Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a wide range of conditions characterized by difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication, socialization, and other repetitive behaviors. The disorder is referred to as a “spectrum” because no two children with ASD are alike. Moreover, it manifests differently in every child, which highlights the individual’s unique strengths and challenges.
Children with ASD are unique in that they utilize repetitive behaviors to help regulate themselves. For example, people move their body to reduce tension throughout the day. This may look like tapping your foot, rocking in your chair, or clicking a pen repeatedly. Typically developing children may exhibit these repetitive behaviors when feeling nervous such as when taking a test or meeting new people for the first time. However, children diagnosed with ASD may utilize these repetitive behaviors when feeling overwhelmed, which can be quite often.
A person with Autism can quickly become inundated with sensory information. They are most sensitive to taste first, then auditory stimuli. Within the environment, there are various sensory stimulation that you and I may not even register. This may include the hum of the overhead lighting, a soft “whoosh” of the wind, or gentle vibrations from the washing machine. We don’t register these sensations because we can automatically filter them out. Isn’t that fascinating? The way the brain does this is by comparing past information to information that enters the brain. Then your response or reaction is based on that comparison of experiences. A person with Autism often cannot do this. As a result, every experience is brand new, and there is little interconnectivity between their senses and the surrounding environment. In addition, a child with Autism may also have difficulty dialing down the intensity of that sensory stimulus. To cope with this, he may engage in repetitive behaviors more frequently. This is important to recognize as a parent, caregiver, or teacher of a child with ASD because it is a reminder that there is always a reason behind a child’s behaviors. If your child is engaged in a repetitive behavior, it may be a signal to you that he is overwhelmed with the sensory stimulation around him.
It can be a very challenging experience for this sensory overload to occur while out in public places, like the grocery store or shopping mall. It’s nearly impossible to get anyone to a calmer state just by talking, and it is especially difficult to do with a child diagnosed with Autism because they are sensitive to sound. It’s recommended to separate the child from the overwhelming environment or give the child items to separate him or herself from the environment. That could mean providing them with earplugs or headphones to block out the noise so they don’t become as overwhelmed in the public space. Being creative with how you can help your child cope with the stimulating environment can go a long way in helping him feel less stressed.
Every person with Autism is special in his or her own way, and through patience, keen observations, and sometimes an objective eye, you can learn what your child needs to help interpret and regulate him or herself. There are many famous people, such as renowned mathematician Albert Einstein, who are believed to have a diagnosis of Autism. These individuals have contributed tremendously to society as a whole, and we would certainly not be where we are today without them! Your family member with a diagnosis of ASD is significant to society in his own unique way.
For more information, you can read the following blog posts in this series.
Barthel, K. (May 2017). Autism from the Inside Out [Lecture]. Hosted by Therapeutic Services Inc.