Imagine this scenario: you are providing therapy to an autistic child and they begin to fidget, twirl their hands, rock back and forth, scream and ultimately escalate into a meltdown. They refuse to make eye contact when you attempt to engage them and continue to thrash about without apparent purpose.
It is understandable to assume the child is refusing to comply with your requests and become frustrated with their outburst. But let’s put ourselves in the child’s shoes for a moment and recognize that they are communicating something very powerful: I’m in pain or I’m anxious or I’m overstimulated.
In therapy, it’s critical to consider the situation from the child’s perspective. Perhaps they have a hypersensitivity to the humming of fluorescent lights in the room, or the chugging of the air conditioner, or the buzz of ambient conversation. These stimuli barely ripple in your consciousness, but they are causing pain and anxiety for the child in your care.
The child wants to remove themselves from the ongoing physical distress but lacks the communication skills to ask calmly to exit the room. And so they have a meltdown.
If we alter our perspective a bit we can see that this behavior is a form of communication. We understand this with infants: a baby that cries loudly for no apparent reason is telling us something – they are hungry or tired or uncomfortable. We respond with compassion by offering them a bottle or putting them to sleep, or changing their diaper.
Similarly, a meltdown by an autistic child is an attempt to communicate illness, pain, fear, confusion, overstimulation or something in the environment that is bothering them. The actions in which the child engages, though they appear anti-social and self-destructive to us, provide sensory stimulation and a release of anxiety.
Recognizing that autism, or disorders along the autism spectrum, involve biologically-based behavioral excesses and deficits that are beyond the control of children with these conditions, can help us as therapists, parents, caretakers, and others respond with compassion to the pain they are suffering. Autism subjects children and adults alike to near-constant discomfort, anxiety, and/or pain that is difficult for the rest of us to empathize with. The better we understand this, the more effectively we can make therapy a better experience for everyone.
Even “high-performing” adults with autism whose communication skills are highly-evolved face similar stresses. Many highly intelligent adults with autism avoid education and career opportunities because the anxiety of navigating crowds, rules and interpersonal relationships is upsetting and overwhelming.
September is Pain Awareness Month, a good time to remind ourselves that people with autism are people first. They want safety and security and freedom from fear and pain just as the rest of us do. But their autism often puts them under a state of almost perpetual sensory and emotional attack. Trying to understand what others are experiencing in moments of need is the first step to compassionate and helpful responses.
If you’re looking for other ways that we can all work to improve the autism services industry, read more in my book, Autism Matters: Empowering Investors, Providers, and the Autism Community to Advance Autism Services.