Many people with autism are stressed individuals who find the world a confusing place (Vermeulen, 2013). So how does someone with autism achieve a sense of flow? McDonnell & Milton (2014) have argued that many repetitive activities may achieve a flow state. One obvious area where flow can be achieved is when engaging in special interests. Special interests allow people to become absorbed in an area that gives them specialist knowledge and a sense of achievement. In addition, certain repetitive tasks can help people achieve a flow like state of mind. These tasks can become absorbing and are an important part of people’s lives. The next time you see an individual with autism engaging in a repetitive task (like stacking Lego or playing a computer game), remember that these are not in themselves negative activities, they may well be reducing stress.
If you want to improve your supports to people with autism from a stress perspective, a useful tool is to identify flow states for that person and try to develop a flow plan. Remember, the next time you see a person repeating seemingly meaningless behaviours, do not assume that this is always unpleasant for them – it might be a flow state, and beneficial for reducing stress.What is ‘flow’?
Flow state is a term coined by Csikszentmihalyi to describe “the experience of complete absorption in the present moment” (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). It is widely viewed as highly positive and many texts advise readers on how to attain it when performing tasks. Autistic people are sometimes puzzled that flow seems to be regarded as somewhat elusive and difficult to experience, since the common autistic experience of complete engagement with an interest fits the definition of flow well. Thus, it is not hard to find accounts of autistic detailed listening that seem to describe a flow state:
“When I work on my musical projects, I tend to hear the whole score in my head and piece every instrument loop detail where they fit. It relaxes me and makes me extremely aware of what I’m doing to the point that I lose track of time.”Autistic listening
I’m autistic and started a team at a previous job called “Flow Patrol”. Flow seems to be a common autistic fascination, a special interest in itself. I suspect monotropic minds are more prone to flow.
At our learning space, we pursue special interests and assist attention tunnels so that learners can slip into flow states.
People need to feel appreciated and safe, to give themselves to an activity; and they need to feel like they are making progress to keep giving themselves to it. To get into The Zone, you need to know you’re getting somewhere, that you’re in the process of mastering a skill – you need ongoing feedback, whether from another person or another source. There is also something uniquely satisfying about working with other people effectively, towards a shared goal; in my experience there is no substitute when it comes to building a community.
Flow states are the pinnacle of intrinsic motivation, where somebody wants to do something for themselves, for the sake of doing it and doing it well.
Flow allows us to recharge, to feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction, and a kind of respite from the often-baffling demands of the school social environment.Craft, Flow and Cognitive Styles