Your Primer for Understanding ASD:
The Environmental Link
Most people with Asperger’s or ASD are extremely sensitive to their environment.
One theory (and one which I feel has some real validity, in my experiences with Lauris) is that there are extra nerve endings, either in the brain itself, or in the sensory organs (ears and eyes in particular). These cause the person to receive more information than ‘normal’ people would, in a room with fluorescent lights, for example, or in a space with a lot of ambient noise or movement (like a mall or store). The result that it is not unusual for someone with Asperger’s or ASD to be brought to a point of complete inability to function when over-stimulated.
Either light or movement can cause a complete breakdown of brain function in an extremely sensitive individual. This can make traditional schooling or daycare especially difficult for ASD children. As adults, there is a need to find a quiet workplace with compatible lighting and minimized sound and movement in their immediate work area.
Most people on the spectrum are light sensitive, especially to fluorescents. This sensitivity can be such that for some people, it causes almost physical pain. It will be distracting at the least; in severe cases this sensitivity can completely immobilize their brain. It is at the point of entering school that many people with light and movement sensitivities are MIS-DIAGNOSED as having ADD, and put on inappropriate drugs. It is PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE for a child with Asperger’s or ASD to focus in the presence of the wrong lighting and/or other sensory assaults. Often these are the people who get no benefits from the drugs; giving them a drug to ‘calm’ them does not help because the real problem has not been recognized or addressed.
Best option: Place them in the room where they are next to a window filled with natural light. At home, use natural spectrum light bulbs.
An example would be several people doing different things next to them, as is common in school; or in a busy office with traditional cubicle spaces. A “normal” person just ignores the activity around them and focuses on their task. With Asperger’s or ASD, their brain can’t ignore the distractions. Often, they can’t process the incoming information, and can literally turn ‘off’. This might appear as a refusal or inability to focus—but the real issue is why they cannot focus!
The person with this type of sensitivity may do very poorly in group activities where everyone is moving around. To add to their difficulty, most people with autism can’t read body language! What appears to be a stubborn refusal to play or engage with others is often really confusion and distress coupled with an inability to verbalize what is going on.
It is not uncommon for these children to be the kids who do well outside in gym class, but completely break down in a large, poorly-lit and echoing gymnasium.
They most often hate team sports—and with good reason! Try to figure out what to do when the main ‘language’ is physical—and you cannot read it!
Best option: Be in the front of the class, where perceived movement is minimized; be in smaller classes or offices, with walls. Accept that these kids may not do well at indoor or team sports, and encourage their physical activity where they seem to enjoy it.
Parents of children with Asperger’s or ASD often recognize early that there sound sensitivities with their child.
They may have a hyperactive startle response to various kinds of noises.
Others walk around acting deaf as a coping mechanism, because they have had to tune out the excessive noise around them.
Asperger’s and ASD adults with auditory sensitivities might find themselves unable to carry on conversations in noisy or busy places. They may have a hard time staying on task or concentrating in an office cubicle setting that allows noise to carry between spaces.
Loud sounds, sudden sounds, or even just several sources of sound at the same time, can cause actual pain and distress. Watch for the signs of this type of sensitivity. The person may zone out in defense, appearing to refuse to respond; at the other end, they may act out, first being agitated then even angry.
A middle ground between sensory deprivation and a noisy, chaotic environment needs to be found and maintained whenever possible. Exposing the child to dozens of screaming children at daycare may not always be the best option for the child with ASD. For adults, keep your work area in a quiet, naturally lit corner; use headphones if they are helpful.
Best Option: A child will be best in the front of the room, where sound is not echoing around her. Smaller rooms and classes are best. For other situations, try using headphones or earbuds to cut noise and see if that is helpful.
People with Asperger’s or ASD often have difficulty with tactile stimulation. They may startle when touched or feel uncomfortable when held. They may be overwhelmed when wearing new clothing that their body hasn’t become accustomed to. Often they prefer certain textures of clothing, such as soft, loose cotton; and certain fits, usually very loose.
Not only is having an understanding of the common problems necessary, but you will have to deal with trial and error regarding the specific problems your child has.
They often hate clothes, or can only wear certain types of garments or fabrics. They are not being stubborn or unreasonable! For some of these kids, the sensitivity is such that certain fabrics, styles of clothing, literally cause them pain. For example, new clothing may need to be washed a few times until they are softer and easier to wear.
Some female children cannot tolerate the rubbing of their legs together and so need to wear pants and not dresses.
By paying attention to this and honoring their sensitivities, it actually helps to reduce their stress levels. This will help them to cope with other areas of stress that they must endure, such as school or even work.
Best option: I STRONGLY recommend only natural fabrics, like cotton. If leeway is given to the child with their clothes sensitivities, it helps to reinforce that they are OK–just extremely sensitive.
People with ASD often back away from touch, which can make a parent feel terrible. It is not a lack of love; it is an extreme sensitivity to touch that causes this reaction.
Parents also need to find the most effective way to give affection to their child without creating more anxiety. Cuddling with your child may be less of an option than just verbally showing approval. Parents can show their affection in ways that are less stressful to the child yet still give the same comfortable message.
As your child ages, he or she may have greater insight into what kinds of things they can tolerate and which things they cannot. Until then, parents need patience and creativity in finding the right middle ground that leaves the child as comfortable as possible.
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