If you follow us on Facebook, you know that a lot of Aidan's autism “symptoms” relate to his sensory issues. If it's too loud or his clothes feel wrong or the lights are flickering or food tastes funny or feels funny then we might be headed for a meltdown. Sometimes he'll scoot around on the floor with his head down or spin in circles. These are all manifestations of what is sometimes called “sensory processing disorder”. A child doesn't have to be autistic to have sensory processing disorder, but most kids with autism do have some form of sensory processing issues. A lot of the autistic child's “stimming” comes as a result of their difficulties with sensory integration. Repetitive or stereotyped activities (flapping, spinning, lining up toys, headbanging, etc) are often a child's way of fulfilling sensory needs. Meltdowns are a child's reaction to sensory overload in many cases.
Imagine yourself at work in an important meeting. The chair you sit in feels more like the wood plank park bench which pinches your bottom and is uncomfortable to sit on for more than a couple of minutes and the back just doesn't feel right. You have gloves on your hands which make it difficult to receive enough stimulation to be able to type or write correctly. There are bright lights shining and maybe even flickering in your eyes making it hard to see your boss as he tries to talk to you during this meeting. There is loud music coming from outside the room as the janitor cleans, and someone is crackling paper right next to you and a fly is buzzing around your head incessantly. It's super cold in the room so you're shivering. You took a drink of what you thought was water because your mouth was dry and it tasted like lemon juice and now your mouth is puckered because it tasted so bad. What did your boss just ask you to write down?! You have no idea because every sense is being inundated with too much input. Your boss fusses at you for staring at him like he has two heads and you try to explain but are so distracted the words just won't come out because you can't think of what you need to say. He begins to get more angry which only frustrates you more until finally you lash out angrily at him, and since you can't speak coherently it just comes out as violent screaming and babbling. This is a day in the world of a child with autism or sensory processing disorder. It might not always be this severe, some days are worse than others, but every little thing makes it impossible to focus and may even be painful. For Aidan it sometimes means he needs earmuffs or sunglasses or to avoid certain places (Lowe's and Logans for example) all together.
Other children are the opposite – they need sensory input because they are hypo-sensitive. These are the children who bang their head against the wall, flap their hands, make loud noises, spin around in circles, or other “hyperactive” or strange behaviors. They may have meltdowns because they feel like they are floating or some other strange sensation. Deep pressure therapy can help these kids, or a sensory swing.
Aidan has a combination of both hyper-sensitivity and hypo-sensitivity and they can switch back and forth on him with no warning. One day every little sound hurts his ears and distracts him and he has to speak loudly himself just to be able to hear himself over every other sound in his environment. The next day he needs auditory input and everything has to be at the highest volume possible. Usually he can't express to me exactly what sensory input or avoidance he needs. Some days I'm not sure if his behavior is typical little boy acting out or if it's fulfilling a sensory need. I've asked him before about spinning or crawling on the floor with his head down or not acting right at school. Sometimes he tells me that his brain was itching or he needed to get the mad out or some other strange response.
Sensory processing disorder may look very different from one child to the next. One person might have to have all the tags cut out of their clothing and only be able to wear sweatpants and socks with no seams. Another might have poor sensory awareness of his muscles and joints and be extremely “klutzy” or a “spaz”. Yet another might have little to no reaction to pain, cold, hot, or other tactile sensations.
There are different therapies for children with Sensory Processing Disorder, usually falling under the auspice of “Occupational Therapy” and quite often NOT covered by insurance since SPD isn't a recognized syndrome in the DSM-IV (the diagnostic manual used by psychiatrists), and autism is considered by most insurance companies to be an educational rather than a neurological issue. At Aidan's school they have a separate room called a “sensory room” which has dim lights, cool air, soothing music, and lots of sensory input toys such as a ball pit, scarves, beanbags, and a trampoline.
Does your child (autistic or not) have sensory processing issues? SPD Foundation has a checklist available on their site to help you determine if it's possible.
Next time you see a child acting out or strangely, stop and take a look around you. Could it be too loud or bright or could they be feeling hypo-sensitive and need more input? Don't assume that a child is misbehaving out of poor discipline or lack of attention. While this may be the case sometimes, making this assumption can be disastrous and hurtful not only to the child, but also to a struggling parent who is trying to finish an errand while not offending or annoying those around them who simply assume they have a naughty or spoiled child and are a bad parent.