Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Families and Autism: When Family Members Don't Understand

Recently, I've been running into a common problem that a lot of parents run into:  family members not understanding their child's condition.  In this case, a new behavior that our child with Autism has has been misunderstood. 

It is quite common for some behaviors in managing Autism to be misunderstood as child abuse, particularly deep pressure stimulation. Some parents, while on a shopping trip, may need to initiate deep pressure stimulation to get their child under control.  Sometimes this means laying on top of the child.  In broad daylight, in the middle of the store.  Parents with children on the Spectrum fear this scenario, because they have been reported for child abuse at that moment.  It's embarrassing for the parent, because they are doing what they are supposed to do, but yet it makes them look bad.  It's also potentially a legal issue, depending on how versed law enforcement is on the Autism spectrum. 

Though deep pressure stimulation is usually seen as weighted bean-bags, blankets, or bear hugs, my son craves a somewhat sharp sensation on his arm.  He will use toy dinosaurs to "bite" his arm, stick his arm in the dogs mouth (much to the frustration of the dog), or even in my mouth.  Sometimes, due to the amount of pressure he puts on his arm, this can cause bruising.  We were concerned, and talked with his occupational therapist, which said this was perfectly normal.  They even taught us some techniques of deep pressure stimulation that would help our son focus more at home. 

Well, family members have been concerned about the bruises, thinking that they are being caused by adults mishandling my son.  The frustration is, I know what it looks like, but it isn't the case at all.  It's a sensory need that my son has to get that stimulation.  So, I ended up needing to explain the sensory need my son has.  I'm not sure it registered, nor whether or not family members understand.  Of course, I would hope that all those who know me would trust that I have my son's best interests and safety in mind, and would be alert to his needs, his situation, and any changes in his habits. 

Though the frustration with the misunderstanding is there, it's difficult to place blame on a family member that doesn't understand the sensory needs of a child with Autism.  Why?  Because even if they have worked with a child with Autism before, every child is different.  That is especially true in sensory stimulation.  Even if you have grown up with a child with Autism, all other children on the Spectrum are going to be different.  So how do you help family members understand what children with Autism need, even if it looks odd?

First, you need to set the foundation.  Because of the nature of Autism and the brain, they will need something on which to focus to keep the brain from getting sensory overload.  Often times that means either auditory, visual, or tactile stimulation.  Deep pressure is common with children on the spectrum, and there are a number of ways to apply that pressure.  Most commonly a weighted bean bag will work, or weighted blanket.  You can also use your palms on the arms, pressing the arm between your palms.  And remember, this is deep pressure, so you would need to press hard (not to tears, but until you feel resistance).  Bear hugs also work, or even just a large pet (like a dog) laying on the child or leaning against their trunk. 

Has anyone else had similar experiences, or had the need to explain their child's sensory needs to family members? 

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