Autism plays havoc with the sensory system – sounds, smells, sights, touch, taste. Think of a sound that sets your teeth on edge, or lights that make you feel dizzy when you look at them, or a smell that makes you want to gag or cough. As an NT person, it’s annoying but usually managable.
With autism, it’s a whole nother story – mental/physical filters are not working effectively or not working at all, and it all becomes too much to bear. I read blogs by autistic people, I read the book “Loud Hands”, and there I found out more about sensory sensitivity. Sounds can be perceived to all be at the same volume. Imagine being at a restaurant and trying to have a conversation – but you can hear the clink of silverware on plates from EVERY table, people talking throughout the entire restuarant, the doors to the kitchen and bathrooms opening and closing, the front door opening and closing, noises from the kitchen, the soda machine whirring, the air conditioner humming, the lights buzzing and flickering. Just TYPING that made me feel overwhelmed, and I’m sure i missed something.
There are only so many options to escape the onslaught – withdrawal or act out. If you’re lucky, you can communicate about it with words; if not you can only hope someone is paying enough attention and understands enough to help you.
I had what I had considered a parenting fail very recently around a sensory issue. Post
My son isn’t sensory avoidant – he’s a seeker, but there are times when he is startled that he has what you’d call a “flight” reaction (like fight or flight) – he’ll curl up in a ball to feel safe (like in a tornado drill – which is probably where he learned the position). It seems so “overboard” a reaction to my NT adult mind and my NT senses. But one thing you learn from having a child on the spectrum is that our experiences of the world are different – and sometimes in a significant way.
A fellow blogger friend, and autistic adult corrected me – she called this a parenting win because my son trusted me enough to tell me what was happening and that I would take him seriously about it. This made me happy and sad at the same time because this isn’t the experience of many autistic people. Apparantly many autistic adults grew up where their exclamations / explanations were ignored, blown off, ridiculed, made light of, etc. This is sad – really, really sad.
Considering how little empathy they were shown by the NT people in their lives, it’s laughable [not]there is such a (false) perception that autistic people lack empathy .
The bigger sad is – this is so common of parents, of people in general. It happens all the time. How many of us have told our kids “it’s not too ____ !; “you shouldn’t feel so _____.”; “why are you so upset, it’s not that bad”. As an adult, how would you react if you said “I’m cold” and another adult argued with you about it. Just told you flat out you were wrong about how you feel – stunned? annoyed? incredulous? pissed? You might ignore them, but you’d probably argue with them because who do they think they are telling YOU how YOU feel! But if a child reacts to the same scenario, odds are, they’ll get punished for being disrespectful, talking back, etc.
Seriously, this is really ridiculous.
I already have a care-taker personality, so I tend to think of other people’s perspectives reflexively. I’ve made sure to do it with my own child (especially because I felt it wasn’t done for me). Having this attutiude of respect doesn’t mean we have to be push-over parents with our kids, give them everything, keep them happy, etc. We just have to understand why they are upset and respect their feelings. My son’s gonna feel disappointed because we aren’t going to get every toy he wants, but I’m not going to tell him not to feel sad if that’s how he feels (it’s not going to change my mind to get a toy – LOL ).
I’m not going to tell him that he doesn’t feel something/that his experience isn’t valid just because I’m not experiencing the same thing. Who am I to say something is NOT “too loud” or “too bright” or “startling” just because I don’t hear/see/feel it that way? I’m not going to make him wear a jacket because I’m cold.
It takes work, but it’s worth it. Is it too much to wish everyone could do this just a little bit?