Any outings we go on are planned in advance and carefully managed. We have to be aware that our children are prone to sensory overload, and make sure we do as much as we can to avoid this. Sensory overload occurs when the sensory system is bombarded with information through one or more of the senses, resulting in feelings of anxiety, fear and/or distress and the inability to continue to function normally.
As Autistic people often have sensory sensitivities already, a sensory overload is a common experience for them. In my daughters case, where her nervous system operates a bit backwards, with her fight or flight reactions running the show instead of sitting in the background waiting until there is a real crisis, a sensory overload results in a similar reaction in her to what I would experience if I had been in a car accident.
It is not only Autistic kids (or adults) who can experience sensory overload, so I’m going to share some of the strategies we use when we are going out for you all to try. You might find that using some of these ideas helps your outings with your children become more enjoyable and less exhausting too! We make sure we know the place we are going to has some quiet areas we can retreat to when we need to try to prevent or calm down from sensory overload.
We plan how long we will be out for, keeping in mind the kids tolerance for the environment we will be in. If it is likely to be particularly noisy or crowded (like when we went into the city to see New Years Eve fireworks) we plan to be in the noisy area for only a short period of time.
- We take along a comfort item or two that we know helps our child self soothe. This can be a soft toy, a digital gaming device, a set of ear defenders, a jumper with a hood that can be pulled over the head, a lolly pop (sucking is a great soother!), some crunchy snacks, or a “fidget toy” (like a stress ball or something similar).
- Before we leave we tell the kids what the plan for the day is, and we stick to the plan. We find that if they know what to expect next they are less likely to become overwhelmed in an unfamiliar place.
- We recognise our kids limitations and plan for them, including planning for the worst case scenario if we fail to prevent a meltdown or overload. One of our kids has a tendency to run away and hide if she becomes too stressed. For this reason when we are out my Hubby and I split the responsibility of watching the kids. One of us watches the runner, and the other watches all the other 4 kids. When who ever has the runner gets tired, we switch. We do this because we know it is not alway possible to prevent a sensory overload situation, and if one of us has our eyes on her at all times it is much less likely that she will disappear without being noticed. If she does get away and hide, out other children all know what to do- they stick together and find a safe spot to sit while Hubby and I find her. This works for us because we have a very responsible 16 year old who can be trusted to shepherd the others for the time it takes Hubby and I to deal with the emergency. For you the worst case scenario might not be so dramatic, but it certainly pays to have a plan for what to do if the proverbial hits the fan.
- We ignore what others think of our kids behaviour and stay calm no matter what. When our kids are anxious it doesn’t help them if we try to impose on them what we think others expect from their behaviour. This has, on occasion, meant we have been subject to rude stares, snide remarks and straight out criticism. At the end of the day though, people don’t know what they don’t know, and we just don’t have time to worry about keeping them happy at the same time as looking after our kids.
Using these strategies we can now all enjoy a day out at the Zoo, Art Gallery, Museum, and yes- even the Sydney New Years Eve fireworks!! All these things we figured out by making mistakes and by trial and error. We do still have a public meltdown here and there, but they are becoming less frequent and less intense. I hope that our experience can be of help to some of you parents out there. Keep in mind that you don’t need to have a child with a disability to find it useful to do some forward planning. Most of the strategies we use for our Autistic kids are beneficial for our other “normal” kids as well. I’d love to hear from you if you try any of these strategies and have some success with them!