Most children who are diagnosed on the autism spectrum have behavioral issues and sensory integration issues as well. But when and how can we tell which is which? Well in a nut shell……you can’t and for the most part its usually one and the same! Children with autism and special needs go through similar emotional and behavioral challenges as typical children do, but it is much harder to deal with because of their complex deficits which usually is sensory based. In addition, it is sometimes difficult to recognize which emotions behind the acting out or behavior may be prominent because the sensory needs and reactions may look like an emotional or behavioral reaction…..”the meltdown” can be this frustration.
Parents, teachers and therapists can help by understanding this idea and offering empathy when behaviors escalate. De-escalation is the key. By learning about the child’s sensory issues, and behavioral triggers we can begin to recognize the signs before hand; and thereby help the child regulate and avoid these emotional meltdown. Getting a full evaluation from professionals can help determine the sensory problems and offer tools and techniques to help.
Letting the child feel is ok…….If and when emotions become overwhelming to the child, try to acknowledge those feelings and not stop them from being expressed. Tell the child that when he cries it is caused by a feeling and that it will pass like a dark cloud. Also validate that you understand that something may bothering their body; and that if they can tell you what is bothering them, you can help make it stop.
In our creative arts therapy groups or in any other social skills or therapeutic groups, we can address these sensory issues both in neutral times, when there is no upset as well as when a child in the group starts have difficulties. We offer them sensory toys such as squishy balls for self soothing, or a soft textured puppet to play with. In addition, praise the children when you see them regulating themselves and “getting it together”.
Using yourself as the mirror…..
A child may start banging the table and fidgeting, so we need to recognize this behavior whether sensory or not…know that it may be a sign that something is about to escalate (or not*). We may reflect back to the child either verbally, “I see you are banging the table Johnny, sometimes it is hard to stay in our seats…. And you are doing so well…..” Or perhaps, non-verbally bang along with the child and create a playful interchange. (I have offered clay or model magic and that seems to work wonders for frustration control) *However, keep in mind that banging on the table could in fact be a sensory need to move, or hear sound, or just feel the table against his hands. This is “sensory seeking” behaviors that help stimulate the child.
Taking breaks and using sensory toys and art materials may help a child regulate when frustration levels seem overwhelming. When a child needs that break, have an aide (or babysitter if you are the parent) work with them for a set amount of time a little bit away from the group or social setting; not leaving the room (or house) entirely unless necessary. Then allow that child to slowly rejoin the activity when ready and then praise them for their efforts.
We may not always get it right, but we are still recognizing the need. In any case, as we get to know the children in our classes or groups we can distinguish their needs, emotions and behaviors.