The other week I discussed reasons for why a child would act out. We then went through techniques an Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapist uses when a child elopes. But what about techniques for sensory issues? Sensory integration is the process of normalizing sensation and making it easier for your autistic child to cope with them.

Occupational Therapy

Alongside ABA your child may benefit from Occupational Therapy if you find they have a lot of physical issues. OT in simple terms helps people do what they want to do in everyday life, be it taking off a t-shirt or using a pen. Sometimes these issues are accompanying sensory problems, like the feel of fabric, or not knowing you are squeezing too hard. An OT’s job is to identify the sensory issues and guide your child through them until they can physically handle the task. They’re a perfect addition to ABA.

Applied Behavioral Analysis Therapy

An ABA therapist identifies why your child is having an issue and either teaches them something new, or reduces it. When a child can’t handle, or process sensory information because of autism they may have extreme reactions to it, such as self harm, violence, or meltdowns. It’s important to identify when your child is behaving this way because they simply don’t want to do something or don’t know how to communicate, and when they truly cannot process what is going on around them.

This is no easy task.

We cannot personally dive inside their minds, so we can only observe, watch and wait until we know the answer. Which is what your ABA therapist or analyst will do before they introduce an intervention.

Communication Skills

Sometimes, our children have a meltdown when there are bright lights or loud noises because they don’t know how to ask to leave the situation. In this case, the therapist would prompt the question of leaving and the stimulation would stop. For e.g.

Therapist, “Say, turn the light off.”

Child says, “Turn the light off.”

Therapist turns the light off.

This way your child learns that communication is a wonderful way to remove uncomfortable stimulation.

Reducing Stimuli

In other cases we can tell when a certain situation will be triggering in advanced, and know that our child has to go through it and get out the other side; like grocery shopping or school. In these cases tools are used, such as noise blocking headphones and weighted vests. These keep the child grounded and block out sounds, thus reducing the sensory stimuli to begin with.

Sensory Integration

Other times our child has to get through a stimulatory process, but there is no way to reduce it. Like brushing hair, or clipping nails. Either way they have to brush their hair and clip their nails, for health and cleanliness reasons. In this circumstance the child can’t ask to leave the situation and we can’t reduce it, so what does the therapist do?

Sensory integration is teaching the child how to handle sensory input, with breathing techniques, and practice. Just like when we as adults have irrational fears and have learnt how to face them—like public speaking, or roller coaster rides—our children have to learn how to face their fears and remain calm too.

It will be heart wrenching to watch at first as they scream and cry, but guiding them through it slowly, and teaching them how to step over their fears is something all parents should teach their children no matter whether they have autism or not.

The only difference here is that autistic children will often scream and tantrum rather than whine or talk about it, because they either have no other way to communicate or little understanding of the consequences of the tantrum in a social setting. All they know is, if I scream I won’t have to do this.

An Example of Sensory Integration

A child was petrified of nail clippers; he wouldn’t even let you cut your own nails. He would scream, cry, and have meltdowns every time someone used a pair. We would have to hide them and his nails never got clipped. This had the added down-side of learning to use his nails as weapons to cut open people’s skin, when he got mad. We couldn’t reduce the stimuli, and we had to clip his nails, so the therapist slowly introduced the stimulus to him.

At first she showed him videos and clippers.

Next she cut her own nails and the nails of others.

Then she placed the clippers on his skin.

And finally she cut one finger nail.

This took more than a month, and on every step he screamed at the top of his lungs like he felt petrified. He cried and fought and sobbed his eyes out, until he didn’t. Until he barely even noticed what you were doing. As a parent at first though, it was traumatic to watch every new stage brought with it a wrenching feeling in the parent’s gut.

But by the end? Even though he still screamed and cried, he would ask the therapist to do it! He had grown courage, and the ability to see his fear as irrational, despite still feeling it. He had learned something that takes even adults a long time to learn; fear will not kill me. A life lesson that will serve him. So although listening to his fear was uncomfortable for many parents, seeing how this process empowered him makes it all worth it.