The Social Engagement System, Autism & Craniosacral Therapy

Illustration from The Heart of Listening by Hugh Milne

I believe and hope that one day we will understand much better how to support and care for people with mental health problems or those who are not neurotypical with sensory processing difficulties such as autism.  I hope we will also understand better how to support those who parent, care for and support children or adults with these difficulties that can block connection with others. I hope there can soon be greater knowledge and understanding about their needs and difficulties and I hope we will see much greater use of body therapies like craniosacral therapy, which I practice -with such therapies properly researched and funded, so as to be available to all, should they prove to be effective.

These aforementioned conditions may be down to very different underlying causes but what they all have in common is a compromised ‘social engagement system’. The body’s physiology is not properly working and it is preventing people with these problems from connecting with and interacting with others – blocking relationship, and leaving them further isolated – when this is probably the last thing they really need.

Working with a person’s social engagement system is at the very heart of my work as a craniosacral therapist. I thought I would write an article to explain this a little further.

What is the Social Engagement System?

In the 1990’s a neuroscientist called Stephen Porges made discoveries about the body that totally changed the way we think about the stress response. Porges discovered that the Vagus Nerve, or 10th cranial nerve, has two distinct pathways – a dorsal and a ventral branch. According to the traditional understanding we had followed previously for decades, the stress response involved two circuits – the sympathetic nervous system geared us up for fight and flight responses, and the parasympathetic nervous system did the opposite – it helped us relax again. Porges discoveries knocked all this on its head. Porges’ work meant we learned there are in fact three circuits rather than two:

  1. The Social Engagement Response, which involves the fast responding myelinated ventral vagus nerve and other cranial nerves – to orient us to others – turning our heads and faces, moving our eyes, smiling and showing our emotions and feelings. Healthy social engagement means being able to pick up on emotions as well as expressing feelings – communication is a two way process. All mammals have a social engagement system response.
  2. The Fight and Flight Response, which involves the spinal sympathetic chain. We are made ready for action with this circuit – whether this action is aggression or fleeing. Muscles tense up and blood pressure increases.
  3. The Freeze Response, which involves the older (from an evolutionary standpoint), dorsal branch of the vagus nerve. Here we slow down and muscles become flaccid. In animals under attack from a predator this response can be a life saver. The predator believes that we are dead and may lose interest in eating the prey – this is how a possum survives threat from a predator. If the animal is eaten then the death is less awful as the body is shut down and disconnected. People who have suffered overwhelming trauma may have coped by being in a freeze state, and talk of themselves floating above and looking down on themselves – feeling they are not in their body. What happened to their body was unbearable at this moment.

Porges made his discoveries, in part, through becoming aware that premature infants might suddenly die of a shock to the heart. These little ones had no possibility of fight or flight – and when something overwhelmed them – they had no protection from their ‘social engagement system’. They went straight to a ‘freeze’ response, which can put great pressure on the heart. Their social engagement system had not yet developed. It develops first through attachment and bonding with the infant’s caregivers – usually the baby’s mother, and it is supported with breastfeeding. Breastfeeding, with the close connection that is made, and with looking into a mothers face and eyes, the infant feels completely safe, connected and nurtured. Breast feeding is also important to help the development of healthy gut bacteria, which will protect a person from disease and illness long into the future. Later, as the baby learns to crawl and stand, the muscles develop around the head neck and shoulders – helping the little one orient to others and explore the world. This curiousity and exploration further helps with the development of a healthy social engagement system as does playing with other children – learning how others respond and reading facial expressions and the emotional tone of anothers voice.

How can craniosacral therapy help?

Through optimising nervous system health craniosacral therapy can greatly assist a person’s social engagement system to come ‘on line’ more. The ‘rest and digest’ mode of the calming parasympathetic nervous system is also activated through the client feeling completely safe and relaxed during the session. The work is always done in states of stillness and calm – although this is not always possible with curious little ones who like to explore the world and may not stay on a couch for very long, if at all! For this reason treatment of little ones is often done with a parent holding a baby or child.

Craniosacral therapists listen with their hands – we learn to feel tensions in the body’s fascia – and in the way it mobilises and functions. There are different styles and methods within craniosacral therapy and working with the biodynamic approach I am looking for areas that feel less ‘present’ and more blocked, stuck, cold, numb, empty and absent. Helping these areas to feel more connected is usually a three stage process that happens quite naturally. There is no manipulation needed for the body’s own innate wisdom to resolve problems. The body simply knows what to do – and by bringing awareness to the problem, setting the scene for a healing response through a practitioner orienting to health and to the clients underlying anatomy and physiology -and then utilising specific holds, sensing techniques and palpatory skills, the body sorts itself out without intervention being needed. It is delightfully simple – and can be profoundly beneficial – as many who have experienced successful outcomes will know.

In regards to trauma, craniosacral therapist Hugh Milne talks about shining a light of consciousness to release, dissolve and transform the ‘break’ – the wound that is left in the body by containment of a traumatic memory. On an energetic level this can mean an individual experiences more energy and a feeling of lightness after a treatment.

Craniosacral therapist Stanley Rosenberg has authored a book called ‘Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve’, which is based on the work of Porges and written in an accessible style. I highly recommend his book for further reading – Stanley also gives some simple self help excercises to improve the functioning of the social engagement system.

Here is a link to a short film about an autistic young man who responded extremely well to craniosacral therapy treatment by his brother, and Stanley Rosenberg.

Film about Craniosacral Therapy and Autism – the story of William

Thank you for reading this article and I hope it has given you some food for thought. Please do get in touch if you have any questions or would like to consider whether craniosacral therapy can be of help for you.

I look forward to heaing from you!