Fawning: An Adaptive Reflex

It was so nourishing to attend the 2020 Embodiment Conference this month.

The range and quality of speakers was incredible.

I was particularly looking forward to listening to Dr Stephen Porges. 

When he covered “Fawning” within his presentation I was delighted. 

I had not heard him speak definitively as to the physiology of fawning before. 

The term Fawning was coined by Pete Walker. He examines this in his 2013 book ‘Complex PTSD: From Survivng To Thriving’.

Whilst the fawning response is one that resonates with many of us, it can be challenging to integrate an acceptance of it, if we perceive it as ‘chosen behaviour’.

I mentioned in my 2019 article that I believed that the literature on fawning sits supportively alongside the literature on Autistic masking.

I stand by this and feel we are only just beginning to gain the information we need to deepen our insights on this.

When I reflect on my own experiences of masking, there is so much resonance with the information here on fawning.

To hear Dr Porges speak to fawning as reflexive, as a repsonse that is embedded in the body, in the same way that dissociation and death feigning reflexes are, was very powerful indeed. 

I believe that as this information becomes more widely known, it will help us to more fully support our Autistic and PDA children, especially if they mask/fawn at school, or in other settings.

If a child neurocepts a lack of safety and they do not have another option available to them, fawning may well be their autonomic response.
If a child masks / fawns in one setting, but then shows significant distress once they have left, we need to feel empowered to challenge the tropes about how “they were fine while they were here”.

In the same way that fight, flight, freeze and flop are automatic in the face of a Neuroception of threat, so too is Fawn. 

Dr Porges explains all of these as “adaptive reflexes”. 

I invite us all to pause and become really curious about the wisdom inside our bodies and our childrens. 

This curiosity may support us to truly appreciate why such responses are both necessary and understandable.  

By Jessica Matthews

Writer, home educator and Autistic advocate, with specialisations in psychology, polyvagal theory, Autistic / neurodivergent wellbeing.
BACP Integrative therapist, Post Grad training in Clinical Psychology , BSC Psychology Hons degree.

One reply on “Fawning: An Adaptive Reflex”

Great to hear that this is being discussed and recognised. Sadly, I think this adaptive reflex is commonly seen in every classroom in our society. For many reasons children fawn and blend so that they don’t stand out. As a result many adults still hold the belief of non compliance as a behavioural choice. Those that don’t fawn get attention and those that do receive praise. We praise and reward silent, still, compliant behaviour. This is a sad tragedy for those that aren’t feeling safe in their environment. With such a strong message, what choice is left for these children but to internalise their feelings as shame, blame and difference.

Liked by 1 person

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