Tag Archive | Sensory overload

How to (almost) break your autistic child & a few suggestions on how to help when you do . . .

imageThis is a cautionary tale, based on a true story. My story.

You don’t need to have a special needs child in your life to relate. I’m certain just about any parent can, and has, used a similar formula to the one I’m about to present to ensure a similarly awful outcome to any given day as the one I’m (somewhat reluctantly) sharing.

While I cannot guarantee your personal success, I’m fairly certain you could achieve at least a bad day by following my example.

Which I suggest NOT doing.

Before I begin, I want you to know I am not an expert, but I know a few things . . . I’ve done this crap before. I have four children. The youngest will be twenty soon and the oldest, twenty-eight. The ‘child’ used into this particular example is the oldest of my quartet of kiddos.

He is autistic and awesome and I’m pretty proud of the way I’ve raised him and all I’ve learned . . . that being said –

How To (almost) Break Your Autistic Without Even Trying

I find it best to begin the process of an unplanned, catastrophic day ahead of time by informing my child about our plans for the following day, this ensures he feels comfortable with what will be going on.

The stars don’t always align just right, but it’s helpful if he is just getting over an illness. Any illness will do, in this particular case, our culprit was pneumonia. He’d just finished a round of Prednisone and his mind and body were readjusting from the effects.

In our case, it works particularly well if my son didn’t get a restful nights sleep before I rouse and ready him the next morning. It doesn’t always matter, but it’s really helpful

I generally think it’s a good idea to go over our plans again before we head out, I find it gives my son, many folks really, a sense of security knowing how the day will unfold.

On this occasion, I used our morning time together to do just that. We went over the plan. First lunch, then his follow-up medical appointment, a bit of shopping, and a quick stop to the pharmacy for meds on the way home.

Everything was well and right with the world, so I thought. I’d no way of knowing what had already begun to bubble beneath the surface of his rather calm, almost cheerful countenance. I should have known. How could I not have known? It had been a rough and restless week for him.

IMG_1238Unlucky for both of us, I didn’t realize the countdown toward detonation had been triggered before I cut the first wire (okay, that analogy works better in my head than on a page.) I’m likening this situation to a bomb, wires everywhere, and they all look the same. If I cut the wrong one –oopsie– it starts counting down faster.

The day began fairly well, but then, I inadvertently severed the first wrong wire when I made the decision to stop somewhere we don’t generally frequent for lunch.

. . . . . . . . . . tick . . . . . . . . . . tick . . . . . . . . . .  tick . . . . . . . . . .

I could see his hesitation, but everything is a teachable moment, right? Stepping out of comfort zones is something I regularly work on with him. There’s a timing to these teachable moments though, I picked the wrong time. The salad bar and deli counter, filled with a multitude of choices, served as the knife I utilized to cut that first wire.

Ignoring what I should have recognized as minor distress and discomfort, I unwittingly snipped another wire.

. . . . . . . . . tick . . . . . . . . . tick . . . . . . . . . tick . . . . . . . . .

For lunch conversation, I decided to discuss some of the positive changes I wanted to implement into our family life, such as a new exercise regime, trying some new foods and forgoing some of the old favorites. I made sure to talk about new tastes and textures, I thought I was really sealing the deal by including facts and summarizing studies I’ve been reading. He loves facts.

Apparently he loves them less when those facts include things IMG_1259about why we should sustain life with better quality foods and things like, unbreaded chicken. Autism and breaded chicken chunks – it’s a thing. He has a hard time with change. He kind of hates it.

. . . . . . . . tick . . . . . . . tick . . . . . . . . tick . . . . . . . .

He seemed to perk up by the time we reached the office of his favorite doc. He quickly unperked when the doc ordered an allergy panel and handed him a paper for flu and pneumonia vaccinations while simultaneously talking about creating a nutritional plan, one that didn’t include breaded chicken. That wire wasn’t on me, the doc gets full credit as an unwitting accomplice.

. . . . . . .tick . . . . . . . . . tick . . . . . . . tick . . . . . . .

Obviously, I can’t always control the unexpected, but an unforeseen event that changes our plans is always a bonus when I’m inadvertently making sure our day will end up in a meltdown of some severity. The next wire snipped itself.

The unplanned plan buster had to be handled, (the unforeseen event being his brother locking himself out of the house) which meant instead of the shopping, which was next on the list, we had to make a u-turn toward home. I didn’t help matters by continuing to talk about the stuff we’d been talking about as we drove toward home. Changes. I didn’t even realize he was not even close to being an active participant in my rambling.

. . . . . . tick . . . . . . tick . . . . . .tick . . . . . .

When we got to the house, his safety zone, his sanctuary, I took the opportunity to snip another one of those pesky wires. I had a couple of calls to make, so why not take advantage of our time back home? We were there just long enough for him to get his bearings before I went on with my mission to deconstruct his psyche by telling him it was time to go again.

. . . . . . tick . . . . . tick . . . . . tick . . . . .

There were two things left on the list, shopping and picking up meds. By now, you likely know I sliced myself another wire, right? Actually, I think I may have just ripped out a handful with the next decision I made. Instead of a trip to the grocery store, I chose to enter the sensory hell called Costco.

. . . . tick . . . . tick . . . . tick . . . .

Made with Repix (http://repix.it)I find It’s best to visit Costco when they are super busy, just in case the vastness of the space, the harder than normal store floors, and florescent lighting won’t be enough to break my child. There will most always be guaranteed success if the aroma of several food product demos are wafting throughout the building.

I cut a few more wires while trapped in there.

I made certain we walked right passed a pungent salmon burger demo, and then . . . then, and I don’t even know why I did it, I lost my mind and suggested he try a taste. by the way, not defending myself, okay, a little bit defending myself I was completely sensory overloaded myself. Don’t forget, kids on the spectrum sometimes have mommas on the spectrum and our house should just be labeled, “Spectrum House, home of the Cook family).

. . . tick . . . tick . . . tick . . .

At this point, all the classic signs of an approaching sensory overload and emotional hurricane are present in both of us, we couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

One more stop, it should have been in and out, but I dawdled around and browsed the aisles just long enough to yank a couple more wires.

. . tick . . tick . . tick . .

I’m almost sure the ticking was now loud enough for everyone around us to hear. There was stimming, heavier than usual breathing, his Tourette’s was triggered, and he couldn’t  make make eye contact with anything other than the floor and a bottle of Ginger Ale.



By the time we got home, BOOM! Full on distress.

And it was all my fault.

The bad nights sleep, the constant coughing, breathing treatments, and coming off the prednisone – all working their magic before he even opened his eyes that morning, compounded by a day which did not go as planned . . .

How could it possibly not be my fault?

I should have known as it was happening how it would all end, right?


It’s so easy to blame ourselves and feel unwarranted guilt whenThe Pit and the Pity Pot things go awry. There is this negative little bully inside our minds, just waiting for things like this to happen so it can torture us, if we don’t stand up to it, we’re screwed.

We have to override that nasty little voice with our own.

I know it wasn’t my fault. I may have been a contributing factor, but it wasn’t my fault.

I didn’t plan it, it wasn’t my intent. Things happen. Plans change, sometimes things HAVE to change and we have to learn how to handle those changes. Guess what, so do our children.

Hey – we all make mistakes. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been a special needs parent for 2 years or, in my case, 28. This kind of day will happen. It just will, but it’s not the end of the world, just a bad day. You’re not a bad parent, you’re not a bad special needs parent. You’re human.

Sometimes I forget that applies to me as well.

Life is not usually going to cooperate with the needs and schedules, the likes and dislikes, our children have. They may be resistant to change, but that doesn’t mean they’re not capable of handling it.

We need to teach them (and ourselves) coping mechanisms; skills that will get them, and us through those rough days.

When my son was younger, we learned some amazing techniques from our Occupational Therapist. Joint compressions and brushing have saved many a day from ruinDeep tissue massage and weighted blankets have worked wonders.

One thing I’ve learned is this, once a meltdown has started, you often have to just let it run itself down. If you’re shopping, leave your cart and head for the car, return home if you must. Attempting to diffuse a meltdown in public is difficult and most often impossible.

I’ve seen parents struggling with a child during what looked much like a meltdown, but once they gave the child what he wanted, it stopped. There is a huge difference between an autistic meltdown and a tantrum. Sometimes it’s tough to tell the difference. The thing is, a tantrum can be stopped, a meltdown is an entirely different beast.

imageNow, as an adult, my son has an arsenal of coping techniques to choose from, and if he senses the storm brewing, he can often find shelter, but sometimes, he gets caught up in a tempest.

When this happens, we practice deep breathing, we talk if he wants to talk, we don’t if he doesn’t. Sometimes he needs to be left alone, play a video game, or listen to music. He’s allowed to check out, sit in a corner and stim, or whatever he needs to do to pull himself out of it.

Then when we talk. After. We try to figure out what triggered it. It could have been sensory overload, an oncoming illness, or something he misunderstood. Sometimes there isn’t an identifiable reason. It could have been something leftover from the day or week before.

If we can pinpoint it, we discuss ways we can prevent it from happening again and ways to handle it if it does. It’s taken hard work and perseverance on both our parts, but he has come so far from those early days when he was a puddle of flailing limbs and tears on the floor in the middle of the supermarket.

I used to wonder if a day would come when he would be capable of coping and it did. There is hope, there is. It’s hard to see it in the middle of the storm, but those dark clouds always pass.

We know every child on the spectrum is unique, what’s worked for us may not work for you, but that hope is there. You have to look for it sometimes, but it is always there and you’re not alone.

I know it can feel that way sometimes, that’s the little mind imagebully I was talking about. You are stronger and have more resolve than that voice telling you things will never change, the thing is, they won’t change on their own.

You have to seek out support and professionals who can guide and give advice, other parents who have been there, done that, and are still doing it.

So fear not when it seems you’ve almost, accidentally broken your child . . . they can’t really be broken.




Is it really the least restrictive environment? Special education vs Mainstream

*The following is based on personal experience and observation both with my own children and those I have advocated for in the past. I realize there are indeed success stories involving a smooth and beneficial transition from a special education setting to a general education one. Unfortunately, there are many more examples of the system failing.

The methodology behind mainstreaming special needs students into the general education classroom is too often poorly thought out and implemented. It takes too broad of an approach to the special educational needs of many students, and in doing so, only serves to hinder, not help.

Special education was created for a reason. For a population of students with different needs than many of their peers, different abilities which sometimes require a separate and unique forum in which they can learn, an environment better suited to meet their needs. The school system has been caught up in a whirlwind of state standards and testing, coupled with the need to be politically correct, it spells disaster for many of our children.

Over the years I have seen many school districts systematically take away the services our children need and are entitled to. Parents have to fight and go through due process hearings and mediation to get their children the educational services they are by law entitled to receive. The need for socialization has replaced the need for academic achievement. There are many ways to find a social balance between the mainstream and special education programs.

The term least restrictive environment is thrown around quite liberally to loosely justify taking aspects of special education away. The least restrictive environment is supposed to be just that, an environment in which a students social, emotional and educational needs are met without depriving them or restricting them from growth and development at their own pace.

In reality, what many educators are deeming to be the least restrictive environment for a learning disabled or mentally challenged student is, in fact, often the most restrictive and detrimental environment they could be placed in. The very best general education teacher will not be able to meet the needs of a student or students who require a different approach, one they most likely haven’t received the training required to teach. This only leads to frustration for the teacher as well as her students.

Many classrooms themselves are simply too overwhelming for the special needs student. The room may be too colorful, too noisy or have too much movement. The fluorescent lighting itself can cause havoc for a student with sensory integration disorder. 1 in 68 children have been diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder. Just those few things I’ve mentioned can be too much for them to handle.

If a students learning challenges are mild enough to be placed in the general education setting and they are thriving, then they are in the right place. If they are not thriving however, if they are overwhelmed and cannot keep up, or they are ostracized because of their differences, then they should not be forced to endure it for the sake of satisfying those who have jumped up on a soapbox of denial. We cannot make them fit in or adjust. The misguided notion which says we are preparing them for the real world by trying to assimilate them into a society that may or may not accept them, only proves to make the transition even more difficult for them.

Many mainstreamed children with special needs leave school feeling ashamed of who they are, feeling they were not good enough. How is that going to help them in this real world everyone keeps talking about? More and more students with special needs are failing to reach graduation, they are held back or worse, many drop out of school entirely. They are not being given the opportunity to learn many of the things they could be, and should be learning in a proper educational setting.

I find it odd that gifted children are given their very own society. There are advanced placement classes specifically for those with academic prowess which surpasses their peers. Why are they there? Because they learn things differently than the other students. Because the regular education setting did not provide them with enough of what they needed to maintain and challenge them. Why do we justify the segregation of these children while forcing others to remain in settings not suited for what is best for them?

Special education should be special education, separate and different from the mainstream, but there should be a bridge for those who are able and ready to cross over it.

As a mother of four children with varying degrees of special needs I have been involved in this debate for years. Since my oldest was two and half years old to be precise. He is now nearing 25 years old. I was trapped on the special education roller coaster for many years, and I must say, I did not enjoy the ride.

I think it best if the last word comes from someone other than myself, I would like to share with you the opinion of a brilliant, young autistic boy . . .

“It is not easy to be placed in a classroom full of kids that are not nice to you, who are sometimes actually mean. They don’t do it when the teachers can see or hear them and for some reason they are believed when they deny the deed. It is not easy to learn from a teacher who does not know how I learn and does not have the time to learn how to teach me. It is not easy to be in a classroom that is filled with colors and movement and noise and bright lights and constant changes.

A classroom best suited for me and many other students is one that is calming. One that does not display too many decorations and the lights don’t hurt my eyes or my ears. The fluorescent lighting in most classrooms make sounds that not everyone can hear. I need a classroom that has stability and structure and I need a teacher that knows the unique way I learn and has the time and training to teach me. I need a teacher that will tell me if there is going to be a change like a substitute or if the furniture will be arranged differently. These things are more important than being put in a classroom that I shouldn’t be in because someone who does not know what it is like to live with these things says I should be.

I resent the idea that these experts are trying to integrate us in with normal kids. Neurotypical does not mean normal. There is no such thing as normal. I do not truly care about what an expert thinks is best for me, I care about what really is best for me and for others just like me. I was in a regular education class and it was like daily torture. Thankfully my mother saw very quickly that something needed to be changed and starting fighting for those changes. I was able to go to a school with teachers who knew how to teach me, that were trained in the different abilities of their students.

There is room for socialization outside of school if we want it. That is something experts do not seem to understand. We DON’T always want it. You look at us walking alone on the playground talking to ourselves or stimming, you see us eating alone at lunch and think that we must be sad and lonely. Don’t you see that it is a choice for many of us? The schools need to stop taking away the freedom of kids like me. I will graduate from high school this year and I plan on continuing to change the way the special education system is structured because it is flawed. Thank you for your time.”

Wilson Cook

My son was 17 years old when he wrote this. He was completely removed from mainstream education in the 9th grade, he attended a special needs charter school through graduation. I attribute much of the success we have had to those special education teachers who took the time to really help him. My son was non-verbal as a child. I was told he would never learn and now he is the one teaching the lessons.

Crystal R. Cook

Sensory Overload


I see sounds
and I taste colors
I feel words
like grass beneath
bare feet
I feel your touch
beneath my skin
Always aware of
everything round me
Unheard noises
reverberate inside my head
I feel them in my bones
they flow through my veins
I sense the movement
of air as it surrounds me
It never quiets
never stills
it is all
too much

Today is too much

Crystal R. Cook