Our children with autism often struggle with sensory issues. They may pick up on the subtle flickering of the fluorescent lights in public spaces when we have never bothered to notice. Clothing can be a big issue whether it’s needing to wear socks wrong side out, have tags removed, or not be able to tolerate waist bands. I went through several years of my son only wearing bib overalls. Yet at the same time they may crave compression garments and feel calmed by them. As neurotypical parents, this may baffle and confuse us. Especially when our child is having a meltdown for what seems like no apparent reason.
It can be incredibly difficult when we’re in a stressful environment, our child seemingly falls apart out of nowhere, and all we want is to escape all of the negative looks and stares from the strangers around us. Learning about our child’s own sensory issues can help when we’re out and about. Either we can prepare our child or ourselves, such as having noise blocking headphones or a chewy with us, for anything that may be a trigger for them. We can prepare our child by explaining to them what the outing is that’s coming up. Some may understand verbally, but others may need pictures or an example of a similar outing. Social stories can work well with this, too.
In the moment, when nothing seems to be working, do your best to stay calm. Take a deep breath. Ignore everyone else around you. Connect with your child. Continue with the slow deep breathing, they’re likely to match your breathing. Do what soothes your child whether it’s rocking, giving them a chewy, or my son would find calmness when his arms or legs were gently brushed with a soft baby brush. Remember, you are your child’s safe space. Yes, that means that they’re safe showing their more difficult side, but it’s also where they can find calmness when everything feels out of sorts for them. The picture above is not me and my son, but it could be. There were times when we were out and about and if that’s what he needed when he was struggling, I would sit down wherever we were to rock and cuddle him.
When we’re parents of young autistics, we struggle just to keep afloat! I was grateful during that time period to have a consultant readily available to vent to and get her insight and we could often quickly pinpoint what may have set my son off or at least have a few ideas to give a try. Almost thirty years later, that’s what I provide for my clients. Whether you need to vent and have a safe space to talk about what you’re going through, or you need ideas on what may be causing your child’s meltdown in order to soothe your child, I’m here to help.
Back to the sensory issues. Many times when our children feel irritated, they’re not sure of the source, but we can certainly see that something is bothering them. I realized very early on that my son did not recognize when he was hungry. Not recognizing he was hungry, he wasn’t able to tell me he needed to eat. Once I figured that out, I kept snacks available for him at home that he could see throughout the day. It might be a bowl of fruit on the table, some cut up raw vegetables I would leave in a bowl near where he was playing, or a small box of non-perishable snacks in the car.
My son is now 30, lives on his own, has a career, and is successful in nearly every way possible. A few years ago when we lived in different provinces he came to visit for several days. In some ways it was a difficult visit because we were in lockdown. We weren’t able to get out and do a lot because of the closures, but we made the best of it by going for drives and watching documentaries, one of our favourite things to do together. At some point I could tell he was becoming incredibly irritated. We’re typically very close and get along well, but everything I said he had a negative response, which isn’t his usual demeanor. This meltdown resulted in him letting me know the visit was a waste of time. It was then that I realized he was hungry. I suggested he order some delivery and I put some food in front of him to snack on until the food arrived and all was right with the world again. Although, when I dropped him at the airport he asked to never visit during lockdown again. He had a point and you have to love the honesty that comes with autism!