ASD, Autism, parenting, Resilience, strategies

The Disappearing Child; What is sensory overload and strategies to cope?

Bear is prone to running off or totally disappearing. It left me in tears, scared I’d lost him forever, often five times a day until I started putting in some simple strategies to help us all. He still does disappear but not only has it reduced to one off occasions but I can manage my anxiety better.

One of the many shared traits of autism is sensory overload. During a overload your child can become violent, refuse to move, stand still and not respond to you, run off, scream and stim. Having a child doing any of these behaviours while you are out is one of the most distressing, difficult, painful experiences we as parents of children with autism go through, often daily. So what is going on for the child?

Here’s one of Bears disappearing stories.

When I used to go into town shopping with Bear and his younger brother I would lose him. Every single time.

We were in a supermarket on the main street. Bear was around 4 years old. We were standing at the checkout and I was packing the bags. I had a double buggy and my younger son Max was in the buggy. Bear was unusually right next to me. I asked him “You OK Bear?”  as I put my card into the machine. He even replied “Yes”. I typed my pin, looked to where he was but he wasn’t. I looked all around us. There’s a good view of the aisles and area around was open. But I couldn’t see him anywhere. Panic rose inside me. Where had he gone?

In the space it had taken me to type 4 numbers on the keypad he had vanished. I ran outside leaving my card in the machine, Max and buggy, and said something probably incoherently to the cashier about needing to find my son. My strategy at this point was always to check exits first.

I went out of the supermarket and looked up and down the main street. No Bear. There was a large lorry in front of me and the road was full of traffic. I walked up the street to the see round the corner but I couldn’t see him. I came back believing I’d need to call the police this time. I was about to go back into to the shop and search the aisles when I suddenly I asked the lorry driver if he had seen a small boy leave the supermarket moments before.

“Yes, he went up that way.” He told me. So I retraced my steps right round the corner and up to the very top of the street. I found him standing by the crosswalk.

I asked him what he was doing.

“Arrows.” He said, and I looked to see a sign post with arrows on them. As we returned to the shop, me shaking inside, I saw the other arrow pointing up the street.

Happily Max was still in his buggy, I apologised to the cashier and the queue, retrieved my card from the machine, gathered my shopping and left.

Do you recognise any of your own child’s behaviour in this story?

What factors are influencing and affecting our children to behave in such ways that are either dangerous or difficult to manage?

I believe Bear runs when he can no longer handle the input of information. Supermarkets are full of overwhelming  colours, sounds, people, smells, bright lights. It makes sense that it becomes too much and the need to get away is overpowering.

Bear gets out of these situations by just leaving. Fast. But there are many ways a child or even adult might deal with this and it’s rare to find a child with autism who will use words to tell us they can’t cope anymore.

The connection between behaviour meltdowns in a child (and adult) with Autism and sensory processing difficulties is now recognised as a major contributing factor. Many of the meltdown scenarios come on because of sensory overload. The classic child screaming in the supermarket that may appear to the untrained (overly judgemental) mind to be spoilt and over reacting can actually be a child in pain from the masses of sensory information flooding their brain. Strip lighting, bright colours everywhere, lots of unknown people moving around them, being bumped by people not paying attention, different smells, which is all too much for a child who can not filter information.

The Autistic brain does not respond to sensory stimuli in the same way as a Neuro Typical (NT) brain. Each autistic brain responds in its own unique way. To understand why a child is having a meltdown every time you enter a supermarket, friend’s house, school, train, car, public bathroom and complete the activity without a major meltdown there are several strategies you can use to improve the experience for you all.

First of all, remember meltdowns are generally caused by sensory overload. Your child isn’t running off because they are naughty. They aren’t screaming because they want to make a fuss. This is about them not being able to cope and as their parents we need to step in gently and take care of the situation.

If you reduce your expectations of what and how much your child is capable of doing in a visit or outing. Don’t be tempted to look at similar aged children and use them as a guideline for your own child. Go by what works for your child and yourself. I won’t take my son shopping and then go and visit a friend. One of these activities is enough. Both together will possibly produce a meltdown.

You can also try using positive distractions to reduce the sensory stimulus. Many parents use ear defenders to block sounds while out. I often keep my child focused on a task he really enjoys while we shop, like finding the ingredients for our next baking experiment. Bear loves food so I use the incentive of a snack to keep him moving.

If there are some things you can keep the same I recommend doing them the same way each trip. Maybe even go round the shop in the same way each time. Keeping things the same is reassuring for children with autism. I often go to 3 different shops and go to them in the same order or at least always finish shopping in the same shop. Normally where I can buy the boys a snack. This is big progress for us as when he was younger it was a one shop only policy for us.

The most important strategy I use is to reduce the sensory stimulus as quickly as is possible. I used to talk and talk to try to calm him down. Now I say almost nothing. Maybe I just tell him what is happening. Something like, “We are leaving now”.  Or even I just say “Hand” for him to hold my hand and we leave.

When in sensory overload less really is more.

By using a combination of these strategies I have managed to reduce how much he disappears when we go to the shops. I know that all the bright lights, colours, smells, sounds, people get too much for him and that he can’t filter any of it out.

How does your child respond when you go out shopping?

Have you found any similar strategies work to reduce the overload?

Comment below and share your story.

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