First of all, I apologize for being late in the day with my Autism post this month, but in the immortal words of John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
A couple of months ago, Ali Isaac commented, “I’d be interested to know how Autism affects children’s reactions to the unfamiliar, with regard to places, people, objects etc.”
Any parent of an Autistic child can tell you that this type of scenario almost never turns out good. It’s been my experience that bringing my Autistic son into a new setting almost always induced a meltdown. It was worse when it was a public place, such as a store or restaurant. It was for that reason that I almost always left him at home when I had to run errands or dined out. I did this for his sanity, my sanity, and to be courteous to other shoppers, patrons, and diners of whatever establishment I might find myself in.
Even with my own Autism as an adult, I prefer staying home to going to wide open spaces for reasons that other people just don’t seem to get. I believe the wide open spaces of a store or restaurant do not feel as secure as the safety of home or a familiar surrounding.
Keep in mind that an Autistic person has heightened sensitivity to things such as smell, sight, and sound. As such, there are many noises in a public place that someone without Autism might not even notice. For example, the fluorescent lights may emit a high-pitched buzz. There are generally an inordinate amount of voices talking at the same time. Even if there is a small group of people across the room, their voices sound as if they are standing right next to me. A couple of years ago, I was at a book signing in a small bookstore, and though I was near the end of the line, it eventually felt as if everyone was standing next to me screaming. It was way too loud for that small shop, and the noise bothered me greatly.
The fluorescent lighting in public places often produces different colors than what we naturally know. A great example is that just yesterday, I was in Target and found a lovely berry-colored eye shadow. But when I got it home and looked at it again in my bathroom light, it was not berry at all, but was actually brown! Just think how different an Autistic child’s own mother must look under those type of lights.
Even the temperature in a store or restaurant is often different than what’s at home. You might not even notice it, but to a child with Autism, it makes all the difference in the world in their comfort zone.
If you’ve ever seen a dog’s nose start twitching after a new scent is introduced, then you can imagine what taking an Autistic person to a new place smells like to them. Even with a cold, I can smell certain smells long before I’m even in the same room with them. Recently, I went to a friend’s house, and before I got out of the car, I wrinkled my nose and said, “I smell celery.” My sister Michelle and I got out and went to the door, and the smell only got stronger. I’m sure I was making a face by then. By the time our friend came to the door and Michelle told her why I was covering my nose, the friend noted that only the day before she had planted celery in her garden off to the side.
That said, just imagine the various smells that you might take for granted that an Autistic person might notice in a public place. There are not only the numerous smells of soap, deodorant, perfume, and shampoo on the people walking around, but also some not nice smells such as bodily functions, sweat, etc. Yuck! On top of that, there is usually the smell of food, beverages, machinery, and other things going on in certain public places. For example, whenever I go to Denny’s, I can’t use their paper place mat because the smell of the ink on it overwhelms me.
If the strange place involves a restaurant, add to that the taste of the food is different than what’s served at home, there may be certain foods touching on the plate that will be a problem, or there may be garnishment such as parsley that could evoke a bad response.
When an Autistic person, particularly a child, experiences too much sensory overload, they become overwhelmed, and this usually results in a meltdown. When Jeremy was little and we’d go to a restaurant, he’d inevitably end up crawling under the table and hiding, standing on his head in the chair, and eventually crying and yelling before the end of the meal. Please note that an Autistic meltdown is much worse than a regular, run of the mill temper tantrum. It’s louder and more emotionally draining on the child, and it lasts much longer than a tantrum. Additionally, a child having a tantrum will usually stop if you don’t give them an audience, because they simply want to get their own way. A child having an Autistic meltdown will continue even if they’re alone in the room, because they cannot process their sensory overload, and they’re overwhelmed.
So, Ali, I hope I’ve answered your question to your satisfaction. For those of you who don’t know, Ali has the most adorable daughter, Carys, who has special needs, and Ali blogs about her from time to time. I think Ali is the most amazing mom and spokesperson for her beautiful little angel. Be sure to hop on over to her blog, and tell her I sent you.
I’ll be back the first Sunday next month with more on Autism, and I’ll (hopefully) be back tomorrow with more regularly scheduled posts.