The Book // Introduction


Learning. Teaching. Together.

One of my favorite words, along with kuschelbär (a German word of affection meaning cuddly bear), is from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:


n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

I am a sonderer. I have long been fascinated by experiences that are different from my own as a straight white non-binary Autistic and disabled Usamerican male. What experiences of life have shaped other people’s beliefs, ideas, and behaviors? What does their vivid and complex inner world look like? How do other cultures perceive and experience the world? What are their values, hopes, and fears? What lenses do they use to view the world? What excites their brain and sets their soul on fire? What knowledge do they possess that I don't? Who is their authentic self? How is their emotional health? And why do some people become antagonists, while others become protagonists, healers, and helpers, while others still crumble under the weight? I am an endlessly curious person and a life-long learner, incessantly asking “Why?” like a three-year-old discovering their environment. Learning is one of life's great pleasures, and I lament that our human lives are so brief, in the cosmic sense at least, because there is simply way too much to learn in the given years of our human lives.

Learning for me started at an early age. As a young child I was fascinated with trucks and vehicles of all sorts and, according to my mom, I knew them all. After high school, I devoted upwards of 18 hours a day for six months teaching myself about software engineering which became my career for two decades. After receiving my Autism diagnosis at 33 years old, I set out to learn everything there is to know about this thing we call Autism. It was profound to find answers for my experiences of the world and for so many of the struggles and challenges I had faced (and continue to face) in life. For 33 years I had felt fundamentally broken, assuming that everyone else experienced life the same way I did and therefore I was a failure because I did not cope as well. Discovering my Autism was a turning point and it opened windows of curiosity into other people’s experiences. What began with Autism led me to broader disability, then into mental health, and ultimately to what I call emotional wellbeing, the subject of this book.

As much as I am a learner, I am also a teacher. Learning has so enriched my life – how I see myself and the world around me - that I am deeply driven to teach others everything I have learned. I want everyone else to have those same profoundly revelatory and enriching experiences. What started as speaking in the field of software engineering has evolved into teaching people about Autism, disability, and emotional health and safety. Through keynotes, talks, lectures, trainings, and workshops, I aspire, as Steve Jobs once said, hope to “make a dent in the universe.” I am not being hyperbolic. Every single social and political problem humanity faces today is deeply rooted in poor emotional health: addiction, suicide, anxiety, divorce, depression, poverty, homelessness, education, our legal system, healthcare, and politics. As a species, we must embark on a healing journey. We simply must start healing as a species because healthier individuals will demand healthier communities, and healthier communities will demand healthier systems and structures. It all begins with making sure everything we do is informed by an understanding of what truly drives behavior.

I am also a student of Fred Rogers and a collector of Fred Rogers’ quotes, quite a few of which are included in this book. Of all the quotes I've added to my collection over the years, I resonate deeply with this one:

"I must be an emotional archeologist because I keep looking for the root of things, particularly the root of behavior and why I feel certain ways about certain things."
– Fred Rogers

Much of Fred's work was centered on the messages children receive and how those messages shape their self-perception and worldview, leaving a lasting impact. Traditionally, trauma has been largely perceived as “big T” Trauma - horrific and acute instances of attack, violation, neglect, abandonment, and other severe harm. We are just beginning to understand “little t” trauma, also known as C-PTSD and developmental trauma, and its significance on our bodies and brains. Expanding on these concepts, I hope to introduce to this discourse the idea of microtrauma - the often-overlooked yet insidious individual negative messages a child receives that, when repeated without buffered, accumulate into “big T” Trauma and significantly impact a person’s sense of safety and authenticity throughout their life.

Every word and action we express conveys messages to others. When we extend comfort to someone in distress from a safe-enough, calm, centered place, we communicate that they matter, they deserve care and love, and that their emotions and feelings are valid and manageable and safe. When someone makes a mistake and we respond with encouragement and grace, we send the message that making mistakes is part of growth, they can learn from them, that most mistakes are recoverable, and that their worth and lovability remain intact. Conversely, if we criticize and shame them, they receive the message that their deep emotions and feelings are not safe, they are unworthy of comfort, and love and affection are conditional upon perfection.

Like Fred Rogers, "I wonder what it is that makes one person push on in the face of difficulty and makes someone else crumble in helplessness." Specifically, I wonder what messages they received and how those messages shaped their identity. People aren't giving us a hard time; they're having a hard time. It is our responsibility to understand why, and I have found that it often begins with the messages we receive as children.

This book presents my Neuro-Social Model of Emotional Wellbeing, divided into three parts: Foundations, The Model, and Practical Applications.

In part 1, Foundations, we embark on an exploration of contemporary science, delving into concepts such as Polyvagal Theory and Neuroception—pioneered by Dr. Stephen Porges—and the profound impacts of developmental trauma. By delving into the neurological and biological factors that shape behavior and emotion, we lay the groundwork for a comprehensive understanding.

Part 2, The Model, unveils the eleven interdependent components that profoundly influence emotional health and behavior: Safety, Messages, Identity, Agency, Positive Social Connection, Basic Human Needs, Environment, Body and Brain, Mission and Purpose, Strengths, and Interconnection. We traverse the intricate tapestry of these components, illuminating their impact on our emotional wellbeing.

Finally, in part 3, Practical Applications, we forge a path toward personal growth and transformative interactions with others. Within various contexts—parenting, classrooms, workplaces, healthcare settings, policing, and more—we unravel how the insights gleaned from the previous sections can be skillfully applied, cultivating a safer, healthier world where every individual thrives.

Throughout my own journey, I have realized two essential and fundamental truths: 1) we all stand on the shoulders of giants and the collective knowledge that came before us, and 2) we are all discoverers of greater truth rather than the creators of the truth. Therein lies, I believe, the natural form and the exquisite beauty of true scientific inquiry - that we venture forth together. This book is an invitation to walk together on this journey of learning and teaching, delving deeper into the mysteries of human behavior, and shape our future with compassion and wisdom. It is a call for sondering, compassion, interdependence, community, kindness, and grace—for others and ourselves. Together, we can take a step on the journey toward creating a safer, healthier world where everyone thrives. Will you join me?

- Steve Andrews