What is meerkat mode and how does it relate to AuDHD?
This article was authored by Tanya Adkin
Lovingly dubbed “meerkat mode” by Tanya due to the heightened state of vigilance and arousal it presents, it involves constantly looking for danger and threat. It is more than hyper-arousal, Tanya believes that it is actually an overwhelmed monotropic person desperately looking for a hook into a monotropic flow-state.
This is not just sensory hyper-arousal, it is the tendency of monotropic [AuDHD] minds to seek out a natural and consuming flow-state to aid recovery from burnout and/or monotropic split. Because of the heightened sensory-arousal and adrenal response that comes with it, monotropic flow becomes difficult to access, leading into monotropic spiral.”
Adkin & Gray-Hammond (2023)
Recently David and myself have written a few articles on atypical burnout (Adkin & Gray-Hammond, 2023) and the burnout to psychosis cycle (Adkin & Gray-Hammond, 2023). In those articles I’ve mentioned something that I refer to as “meerkat mode”. People seem to relate to the concept as discussed in the articles, so I thought it may be wise to dedicate a whole article to what I mean by this concept.
Firstly, I want to explain that I am a very visual thinker, who happens to be plagued with good ol’ imposter syndrome. Said imposter syndrome tells me I should have thought of a more academic terminology, but that’s not the way my brain works. Truthfully, I can’t think of a much better visual representation for what i’m about to describe.
Meerkat modes presents an answer to the diverse forms of burnout I have witnessed through my work with a wide range of neurodivergent people. David agrees with the assessment as a fellow “autism professional”. I don’t set out to reinvent the wheel or change entire paradigms, this is and was a way for me to simply explain a phenomenon that is more common than people realise. A phenomenon that I see described on an almost daily basis as hypervigilance or a trauma response, but in my experience is more than that.
What is meerkat mode?
Hypervigilance is not a diagnosis. Rather, it is the brains biological adaptation to ongoing stress and trauma, which we know that Autistic people experience at a higher rate than non-Autistic people (Gray-Hammond & Adkin, 2023). It is the way it maintains a state of high alert on the look out for threat. It’s a description of a state of being that is commonly seen in diagnostic criteria for things such as PTSD, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia spectrum disorders, psychosis and psychotic phenomena, some personality disorders, and much more.
Interestingly, a lot of these mentioned diagnoses are seen to be co-occurring with Autistic experience.
Seeking a monotropic flow-state (Hyperfocus)
Flow-state in terms of monotropism refers to the tendency for monotropic brains to fall into deep attention tunnels that are intrinsically motivating. It has been reported by Autistic people that entering this flow-state is beneficial to monotropic peoples mental wellbeing.
Flow-state and hyperfocus are often used interchangeably and there is a general acceptance of it’s occurrence but no solid definition.
Anecdotally, when we see this as a person seeking to be in a constant flow-state, it can often indicate dysregulation or adaptations needed within the environment. Sometimes (when dysregulated) this flow state can be quite negative and turn into a monotropic spiral.
Because of hypervigilance people experiencing “meerkat mode” have a significantly more difficult time accessing flow-state.
Hyperfocus/flow-state is reported in autism, ADHD, and schizophrenia (Ashinoff & Abu-Akel, 2021).
“Refers to a state of being engrossed in a task that is intrinsically motivating during which task performance improves, there is a tendency to shut out external environmental stimuli, and internal signals”
Increased Sensory Dysregulation
Interestingly, interoceptive differences are seen to occur in ADHD people, Schizophrenic people, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD), and more.
I am not stating that Autistic interoceptive differences are created by trauma, rather that the generic understanding of interoceptive differences is attributed to stress and trauma.
Alexithymia refers to the difficulty or inability to sense or decipher one’s own emotions or the emotions of others. It could be described as a subcategory of interoceptive differences.
The general view is that alexithymia is created or arises from extreme stress or trauma, some research does suggest it could have biological or developmental links (Thompson, 2009).
Again, alexithymia occurs in more or less every diagnostic category I have pointed out previously, including ADHD, or any situations that create stress or trauma.
Link between interocetion (alexithymia), vestibular, and proprioception
Those that are displaying “meerkat mode” (in my experience) will generally seek proprioceptive and vestibular input, e.g. bouncing on a trampoline, rough play, being upside down. They may be “clumsy” or meet criteria for developmental coordination disorder (dyspraxia).
Interestingly, the above sensory profile is highlighted in guidance to be of clinical significance with a PDA profile of autism (PDA Society).
Generic advice for someone experiencing “meerkat mode” would be to increase proprioceptive and vestibular input in order to regulate interoception.
Interoception takes the leading role in emotional regulation.
“Interoception works the vestibular and proprioceptive senses to determine how an individual perceives their own body. Well-modulated interoception helps the individual detect proprioceptive and vestibular sensation normally.”
May be unable to stop or rest
As David and I have discussed previously in our articles on atypical burnout and the burnout to psychosis cycle those that appear to be meerkatting may not be in a position to stop and recover.
This could be due to co-occuring ADHD (AuDHD) or life demands such as parenting or work, maybe interoceptive differences mean that the person does not “feel exhausted”. They could be in a monotropic spiral of flow-state which is shutting out everything else.
There are infinite possible interactions between an AuDHD person and their environment. And this is why I think we often struggle to define our experiences through something that can be outwardly observed and measured.
This is just one explanation for something that I have witnessed in a sea of possibilities.
Adkin, T. & Gray-Hammond, D. (2023) Creating Autistic Suffering: The AuDHD Burnout to Psychosis Cycle- A deeper look. emergentdivergence.com
Adkin, T. & Gray-Hammond, D. (2023) Creating Autistic Suffering: What is atypical burnout? emergentdivergence.com
Ashinoff, B. K., & Abu-Akel, A. (2021). Hyperfocus: The forgotten frontier of attention. Psychological Research, 85(1), 1-19.
Gray-Hammond, D. & Adkin, T. (2021) Creating Autistic Suffering: In the beginning there was trauma. emergentdivergence.com
Löffler, A., Foell, J., & Bekrater-Bodmann, R. (2018). Interoception and its interaction with self, other, and emotion processing: implications for the understanding of psychosocial deficits in borderline personality disorder. Current Psychiatry Reports, 20, 1-9.
Schulz, A., Schultchen, D., & Vögele, C. (2021). Interoception, stress, and physical symptoms in stress-associated diseases. European Journal of Health Psychology.
Thompson, J. (2009). Emotionally dumb: An overview of alexithymia.
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