College and Asperger’s Syndrome: Stress and Learning

Stressed?

If you answer “no” to that simple question, you are in the tiny minority of people who are not afflicted by the great epidemic of our time.  All of us feel the weight of responsibilities, the unsettledness of modern life.  At Mansfield Hall, we see it writ large in the everyday lives of our students with Asperger’s, and we see its impact on their efforts to learn and live successfully.
 Stress is the result of our brains trying, with imperfect success, to make sense of a world in which things don’t always go our way.  Most of us live with a baseline of stress that comes from everyday existence.  Our students, though, often live with a higher baseline, meaning that the daily hassles of life can push them beyond a manageable point.  Why is that?
Imagine a person with a mobility impairment, trying to navigate in a community that cares little for their challenges.  There are no cut curbs or ramps, doors are too narrow, elevators don’t work.  The stress that results from such a daily experience would be harrowing (and sadly, is not uncommon for people in wheelchairs).  Now imagine that same person in an environment where their needs are taken into account with every structural decision.  Elevators always work and every door has an automatic opener.  That person’s baseline stress would drop, and make it easier simply to live in the world.
Our students live in a world that is not designed for their learning differences.  The stress they feel when they encounter classrooms and campuses that lack the equivalent of ramps and elevators to assist them is part of their daily lives, and can impede their goal of successful learning.  For this reason, we spend a lot of time discussing stress and its origins in the brain.  We know, for example, that the stress response originates deep in the brain, in the amygdala.  The amygdala is involved in processing emotions and “fear-learning.”  It links areas of the cortex that process “higher” cognitive information with the systems that control “lower” responses (e.g., touch, respiration).  When stressed, a person’s amygdala gets in the driver’s seat, and reason and rationality get shoved to the backseat.  The gas pedal slams to the floor and the stressed person starts driving erratically.  Learning?  Not going to happen under those circumstances.
Among the strategies we teach to respond appropriately to stress are mindfulness, deep breathing, yoga, listening to music and going for a walk.  We know that physical exercise is among the best antidotes to stress, and that a 20-minute walk will significantly reduce a student’s stress level.  We also know, thanks to the recent work of Gregory Bratman at Stanford, that walks in nature can reduce the stress associated with rumination and obsessive thinking, which is why we encourage our students to walk in the nearby woods or down by the waterfront.
All of us can use these strategies to reduce our stress level and improve our cognitive output.  For our students, that reduction may be the difference between academic success and failure.  Too often, we accept the negative consequences of stress because we believe it’s the price we pay for living our hectic lives, or because we live in a world that doesn’t support our learning styles.  We hope our students come to understand, through our work with them, that they have more control over their response to a stressful environment than they might have ever known.