Recent statistics indicate that 1 in 68 children are on the autism spectrum; however autistics are not the only ones who experience sensory overload.
By Judith E. Lipson, M.A., LPC
It is very likely that you know someone professionally, in your social group, or in your family who is neuro-sensitive. Sensitives can be autistic or neuro-typical (without autism). Over the years in my practice I have seen many children and adults who are neuro-sensitive. As their frequency increases, so does their sensory awareness and responsiveness.
There is much speculation as to why there are more individuals who experience the world in this way. It could be evolutionary, neurological or the additives, drugs and pesticides in our food network. In July 2013, Bio-Science Technology reported a study by the University of California, San Francisco that showed the first structural imaging comparisons of kids who have research-diagnosed sensory processing disorder with typically developing kids. The findings point the way to establishing a biological basis.
Regardless of the cause, with the increasing number of individuals affected, there is a responsibility to learn how to best support Sensitives. There are a number of traditional approaches provided by occupational therapists, behaviorists, and speech and language therapists. There are also unconventional approaches. I wrote about these in “Setting Boundaries” and “Energy Cleansing”.
You are additionally encouraged to increase your awareness of the many situations that can create difficulties for the neuro-sensitives in your life so that you can support your loved one or help to bring about systems change.
SCHOOLS: Kids spend the majority of their day in these environments for twelve or more years.
LIGHT SENSITIVITY: Fluorescent lighting creates visual and auditory challenges. Highly sensitive individuals are bothered by the pulsations that fluorescents emit, as well as the sound from light ballasts.
RECESS AND PHYSICAL EDUCATION: Weak muscle tone and poor coordination increase the likelihood that sports and team activities may not be a positive experience. Volume, close proximity and lack of structure add additional difficulties. Encourage involvement in individual sports like swimming and martial arts.
SOCIAL: Educator Richard LaVoie explains that everything in school, and life, is a social decision. Social situations are typically not easy for Sensitives: should they attend to the words, the tone, the body language, or the energy of the speaker? These are rarely congruent. To assist, provide explicit instructions for nearly every social scenario. It’s not uncommon for them to fail to generalize one situation to another.
MEDICAL: To avoid triggering an exaggerated startle response, explain the action and the purpose before physical contact or approaching with a medical instrument. Also, anatomical pictures trigger some Sensitives.
DOCTOR OFFICES: Try to arrive on time, ask to be brought into an exam room quickly and to be seen promptly to avoid anxious waits, an overly stimulating waiting area, and possible meltdowns.
HOSPITALS: Imagine this scenario: A medical concern; agitation; bright fluorescent lighting; naked under the irritating fabric of an uncomfortable gown; sounds; communication challenges; lack of medical knowledge; presumed loss of rights; fear of stimming (self-soothing) in public; lack of privacy for solitude or toileting.
ENTERTAINMENT: Encourage social activities. Movies, bowling and even cruises are now offering autism/sensory-friendly options where individuals can move about during the show, the lights are kept on (but low), and the volume is softer.
MOVIES/THEATER: Loud volume, darkness, and the expectations for silence and for sitting still for periods of time can seem impossible – and are likely to lead to meltdowns or “inappropriate behaviors”.
RESTAURANTS: With planning and instruction, the potential difficulties of too many options, inability to sit still, and conversation challenges with wait staff can be made successful.
MALLS AND LARGE VENUES: Large expanses of space can make a neuro-sensitive unaware of their body and lose their sense of self. The emotions and energy of other people, bright lighting, fragrances, and temperature changes outside the different stores are physically uncomfortable and overwhelming to the senses.
EMOTIONS: Even exuberance and joy can over-stimulate their system.
Neuro-sensitives have a highly aroused nervous system and lack the ability to process the information from their bodies and their environment without triggering an over-reactive fight-or-flight response. It is imperative to remember that any subsequent behavioral outbursts are a reaction to their sensory system overload. Meltdowns are not the equivalent of tantrums.
Teaching neuro-sensitives a variety of coping skills and encouraging their use is extremely beneficial. When possible, modify their surroundings by assessing social interaction, communication, energy, empathy and the five senses so that you can ease the situation to minimize or avoid meltdowns or discomfort.
Judy Lipson is a Licensed Professional Counselor and educational strategist in West Bloomfield. She helps clients of all ages who have learning difficulties; work or school related anxiety; ADHD; Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism Spectrum Disorders; and those who wish to Remember and Become Who You Really Are. Contact Judy at 248.568.8665 and firstname.lastname@example.org, and visit www. SpiralWisdom.net for more information.