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16th Jun 2024

The autistic wall of tears

The autistic wall of tears

When I was first introduced to Focusing through training with Peter Gill, I very quickly realised that the inside world was a bit of a mystery. In my introductory Focusing sessions, I discovered on the inside a young girl crashing symbols together like a cymbal-banging monkey dolls trying her best to communicate ‘there’s nothing to see here’. I really couldn’t understand why she felt it was essential to distract me.

Each time I was invited to be the Focusing person in training I felt nervous and lost. As I gradually tiptoed closer in, the next experience I found was a crashing wall of tears. Each and every time I did Focusing, I cried. I persevered. Over the next few years I continued my training, firstly with focusing practitioner training and then focusing oriented therapy training in America. Throughout this time it still alluded me – this difficulty with the inside. I continued to wonder who on earth was this crying part.

During my FOT training, I had some focusing oriented therapy sessions with a lovely focusing therapist who supported me gently in the next stage of exploration. These invaluable sessions helped me identify a couple of things:

  • The wall is not actually a wall but a wave. It crashes in, has its peak and then dissolves. This helped me be less afraid of the wall
  • You can go into and out of the wall using the present moment. This helped me feel less afraid of the wall. It also helped me work out how I could control coming in and out of touching into my experiencing using simple things like looking around the room and intentionally moving into ‘every day conversation’

We never did get to the bottom of what the crying was all about in those sessions, but having some orientation around getting to know the wall and not being afraid of it was absolutely one of the biggest gifts I could have been given in those sessions.

Since that time, I’ve became a lot more familiar with the wall of tears. It has most often appeared in my counselling supervision sessions with my lovely supervisor, who came to recognise it as an almost separate part of me that would sometimes crash in when we least expected it.

Over the past two years my relationship with Focusing has been superseded by a deep interest in what seems to be an entirely different topic area – neurodivergent experiencing. Through reading autistic literature, listening to podcasts and generally researching autism within the online autistic community (as opposed to the medical model), I have come to a dawning realisation that my relationship with internal experiencing can be understood much more clearly through an autistic lens. This, for me has been the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle in understanding the wall of tears. The wall of tears is me – it is the me that was hidden by years of masking. It is the me that had no idea I found certain aspects of life more difficult than others. Having the gift of knowing that I’m autistic (diagnosed April 2024) has led to the ‘new was’ that Gendlin talks about. As the scales fell from my eyes in reframing my past and having a new understanding of ‘oh so that’s why’, I could finally understand that this wall of tears was my unmasked self. It got bottled up and only came out at certain times when it crashed upon me.

As a result of this understanding of my identity, an incredible change has happened in my life which I can only describe as a whole-life Felt sense shift in my experiencing in the world. I can now feel my struggles with much more immediacy. There is no cymbal-crashing girl pushing me to push through the supermarket shopping. I am a lot less capable and household-efficient, which releases me from the part that use to pressure me to be capable! What I am now is a much more integrated me. The wall of tears which arises in me much more readily now in my everyday life is a barometer to tell me that I this is really just too much for my brain to handle, and that’s ok!

This wall of tears usually now appears when I’m on the phone to customer service people. I am able to notice that I can’t process spoken information if it is too information-heavy. I just get overwhelmed. And that’s when I can feel the tears welling up. It also lets me know that I can advocate for myself now and ask people to slow down. It also helps me understand why I need everything explained to me in detail.

I often reflect on what this means for autistic people being introduced to Focusing. One thing I do know is that each autistic person is entirely unique, and so there is no one size fits all when it comes to adapting Focusing for an autistic mind.

How to offer Focusing for autistic people

Here are my thoughts on Focusing within an autistic context. Autistic people struggle with interoception at higher rates than the general population. This can make it harder for autistic people to recognise and respond to body signals. I think that Focusing therefore requires a thoughtful and adaptive approach and the courage to experiment outside of the generic Focusing structures if one has become comfortable with a certain way in Focusing practice. Additionally, I think it’s important to note that some autistic people may not take to Focusing and to reassure people that this is completely ok. The Felt sense is a natural bodily experience that people find in many different ways and Focusing is only one of them! Adding this to the Focusing training can take away the shame that may come from ‘not being able to do it’ like others do.

Some things to reflect on in terms of making changes to form bridges to interoceptive awareness are laid out below to reflect on:


Guided Body Awareness

  • Name Body Parts: Clearly name parts of the body (e.g., chest, face, throat) and invite the Focuser to attend to them. This offers more guidance so that a bridge is built to more opportunity for noticing tensions/sensations.
  • Stay with Sensations: When a sensation is noticed, encourage the person to stay with it. Ask, “Can you describe what that feeling is like?”
  • Use Visual or Tactile Cues: Use visual aids (such as a body map) or tactile cues (inviting the person to touch the body part) to help identify and describe sensations.

Exploring the Felt Sense

  • Encourage Description: Help the person find words or images to describe the felt sense. Offer options like “Is it tight, warm, tingly, or something else?”, and encourage the use of metaphors.

Creating a Sensory-Friendly Environment

  • Sensory-Friendly Setting: Choose a quiet, comfortable space free from distractions. Minimize harsh lighting and loud noises.
  • Comfort Items: Have sensory tools available if needed, such as weighted blankets, fidget toys, or other calming items.

Communicating the Focusing Method

  • Simple Explanation: Explain Focusing in simple terms. For example, “We’re going to pay attention to how your body feels and what it might be trying to tell you.” Use metaphors that resonate with the person, possibly drawing from their special interests. For example, if a person’s special interest is music, spend some time exploring this special interest and how various songs might bring an example of the Felt Sense.

Reflect on the Experience

  • Summarise Feelings: Help the person summarise what they noticed, such as “You felt a tightness in your chest that felt like a knot.”
  • Validate: Validate experience by saying “That’s a really important thing to notice. Your body is sharing something meaningful with you.”

Closing the Session

  • Gradual Transition: Gradually bring the person back to the present. Ask them to notice the room around them and take a few deep breaths.
  • Offer Reassurance: Reassure them that it’s okay to end the session without all answers, acknowledging any effort made.

Additional Tips:

  • Flexibility: Be flexible with the structure and timing of sessions based on their needs and responses.
  • Consistency: Maintain consistency in your approach to build a sense of security and predictability.
  • Positive Reinforcement: Use positive reinforcement to encourage engagement and effort.
  • Professional Support: Ensure that reading around the subject of autism   involves accessing content created by the neurodivergent community as there is a lot of misinformation online about autism to be careful of.

I hope this article is helpful and it can be the start of a conversation. I have to acknowledge in closing that this article only touches the tip of the iceberg in exploring the intersection between  autistic identity and Focusing. Each autistic person is entirely unique and so Focusing has to shape itself around each individual according to their unique processing style.

Image taken from page 109 of ‘Sunlight and Shade. Being poems and pictures of life and nature. Illustrations by F. Barnard, etc’ (British Library) Copyright free.

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