Providing comfort to kids with sensory issues and autism can be an incredible challenge. We often have to go against our instincts because the basic comforts we understand can feel more like a threat or an assault to someone whose senses are always on high alert, the ones that process emotions and changes differently than those of people without those same issues.
For instance, your instinct might be to hug a child who is obviously agitated and is showing signs of distress. A hug is something that would help you if you were upset, right? For a child with autism–especially if it is extreme–touch, even gentle touch, feels violent. So how do you help the kids you know to stay calm? How do you soothe them when they are distressed or upset? How do you quell that internal storm?
Acknowledge Your Humanity
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about dealing with people who suffer from autism, Aspergers, synesthesia and other sensory issues is that we honestly can’t understand how their brains and emotions work. Over time, as you get to know someone, you’ll learn their triggers and how to predict basic behaviors, but you can’t mitigate every potential issue because, often, you won’t know what it is. Remember to do your best but try to refrain from beating yourself up if you get it wrong sometimes. The person you are trying to help will sense your stress and that could exacerbate the situation.
Take Away Known Stressors
Things that are mild annoyances to non-autistic people can be huge problems for people who suffer from the disorder. For instance, many of us don’t even feel the seams in our clothing. For some kids with autism, however, those seams can be a source of constant stress. This is why parents and designers like SmartKnitKids have worked together to create seamless clothing that is soft to the touch so that the very sensitive skin of an autistic child won’t be constantly irritated.
Have you ever heard of the hug machine? It has a fascinating history and has proven immensely helpful to people with Aspergers, autism, etc. It is a machine that provides even and gentle compression to encourage the brain to release the same hormones that are released when people are hugged or lovingly touched by people they trust. You might not be able to afford a hug machine–and it isn’t really recommended for very young children–but studies have shown that compression clothing can be quite helpful for children with sensory issues. Just make sure that the compression clothing you buy was built specifically for children with sensory issues. The compression clothing you buy can be too much for little bodies.
Dealing with Noise
Often what sends autistic children into a meltdown is their inability to process all of the different auditory stimulation coming at them when they are outside of the home. They have a hard time processing that along with all of the different visual stimulations out there. One good way to mitigate this is to have the child wear noise cancelling headphones. This dampens the auditory distractions and allows them to concentrate on fewer senses at a time.
Having a safe and secure space handy is invaluable to children dealing with autism. You should take care to create spaces wherever they go that they know are good retreats. For example, set up the area around your child’s car seat (if they still use one, the back seat will do if they’ve outgrown their car seats) with items they love so that if they have a meltdown during a trip to the store, you can take them outside and keep them in the car with you until they calm down.
Work with doctors and teachers who understand this same need so that if they get overwhelmed at school or seeing a doctor they’ll know that there is somewhere in the classroom or exam room into which they can retreat.
And, of course, that pop-up tent you don’t want to carry into a store can prove invaluable during play dates or visits to friends or family’s homes.
Learn to recognize the warning signs of distress. This way you’ll be better able to distract the child early on, before the distress escalates into a meltdown. Carry a means of distraction with you so that, even in an unfamiliar environment, you’ll be prepared to stem the tide, so to speak.
We always want to be and do the best for our children, however, autistic kids have very specific needs and exhibit many behaviors that we might never be able to understand. Learning how to help them feel safe and protected in the world is a big job but we are confident you can do it.