One of the million and three surprising things I recall learning as the mother of a newborn was that babies – even exhausted ones – have to be taught how to fall asleep. “Really?” I remember thinking. “Seriously??” Then our daughter was born…and trust me, I took the issue VERY seriously (see “To Sleep..Perchance to…Who Are We Kidding?”).
Here’s my ten-years-later summary of what I learned from my reading (while half-conscious):
Recognizing the discomfort of being tired, little ones first get grouchy and then fussy. As their biological need increases, so does the intensity with which they seek relief — in sucking, rocking, familiar smells or voices. But the truth of the matter is that while they feel the disconcerting irritability of growing weariness, their frustration grows, too – because they cannot “recognize” the discomfort and self-soothe.
That’s what I got from the book – and it made sense. But it wasn’t the whole story. Ten years later, here’s what I learned from life (completely conscious…usually):
The grouchy-to-meltdown pattern is particularly acute and enduring for kids who end up being diagnosed as on the spectrum (and boy did my daughter…and then both of her brothers prove the point!)…
Unlike their neurotypical peers, spectrum kids don’t easily accumulate and generalize the “problem solving skills” necessary to lull themselves to sleep. Instead, caregivers have to repeatedly teach their newborns, infants, toddlers AND children the same process.
- FIRST – recognize the physical messages their are bodies sending
- SECOND – “name” those messages (heavy eyelids, irritability, etc.)
- THIRD – (eventually independently) select a tool from an “arsenal” of learned solutions
That’s a whole lot more complicated than warm milk or “crying it out” (NOT good!). There’s an actual skill set involved – the first of many we need to break down and specify for our Asperkids.
Recently, our family attended the Autism Society of America’s National Conference, where I was presenting. But of all the kind exchanges that happened over the week, one in particular hit me as important to share…an “Aspie Insider” tip that I didn’t even realize I was doing!According to an ASA national board member and several teen and young adult youth advisors, they saw the O’Toole kids “ask for and explain what they need to get calm, how to leave an overwhelming situation politely, and accommodate their sensory needs independently.” OK, as a mom, of course I’m pleased and proud that my kids are gaining (and sometimes using) the tools they’ll need to succeed without me. As a professional, I’m excited to discover another “hidden in plain sight” little gem to share with you.
Teaching independent self-care doesn’t just include skills like paying bills and doing laundry. It means teaching spectrum kids to adjust their bodies and minds so that they can manage stress and anxiety and spend their energy on LIVING.
Every person on the HUMAN spectrum must LEARN how to:
1. RECOGNIZE his needs
2. ARTICULATE those needs
3. IDENTIFY & CHOOSE a solution
4. ACCESS that solution independently
If you are an Asperkid’s parent, you have already taught your kiddo to recognize and relieve the physical symptoms of hunger, thirst, and fatigue. Hopefully, you’ve also offered lots of options on how to respond when they feel those gnawing discomforts and made the environment amenable to independence (The Asperkid’s Launch Pad: Home Design to Empower Everyday Superheroes can help). That’s a great start.
For those of us on the spectrum, we have to learn to recognize and respond to the usual physical needs y’all have. But beyond those biological basics, Asperkids have more to learn. Why? Because the child in class who is being disruptive doesn’t want to be in trouble. The sibling who climbs all over family members doesn’t want to annoy everyone. More likely than not, they – we – are feeling”dysregulated” by our senses.
You may have heard this called Sensory Processing Disorder, Sensory Integration Disorder – whatever you call it, here’s the basic explanation: autism/Asperger’s is neurological – it has to do with the hard-wiring of our nerves and brains. Similarly, the body’s senses are also neurologicaly-based. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) causes difficulties with the way our brains receive and handle the information our brains receive via vision, auditory, touch, olfaction, and taste, as well as from the sense of movement (vestibular system), and/or the positional sense (proprioception). Sensory information is taken in normally (there’s no hearing or vision malfunction), but the different way our brains process that information causes distress, discomfort, a
Not every person with sensory processing challenges is on the spectrum – but every person on the spectrum does have sensory processing difficulties. And trust me, folks, form 37 years of daily life experience – this is no “made-up” complaint. It’s entirely real, entirely overwhelming, and FEELS entirely AWFUL. As a child, I remember being taken shoe shopping by my fashion-conscious (rather stern) grandmother. Two hours later, we left – without any shoes. I was in tears and my grandma was mortified. Every pair I’d tried had wrought a different complaint, and while I was merely being honest and trying not to waste her generosity on shoes that I wouldn’t wear, she and the salesman perceived my “oversensitivity” as bratty lack of gratitude. Every year, Halloween was disastrous, my mom reports. Itchy costumes made me miserable (her too, I’m sure). Trips to the beach were itchy and sandy. And heaven forbid there was an un-cut (or poorly cut out) tag in my shirt or shorts…there was nothing else on earth I could think about. But back then, there was no “SPD” or “Asperger’s” label for bright, articulate children — everyone simply decided I was a bossy, overdramatic, hypochondriac who couldn’t play well with others.
In truth, I was a child in real pain with no one to believe me and largely without friends…but desperately in want of them. That’s why we owe our children validation, resources and the skills to manage better.
The challenge in teaching kids how to handle sensory needs isn’t difficult solutions or resistant children. The catch in the system is neurotypical adults. To put it bluntly – it’s most of you, reading this article. Your “normalcy” is getting in the way!
After all, you’d never think to teach a child to “scratch” an “itch” that you, yourself, have never felt. No one has to teach parents to empathize with hunger or weariness or thirst. When a baby cries, those are the natural go-tos. We expect those problems, so we wonder aloud, “Are you hungry?”, teaching both sensation recognition and vocabulary as we do.
But no typical mom says, “Aw, Sweetie, are you feeling dysregulated?” Instead, neurotypical adults just see raw, “bad” behavior — the symptoms of sensory/emotional dysregulation, not of bad parenting or a bad child. For Aspie parents, on the other hand, considering “overstimulation” is utterly natural. I’ve said before that I never could make sense of people who would jangle things at my children or toss them around to try to stop their crying. If I were a baby, I’d be terrified! And, more often than not, my kids were only made more upset by the additional sensory discord well-meaning adults put “in their faces.” Instead of lights and keys and gizmos, my Asperkids needed deep pressure, rhythmic motion, and white noise. As an (albeit undiagnosed) Aspie, I sensed that.
I know, now, that my “normal” isn’t yours. So, think back. Remember the newborn who gradually went from unhappy to inconsolable because she couldn’t feed herself, change herself or put herself to sleep?
Asperkids’ reactions to sensory stressors will not change due simply to their advancing chronological age.
Learned compensatory strategies – not number of birthdays – make the difference between helplessness and success.
Let’s help them help themselves….
Step 1: RECOGNIZE
I can’t overstate this reality: when we feel either under-stimulated or overstimulated, Aspies physically CANNOT reason, listen, or think about anything else. We can’t learn. We can’t rationalize well. We can’t hear others’ needs. It’s like trying to see your own reflection in a pot of boiling water. Nothing is clear. BEFORE you can empower your children, you have to learn to recognize signs of their sensory dysregulation. Any of the following should alert you to intensifying sensory needs (for either more or less stimulation, depending upon the child, the day and the situation): CLICK TO ENLARGE
Step 2: ARTICULATE
Asperkids don’t know to look for or identify sensations that, to them, are as omnipresent and seemingly-universal as hunger or thirst is to you! Imagine being famished and having to listen to a lesson on fractions. Or having desperately to use the restroom and explain Shakespeare. Asperkids are constantly being required to experience strong emotions and explain how they are feeling. Tough stuff.
You can, however, make a big difference in helping an Asperkid articulate her needs. Essentially, in calm moments, you need to draw her conscious attention to an always-been, always-known physical experience…and help her describe it in words, colors or pictures.
- Print out or draw a simple outline of a body
- Ask the Asperkid to circle or color or describe what it FEELS LIKE inside her body when others see those “outside” behaviors (above) – offer crayons, magazines to clip from, or a thesaurus with vivid adjectives
- Need a suggestion to get your translation work started? Black circles around the eyes could indicate tunnel vision. Squiggly lines in the legs might represent anxiety. A green swirl in the belly might be nausea.
You are teaching self-awareness and identification of biological experience…and that’s the first step toward independence. It’s just the same as saying to our littlest ones, “Aww…you’re hungry! See? Doesn’t your tummy feel better now?” You’ve long since taught that a rumbling, empty sensation means hunger – next, she learned that she needed to ask for or go get food. This is no different. By teaching an Asperkid to identify her own body’s sensory-related messages, she can also learn to express discomfort and obtain what she needs to feel better.
3. IDENTIFY & CHOOSE A SOLUTION
Katniss Everdeen wouldn’t want to enter the arena with one arrow in her quiver. And Harry Potter needed to know more than “Reducto!” to survive. No one sensory solution will always work, work for every kid, or always be available – so like Katniss and Harry, Asperkids need options. Here are some great ones…with a DEAL, too!
THE ASPERKIDS COLLECTION (Chillax, Fashionable Fidgeting & Arm Candy)
“Fidgets,” kooshes and Stress balls (Watch as Maura, my eldest Asperkid, explains her need to fidget on England’s The Chrissy B Show)
Chewing gum (two sticks at a time)
Body Brushing (My kids LOVE this – here’s a How To)
Sugar free hard candies
Drinks (especially thick, cold smoothies) through a straw
Long walks or runs (repetitive motion)
Noise-canceling headphones (keep a pair at school and always travel with them!)
Bean bag chairs
Bouncing (we have a trampoline in our living room AND backyard!)
Weighted Blankets/Vests/Stuffed animals
Irlen colored lenses or colored velum overlays (reduce visual fatigue)
Climbing (trees or indoor wall/mountain climbing)
Pounding – clay, play dough, hammer/nails
Playing catch with a weighted ball or heavy pillow
Human burrito (swaddle in a blanket and roll back and forth)
Hot showers or baths
Locks, keys & switches
Homemade obstacle courses including over, under, pulling, pushing, spinning, climbing, bouncing
Pushing – wheelbarrows, grocery carts – anything HEAVY
Playing in sensory bins of rice, beans or popcorn
Scented Candles and FUN scents (Like our Play-Dough or Paperback scents!)
SPECIAL ASPERKIDS BONUS:
www.FunAndFunction.com (one of my favorite providers of sensory products) is offering Asperkids fans a special 10% off of coupon on EVERYTHING on their awesome site: body brushes, swings, spinners, ballpits, chew toys & pencil toppers, even aromatherapy! Just enter ASPERKIDS as your coupon code at checkout.
4. ACCESS A SOLUTION
Having Aspergers, autism, ADD/ADHD and/or sensory processing disorder are real, MEDICAL diagnoses. Therefore, any school MUST make accommodations that include multiple tools which a student can access (discretely and independently) – regardless of what rules apply to other pupils. You are not asking for favors. You are expecting the “ramp” for the “wheelchair” – the access route necessary for your child to learn.
Here’s what to do to build that “ramp”:
- Use special interests to make hard tasks more palatable. (The Asperkid’s Not-Your-Average-Coloring Book)
- Look for ways to secretly build sensory work into play (How about 300 pages of unique ideas? The Asperkid’s Game Plan: Purposeful Play, Extraordinary Minds…Ordinary Stuff
- Allow your Asperkid to experiment with various strategies and assemble favorites into a toolkit that can be kept in a desk, locker, cubby or even on her person.
- Share with ALL teachers what kinds of behaviors indicate rising sensory stress in your Asperkid. MISSED BEHAVIORS BECOME “MISBEHAVIOR” that are the adults’ responsibility to help the student NOTICE and manage, NOT to punish after the fact.
- Ensure that substitute teachers will be notified – that’s not the student’s job.
- Create a plan with the teacher that enables your Asperkid to access his toolkit (in a pencil case, etc), use a gel, inflated seat cushion or exercise ball seat or pace/stand (in the back of the room) WITHOUT having to disrupt a lesson or draw attention to himself.
- Create a plan for “escape” to a quiet place (the library, a counselor’s office, etc) when emotions get too overwhelming. The Asperkid should be able to turn in a “pass” or ticket without making his need known to peers.
- Create a similar “escape” at home (see The Asperkid’s Launch Pad for details) and stock fidgets everywhere
- With a common goal toward independence, suggest a private reward chart where teachers can acknowledge the student for recognizing his needs and using his toolbox without prompting.
- Be sure to actively point out the positive social and academic results of identifying and responding to her needs rather than becoming upset or disruptive.
- Print this article and be sure your teacher reads it! “I Can’t See! It’s Too Loud!”
“That’s astounding – it was almost instant!” my son’s psychologist exclaimed last week as he went from kicking and rambunctious to willing and participatory. What was so astounding? I used the body brush for a few moments – regulating his system, and then giving him some gum so he could continue to think more clearly. Fidgeting, squirming, thrashing – many of the negative behaviors the world associates with our kids are really just “bigger” versions of a grumbly tummy. The body is communicating loudly – not asking for food, but for protection from or more of the sensory input the brain needs. By occupying their senses as our kids need, we create a balance of sensory-motor (movement) stimulation that allows better focus, more emotional calm, and deeper concentration. And by teaching them to recognize, name, and independently “scratch the itch,” we not only make them more self-reliant…we remind them of the most important message we (or any gal in a bubble) will ever communicate: