Elephants explained.

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If you read this site or follow me on Twitter you will often see me refer to the concept of elephants. I thought it might be useful to explain what i mean and also to give some examples of how we approach managing and reducing elephants so my life is easier and i can do more things.

What are elephants?

Elephants is the name we give to very specific type of intense anxiety, so called because it feels like an elephant is stood on my chest. Elephants come in many sizes, sometimes it might be a lingering feeling for a long time, other times the sensation may be so overpowering i can’t really do anything.

When i am experiencing elephants i will tend to get very shy and want to hide somewhere safe until the elephants have stopped.

What triggers elephants.

Elephants are almost always a response to my environment and it’s structure. I require more structure than most people but thats just part of being me. We’re all different in what we need from our environments.

When i am overloaded by sensory input or demands, or sudden changes my sense of structure is lost and i feel that loss as elephants.

How do we stop elephants?

By listening to them and changing the environment around me to meet my needs. Most environments meet the needs of the majority but they don’t meet the needs of autistic people such as myself.

Elephants is my body telling me what i needs. I can’t defeat with force of will or wishful thinking, but i can listen to them and then make the changes in my life needed to meet my own needs.

Many autistic people are taught to ignore there needs by other who are well meaning, but uninformed.

Are elephants disordered?

No, quite the opposite. I need more structure in my life than most people and due to various issues with housing etc in the last few years i’ve not have the structure i needed. My body is just telling i need to change my environment. Acceptance of my self is part of being autistic and ensuring my needs are met.

It’s not a disorder in that its an over response to anything. It’s unusual but simply part of being me. Many autistic people experience elephants. The cause is almost always a world which is not setup to meet the needs of autistic people.

When i have the right environment i thrive.

Responding to elephants.

When i start getting elephants we aim to identify the cause but its not always possible. I can be calm and relaxed, but still experience elephants and be uncomfortable due to it. I’ve mostly learnt when to spot elephants and how they are effecting my behaviour and mood etc.

Elephants are not my fault or a flaw in my personality etc. In the short term the best response is normally to retreat somewhere safe and increase the structure. For example, curling up in bed with a audiobook i know well, or going to spend an evening at my friends house where i feel safe. Additionally deep pressure can really help reduce the impact of elephants on my body

We then look at what we recently changed and try and work out how to tackle that thing differently. We use lots of routines in order to build up a library of things for me to do. Routines make things much easier and then eventually i might go off routine from time to time as my skills and ability develops.

For the things i can’t do now without elephants (for example, nights alone in my flat) our approach is to build up slowly by adding other routines and structure. Once i have a good routine for evenings / overnight / morning and what to do in all the various situations present when home alone i will probably experience less elephants.

Overall elephants are positive, they guide me in where i need to develop routines and skills next. Over the last 2 years i have built a much more sustainable and happier life for myself by listening to the elephants and making changes to my environment to meet my needs.


Spaced Out & Smiling is about exploring the fun side of Autism, and trying to understand what it means to be Autistically Happy.

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