Individuals with Asperger’s and autism frequently struggle with both social skills and sensory issues. More than just two separate symptoms of autism spectrum disorders, these situations interact with and build on each other. Difficulties in managing intense sensory inputs can make it terribly tough for children to focus on social connections. And, a few sensory overload meltdowns can mean that a child is quickly labeled by the other kids as a misfit and social outcast.
Let’s first look at a typical school setting. Classrooms are bright and cluttered, filled with posters and bulletin boards, blinking fluorescent lights and smelly animal cages. And then the bell goes off every 45 minutes. The classroom doesn’t compare to the sensory overload of lunchtime and recess, where hundreds of children are all talking at once, eating lots of different smelling foods and then running around and yelling outside. All this input can be too much for a child with sensory integration issues.
For many neurotypical kids, lunch and recess function as breaks in the school routine, a chance to shift focus, relax from the academic pressures, socialize and have fun. This may not be the case with teens and children on the autism spectrum, where the sensory overload and lack of structure can make this the most stressful part of the day. When the sensory issues are so overwhelming, there’s little capacity left to focus on interpreting and sending appropriate social signals, much less any chance to take a break.
So what can you do to help your child? It’s important to understand your child’s environments at school. For younger students, you can often volunteer as a classroom, lunchroom and recess assistant, and can readily see your child in the school environment. For older kids, having a parent hovering nearby may be a social detriment, but you may be able to check out the classroom, lunchroom, and playground when other age ranges are using them. Focus on sensory issues, especially things you know are issues for your child.
It’s also important to look for clues to sensory overload. If your child is having meltdowns at school, pay attention to when and where they’re occurring. When I worked as a school therapist, I knew that rainy day lunchtimes in a crowded cafeteria were the most difficult environments for many of the students. Lots of them would act out on those days. Some kids don’t fall apart while they’re being overwhelmed, they seem to hold on until things calm down and then show their struggles with tears, tantrums, or withdrawn behavior.
Ideally, kids will stay with the rest of the students and have a chance to interact and socialize. Something as simple as permission to wear sunglasses may make this possible. But, if the environment is simply overwhelming, it might be necessary to make some accommodations. Maybe your child will need to eat in a quiet classroom or the office before heading out to the playground, or be allowed to go to the library instead of the playground after lunch. Socializing is important, but so is the opportunity to regroup and calm down. Think seriously about what would work best for your child, and remember that it’s better to have 10 minutes of positive socializing than 45 minutes of sensory overload.
For more information on understanding and managing sensory issues, Zosia Zaks’ Life and Love: Positive Strategies for Autistic Adults, (2006, Autism Asperger Publishing Co.) is a wonderful resource. Although its written for adults, the author includes an insightful explanation of what’s happening during sensory overload situations and many useful strategies for how to manage these situations. You can find a full review of this book in my blog Coach for Asperger’s.
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Patricia Robinson MFT
I'm a licensed therapist in Danville, California and a coach for Asperger's and ADHD nationwide. I work with individuals of all ages who have special needs, like Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADD, ADHD, and the family members and partners of special needs individuals.