I don’t know what percentage of our day is concerned with managing our J-Man’s sensory challenges, but I’m sure it’s a lot. Just about every autistic child I know struggles with one or more of their major senses even under ‘normal’ conditions. Of course, this can make already stressful situations when they occur even more unbearable.
If you’ve been on the autism road for a while as a parent, you know that managing and helping calm these sensory challenges can mean all the difference between successfully accomplishing something and your child coming undone. I don’t think I’m overstating things when I say that these sensory issues are the knife edge so much of their lives is balanced upon, and it doesn’t take much to knock them over that edge.
One of the things that parents new to autism in their families need to make sure they understand is that these sensory issues are very real and may be very painful to your child. It can be difficult to understand why something bothers your child so much as it sometimes doesn’t seem logical to us. Why would a fabric, for example, that most of us wear every day cause a child to be in agonizing pain? Sensory challenges are particularly hard to appreciate and figure out for people who don’t really have them. In time, you will figure out more and more about what bothers your child even if you don’t get the why behind it.
However, there will be many people in your family and circle of friends who will continue to think your child is overreacting and that you are coddling them by catering to their sensory needs. In what I think is a mantra you should hang on your wall, “It doesn’t matter a microscopic damn what they think.”
So when things come undone for your child – whether it’s in a store, a family gathering, a supposedly low-key night at home, or anywhere else – there is frequently a strong sensory component to it. When you call upon your arsenal of calming techniques – which you should always be adding to and refining – these sensory issues will often be the first thing you address.
Like with pain management for any of us, it’s important to stay ahead of the pain by proactively managing it. Once it gets away from you, it can spiral down in a hurry. So your best calming technique is to watch for the early warning signs and head things off before your child loses their ability to cope with a situation. It’s much, much harder to help bring them back than it is to try to manage it from the beginning.
However, that’s easier said that done. Even with our best efforts, things are going to fall apart. Expecting our kids to manage the sensory bombardment they face every day is like expecting them to climb Mt. Everest. So then what?
Every child is different, so there’s no right formula for how to do this. It comes with experience and a healthy dose of analysis. Make notes of situations in which your child really struggles. Think about things in the environment where the problems occurred and look for commonalities. Some may be obvious (e.g., public places that are crowded and noisy) others may be much less so (e.g., stores that contain a lot of the color red).
Start by thinking about what you can do to help calm – even a little – the things that cause your child distress before things spiral into a big problem for them. For example, can you go shopping at a less crowded time of the day, such as mid-morning? If so, can you use that time to practice shopping trips? You could structure the trip to the store, say you’re going to get three things and visually present that to your child, get them, check out, and leave – little trial trips to the store to help your child hopefully grow in comfort.
I’ll tackle a sense that has always been an issue for us, and one that can present challenges for both child and parent in numerous contexts – proprioception. Then I’ll say something about how various techniques have helped us help our J-Man in stressful situations.
But you might need a definition for proprioception first, especially since it’s a sense many of us take for granted. Proprioception is essentially your body awareness sense. It helps you know where you are in space. To give some simple examples, if you’re standing up, it helps you know you’re standing, where your body is, and that your feet are on the ground. If you’re sitting, it helps you know your body is in the seated position and in contact with your chair. Sounds trivial, but if you’ve ever had this sense of falling when you’re in bed at night, you might have some idea of what it feels like when your sense of being horizontal and in contact with your bed goes away. It startles and scares you. Now imagine life being like that for long periods of time, all the time, and not just for a split second right before you go to sleep.
One of the best ways to deal with an underdeveloped proprioceptive sense is to help your child feel more aware of their bodies. This can be wonderfully calming both in everyday situations as well as stressful ones. Our J-Man responds to deep body pressure and ‘heavy work’, lifting or moving heavy objects around. A lot of autistic children I know benefit from techniques in both of these areas. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. If you’re standing up in a room and then someone hands you 50 pounds of sand to hold, you’re going to be a lot more aware of your body and how much more you’re pushing against the floor. Obviously some children will hate it, and it’ll be the exact opposite of what they need. As with everything, you have to tailor a plan specific to the needs of your child.
Deep pressure involves a wide variety of activities that apply some sort of additional force to the child’s body. Our J-Man responds to firm pressure applied to a large portion of his body. Some examples of things we do or have done in the past:
* Full body hugs and squeezes
* Carrying him upright in your arms like you would hold a baby to your shoulder
* ‘Squishes’ where he essentially lays down on the floor, couch, or chair and we lean our body weight on him
* ‘Burrowing’ which he usually initiates by crawling in behind you while you’re sitting on a couch or chair
* Piling blankets and pillows on him, sometimes while leaning on him and the pile
* Joint compressions (with or without brushing) – Click for YouTube video. This is similar to what we’ve done with a few variations.
* His car seat – he likes the coziness of his car seat, which is still a five-point harness in a seat that wraps around him more than a lot of kids’ seats
* Pea Pod – something that looks like a kid-sized inflatable boat that he can sit or burrow in
* Wrapping him in something like a blanket
Obviously this list isn’t comprehensive. You could also try a compression vest or compression clothing. For those of you who’ve watched the Temple Grandin movie, the squeeze machine is based on this whole concept of deep pressure.
And here are some examples of heavy work. These are more pre-emptive calming techniques that we could use to try to head off potential meltdowns, but they can work well when things start getting stressful.
* Letting him pull on something heavy that will be hard (or even impossible) to move – pulling a wagon filled with books, for example
* Letting him carry heavy objects like encyclopedias and phone books
* Letting him rearrange furniture
* Wearing heavy, cloppy shoes – he wears these heavy, all-terrain, Stride Rite shoes, which add weight and give him a lot of feedback through his feet. I know plenty of kids who wear heavy shoes and work boots.
* Weighted vest – Simply a vest with weights built into it to apply some uniform, downward weight to your child that they wear around for a while. We don’t use one now, but we did for a while. Note: You should only use this under the supervision of an occupational therapist.
These are just some ideas that have been great sensory calming aids for us. As always, your mileage may vary. Your friendly, neighborhood occupational therapist should have a wealth of information about sensory challenges and sensory defensiveness, proprioception and all the other senses, and the huge variety of things you can try to help your child in difficult situations.
Luckily for us, our J-Man is resilient. Once removed from a stressful situation (extreme example – the dentist), he recovers quickly, but he has to get out of there first. If he can get to a ‘safe space’ when things are bad for him, he can regroup admirably. Last dentist trip, once we got back into the car and got him in his car seat, he started to relax. Eventually he just shut down (went to sleep, but mostly just shut off) for about 15 minutes before we pulled in our driveway. It’s amazing how much he’s learned about helping himself through tough situations. Our kids can teach us a lot about what they need!
There’s a lot of trial and error involved in finding the right formulas to help your child in various situations, and what might work in one context may not in another. I doubt this is a news flash to many of you, though. There’s never a straight path from Point A to Point B! But start by identifying the senses that your child has the most difficulty managing, look for how those senses are negatively triggered in various situations, and then try everything you can think of to address them. In time, you’ll develop your ‘go to’ list of things to try in familiar and new situations.
If you stay totally centered on your child and learning what’s hard on them and what helps them feel better, you will figure a lot of things out. Remember, it’s not about whether you really understand (though it does help) why something upsets them or helps them, it’s that it does. Bounce ideas off therapists, teachers, and other parents. They can help you see some things you might have missed. In the end, you want to be able to head things off before they get bad, and if you can’t, then have ways to bring things back when they start spiraling down. It’s a challenge, but we’re used to that!