a little autistic and that “autists” can be re-educated out of their unhealthy patterns. Perhaps these statements are uncontroversial in Australia and the USA, though I doubt it. However, Bridges states that to her, Porges’ theories “make sense” and “are natural”, even though they are unverified and not widely accepted, and supplies no further justification for using them as the basis for her practice. The book does not discuss her own therapies in detail but contains several chapters on Anat Baniel. Baniel is based in the US and trained as a clinical psychologist and a dancer; she now has a Method™ and a number of books for sale. Per Baniel’s own website there is no research to support her treatments. Nonetheless she claims to have helped some children to “lose” their autism diagnosis. The physical and mental exercises described sound harmless enough but I’m not convinced they could ‘cure’ autism rather than assist in modelling more neurotypical behaviours.

My personal belief – and experience – is that teaching children to mask leads to psychological harm in later life. It would be interesting to get the children’s perspective on their experiences, although that might not be so helpful from a marketing point of view. To sum up, I could not recommend this book. The practices and theories described are not factually based and could cause harm, if only to my blood pressure. To someone with expertise in the field, the tone and style would irritate and there is not enough substance to the “science” to engage. The layperson I feel is at risk of being dangerously misled by what is more of a sales pitch for a course of therapy and more books than a serious and thoughtful piece of work.

Author SWAN Lyndsay Jarvis

“My name is Lyndsay. I’m Scottish and I’m autistic. I’m a mum of two teenage boys, one of whom is also autistic. I like reading, computers and whisky (see picture)
and I get overly worked up about People being Wrong on the Internet. “


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