I’m glad you returned to read my newest blog in our series: Autism Support During the Pandemic. This blog follows up on our prior blog about how people with autism are more prone to having a compromised immune system, and strategies to boost their immunity.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, there are many ways to strengthen your immune system. Today we will go more into the science around hormones that buffer against stress, and which can build up your immune system. I will also share some helpful insights I have gained from working with teens and adults on the spectrum.
First, let’s start off by reviewing the feel-good hormones you can activate to strengthen your immune system. These natural mood-booster hormones include dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins.
Dopamine generates feelings of pleasure and reward. When we do something that leads to a pleasurable and rewarding outcome, we want to do that behavior again. Dopamine underlies that sense of motivation and reward that comes from that experience.
You know dopamine is cycling through your system when you feel motivated to repeat a specific behavior. Video gaming can be highly rewarding for people on the spectrum. Research shows that video games can cause a rapid release of dopamine in the brain. So, you can see why so many people with autism are drawn to video games. They might not find many of their social experiences rewarding because they are rejected or bullied by others. Seeking out other forms of reward and reinforcement makes complete sense.
As a psychologist, in my therapy groups, I work with my autistic clients on developing social behaviors that help them build rewarding relationships. All of my autistic clients have a longing for closeness in their relationships. They want to feel the joy and rewards that come from a trusted friend.
There is limited research on the dopamine system in people with high functioning autism. But, what’s available suggests people with autism might have a shortage of dopamine. Most research on dopamine has been done in laboratory animals. So, we will have to wait for advances in medical and research technology before we can get a better grasp of the role of dopamine in autistic behavior.
That being said, there are ways to increase dopamine levels in your system, even if you are on the autism spectrum.
How can teens and adults with autism increase dopamine levels?
Ways to increase dopamine levels include: eating more protein and less saturated fat, listening to music, meditating, and exercising. Research shows that dopamine is released in the morning after a good night’s sleep, so sleep is critical to having healthy levels of dopamine in your system.
Oxytocin plays a role in social bonding. This hormone is activated by engaging in a trusting and nurturing relationship. Oxytocin is related to empathy, cooperation, and generosity. It has even been termed the “love hormone”. Remember earlier how we talked about loneliness wearing out your immune system? Think of oxytocin as the opposite of that. Feeling nurtured and cared for improves our immune function.
Over the last fifteen years, there was a spike in research on oxytocin in autism. There are mixed results in autism studies around whether oxytocin levels are lower in people with ASD, and further research is needed at this time. Regardless, people on the autism spectrum have the capacity to increase oxytocin levels.
How can teens and adults with autism increase oxytocin levels?
Cuddle, hug, squeeze, and pet your beloved furry friend to improve your immune functioning today! I have always loved those bumper stickers that are shaped like a paw print and say “Who Rescued Who”. Our pets are our powerful allies because we feel completely accepted by them. This reduces feelings of loneliness, and social threat, or that flight-or-fight response I discussed earlier. So many of my clients with autism have strong connections with their pets. I also happen to be a pet-lover, so I have first-hand experience with feeling sheer joy and love for my pets. Pets truly have the power to improve our immune function.
Also, hugging another person multiple times a day will increase your oxytocin levels. I truly believe loving touch can be healing. In fact, a technique in somatic psychotherapy uses healing touch as an effective form of trauma treatment. Skin-to-skin contact can also increase oxytocin levels.
Talking with or thinking of someone you care about can also increase oxytocin levels. In this time of social distancing, speaking with someone over video chat, social media, or the phone can work just as well as in-person.
Endorphin is a hormone that can create a happy, and euphoric feeling. It makes you feel good and increases your positive outlook on life. It can also minimize your perception of pain. You’ve maybe heard of an “endorphin rush” or “runners high”. We frequently hear these terms in association with extended workouts, bike rides, or runs, because endorphins are released after a period of physical activity.
How can teens and adults with autism increase endorphins levels?
Exercise! Many of my clients on the spectrum really benefit from exercise. I cannot express how much a good workout benefits their mood and their outlook on life. Even though we are sheltering in place here in California, we can still go on bike rides and runs. You can also try out an online workout video. Or, you could join a live online workout class.
There are other ways to get an endorphin rush. For instance, you can eat certain foods for an endorphin release. As we speak, I am eating dark chocolate for my endorphin rush! Endorphins can also be triggered by spicy foods. Many of my clients with autism love very spicy foods.
Laughter can boost endorphins and dopamine! So enjoy reading those memes, comics, satirical articles, and watching Nexflix comedies! Live it up and laugh with your belly! Enjoy!
As an Autism Therapist, I am Committed to Helping People with Autism and their Families Find Happiness and Success While they Shelter in Place
I hope you found some helpful tips you can start implementing right away in your daily routine as you shelter in place. Naturally increasing these hormones will not only help improve your immune function but will also improve your mood, as you shelter in place during the coronavirus pandemic.
In my next blog in this series on “Autism Support During the Pandemic”, I will be focusing on strategies for parents to keep the peace in their homes while sheltering in place with their child with autism. I empathize with parents, as I know they are trying their very best. This is a stressful time. Being home-bound with your teen or young adult with autism can magnify pre-existing problems in your communication and relationship. My next blog will offer words of support and strategies to increase positive interactions with your child during this challenging time.
Additional Autism Resources to Help You Cope During COVID-19
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are dedicated to continuously providing tips and support to people with autism, their loved ones, and their providers. We know that it can be overwhelming to sift through the different resources available online. Every day more and more are being added. That is why we are carefully selecting relevant resources from reputable sources for you and posting them on our Resource Page. We also are providing our own new content, which will appear in our newsletter, blogs, and on our Facebook and LinkedIn pages.
If you are an Autism Parent, Consider Joining My Online Parent Support Group
You may be experiencing more stress around parenting your teen with autism or neurodiverse young adult right now. Sheltering in Place is challenging especially for the parents of a teen or young adult with high-functioning autism. For this reason, we are offering our Online Parent Support Group on a donation basis. The group is for parents of a teen with high functioning autism (15+ years old) or a young adult with Asperger’s type profile. Maybe, you are feeling burnt out or are needing support, wanting strategies to increase positive interactions with your child. Or the COVID-19 epidemic is taking a toll on your family. We understand and we can help. So, reach out today! Typically, the fee is $150 per session. However, we are instead accepting donations of any amount to support families during this pandemic.
Learn About Our Other Services for High-Functioning Teens and Adults with Autism
At Open Doors Therapy we are committed to providing high-quality autism therapy in the South Bay Area. The health and safety of our staff and our clients are very important to us. So we are doing our part by social distancing, sheltering in place, and offering our group therapy services online.
Online Social Skills & Support Groups Offered at Open Doors Therapy in the South Bay Area:
- Online Autism Parent Support Group
- Neurodiverse Working Professionals Group
- Gifted Youth with Autism Group and Caregiver Support Group
- Neurodiverse College Group
- Summer College Transition Group
- Autistic Women’s group
- Post-College Neurodivergent Young Adult Group
- Mother’s Group
If you’re unsure which group would be a good fit for you, please contact our autism therapy clinic.
Due to the laws that govern my license as a therapist, Open Doors Therapy is only able to provide online therapy services to people who live in the state of California.
Begin Online Group Therapy for Teens and Adults with Autism in California:
Having the support of a caring autism therapist and a group of your neurodiverse peers can make all the difference when you are living with neurodiversity during COVID-19. Our online group therapy options are available to provide people with autism high-quality support that is tailored to meet their unique needs. To begin online group therapy in California, please follow these steps:
- Schedule a free 30-minute consultation appointment. During our video call, I will answer all your questions about online group therapy and help you choose a group to meet your needs.
- Like me on Facebook. This will help you stay up-to-date on Open Doors Therapy, resources, and our autism therapy services.
- Sign up to receive my newsletter. My newsletter addresses timely topics regarding autism and autism therapy services.
Other Services for the Neurodiverse at Open Doors Therapy:
Our California autism therapy clinic helps high-functioning autistic adults and teens with autism. This includes people who identify as having Aspergers, high functioning autism, undiagnosed autism traits, etc. and their families.
Our autism therapy clinic offers a variety of autism therapy services including individual counseling for autistic teens and adults, and parent counseling. Also, we offer several different social skills groups online. We offer groups for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, gifted youth & caregivers, autistic adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, a summer social skills college transition training program for youth transitioning to college, a mothers group, and an online parent support group. Please call or email our California counseling office to get started today!
About the Author:
Dr. Tasha Oswald is a trained developmental and clinical psychologist. And, she is the founder and director of Open Doors Therapy, a private practice specializing in autism therapy services in the South Bay Area, near San Francisco, CA. Dr. Oswald specializes in helping neurodiverse teens and adults and facilitating social skills groups.