We are bombarded with a constant stream of sensory information every single micro second of the day. It is our brain’s job to interpret and organise this sensory information, make meaning of it and produce an appropriate motor output or emotion.
Take a moment to think about all the sensory input you are currently blocking out to read this article. Are you blocking out certain noises that you can now bring your attention to because I have made you ‘aware’ of them? The human brain is amazing! A well functioning brain will ‘tune out’ to unimportant sensory information. The brain has to prioritise and be selective in the amounts of sensory input it processes and responds to, to avoid a bombardment of sensations and information overload.
Children with autism however, commonly experience difficulty organising, processing and filtering the sensory input. They may not have the ability to ‘tune out’ to the unimportant sensory information such as a tag on a t-shirt, the bright fluorescent light or the hum of the air conditioner.
For many children on the autism spectrum the world is too bright, too loud, too scratchy, too fast or too smelly. The world is confusing, unpleasant and in many cases deeply irritating.
Does your child experience challenges with brushing their teeth, combing their hair, cutting their toenails, eating certain textures, the sound of the vacuum, the blender, or wearing woollen jumpers? These everyday experiences can trigger an eruption of emotions in a child who has difficulty processing sensory information. It can cause a meltdown of hitting, biting, kicking, screaming or crying behaviours because the sensory experience is SO overwhelming and SO deeply irritating.
These so called ‘difficult’ behaviours are completely involuntary (and misunderstood). The response to a perceived threat is automatic and the child loses control over their body, just as you would if you were frightened in a dark alley way. You would probably jump, scream, run, kick or cry. Well, the hitting, kicking, screaming and maladaptive behaviours that form part of a sensory meltdown are not ‘bad behaviours’, rather, the child’s default mechanism because they are living in a constant state of stress. They are always on high alert, waiting for the next loud noise to startle them or the next repulsive smell to trigger a gag reflex.
When a child is constantly in this heightened state of arousal, and their body is constantly geared for fight, flight or freeze, it is no wonder why these children aren’t paying attention in class. It starts to make perfect sense why they can’t listen well, follow instructions, play appropriately or sit still and complete their work like every other child in the classroom. Put plain and simply, it is just not their priority! Their priority is survival. They are focussed so intensely on the deeply irritating sensory experience, that following instructions and paying attention is not even on their radar. There is just no way a child is able to take in new information for learning if the tag on the back of their shirt feels like a spider, the fluorescent light is blinding like strobe light or the air conditioner hum sounds like a mosquito stuck in their inner ear. No way!
When we come from this place of understanding and start to view life through their eyes, the behavioural outbursts start to make much more sense.
Your job as the parent is to be the detective and investigate what exactly is going on. Next time your child goes into shut down mode, has a meltdown or runs away and hides under a table, I want you to ask yourself “what is the trigger”? When you can identify the trigger you can put an action plan in place.
These are the red flags that your child is over responsive to sensory input.
- Tactile: dislikes messy play, resists brushing teeth or hair, picky eater, resists wearing certain clothing (long sleeves, socks, hats, shoes), avoids walking barefoot, walks on tiptoe, resists having fingernails or toenails cut, dislikes water on the face or washing hair.
- Movement: dislikes movement based activities, fear of heights, dislikes car rides.
- Proprioception: dislikes active games (which may involve running, hopping, skipping or jumping), avoids hugs, rigid and tense.
- Visual: over-responds to sunlight or fluorescent lights, avoids eye contact, gets distressed by flickering lights.
- Auditory: reacts negatively or over reacts to loud unexpected sounds, over reacts to daily household noises (vacuum cleaner, lawn mower, toilet flushing).
- Smell: over reacts to certain odours, smells odours others don’t notice
- Taste: picky eater & limited diet, over reacts, gags or refuses certain food or food textures, prefers bland foods, preference for hot or cold foods.
The short term goal is to reduce the sensory input in the environment (where possible) which triggers the challenging behaviours.
The long term goal is to increase your child’s tolerance to the unpleasant stimulus in a safe and controlled environment. For example, if your child experiences massive anxiety every time they hear the school bell, record the sound on your phone and get them to listen to the recording at the lowest possible volume (and even at the other side of the room if necessary) until they can gradually increase the volume so they can tolerate it without experiencing feelings of stress.
You Can Make a Difference
The most important take home message I want you to remember is to RESPECT your child’s experience. It is VERY REAL to them.
And finally, remember that when you are empowered with knowledge and understanding, YOU can make a difference from homebase.
With love and hope,