Although we don’t notice, our brains are barraged by a constant flow of signals sent over by our senses. As we see, feel, hear, smell and touch, tiny electrochemical signals run through our nervous system until each respective signal is sorted and translated into an appropriate motor or behavioral response.
Someone with autism may experience a nervous system traffic jam, where sensory signals do not get organized and squared away. This may pose challenges in performing everyday activities, motor deficiencies or behavioral problems.
As one can imagine, autism can be extremely disruptive. Picture how positively terrifying a simple visit to a supermarket with its naturally noisy and happening environment can be to the hypersensitive child, or how frustrating it is to an under responsive child to be told to sit still when s/he needs to bang his/her head in order to concentrate.
At Kutest Kids Early Intervention Agency, we have found many children with autism can benefit from sensory integration therapy as part of therapeutic regimen. When performed by a competent occupational therapist, various play activites can change the way input is interpreted by the brain, and help an children with autism make better use of the information to properly perform every day tasks.
How to Cope
The greatest gift a parent can give a child with autism is a small space that is all their own. While trying to navigate a world in which they have absolutely no control, a space of refuge, where they alone are in charge of their sensory input, can work magic. The idea is to create a safe haven for the child to unwind, recharge and self regulate the traffic jam their nervous system is experiencing. While expensive sensory rooms tend to get all the press, designating a small corner or closet, filling it with blankets and pillows, and providing some books and an iPod with headphones will do the trick just fine.
Outside of small sensory corners, it is impossible to control the environment, but with a little forethought and planning, huge meltdowns can be managed. Before all, anticipate the triggers that can potentially set your child off, and if possible, avoid them. Next, prepare your child for the scenarios that cannot be avoided. Explain what is going to happen, and discuss how that might make them feel, and what you can do to help them. A child who is expecting a sensory onslaught feels much safer than when s/he is caught by surprise.
Keep in Mind
At times it is hard to remember that when a child with autism adamantly refuses to wear certain clothing, eat specific foods, or engage in normal everyday activities, they are not being naughty or bratty. Disciplining or pleading with them to ‘just stop’ will not work. Children with autism experience true emotional and physical distress as a result of their symptoms, and unless whatever is bothering them is removed, there is no reasoning with them. When the frustration begins building, take an empathy pause, and try to truly understand what they are experiencing that is causing them to act out.
Fay D. Wallis is an operations manager for Kutest Kids Early Intervention Agency, an all-inclusive therapy center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She holds a master’s degree in clinical psychology and has more than 10 years experience as a licensed therapist. She’s very passionate about helping all children reach their maximum potential and making a difference in the community.