Too much of a good thing… is never a good thing for our autistic children!

As parents of autistic children we often find ourselves exited about “how much” our children enjoy certain activities for example – we love the fact that they love jumping on the new trampoline they just got or they love the new splash pool so much that they want to spend hours splashing away on hot summer days.  What we do however not realize is that “too much of a good thing… is never a good thing for our autistic children!”

Studies have shown that social and sensory over-stimulation drives autistic behaviours and it is for this reason that parents need to be mindful of the time their children spend on certain activities.  Water play, sand play and jumping are a great way for our children to “regulate” when they are seeking sensory input but in the same breath too much “regulation” can indeed lead to a sensory overload.

People with autism are more often than not highly sensitive to their environment and whilst this means different things to different people on the spectrum it is generalized under the term – “autistics have delicate sensory systems”.

A delicate sensory system can be easily overloaded because our children can’t ignore the information that they are receiving.  Sensory overload basically means that the child is getting way more information from their senses than what their brain can sort or process through.

During the holidays families are generally relaxed and allot of time is spent at home, around the pool, in the garden, on beaches etc. and for the autistic child getting unlimited access to the pool at home of the beach sand and sea can cause problems.

Here is a list of some of the “sensory overload” symptoms you can look out for during the upcoming holiday season:

  • When your child’s mood seems “irritable” for no apparent reason;
  • When your child seem restless and uncomfortable during times which they would usually not have problems with;
  • A lack of “focus’ or attention is another big tell tale sign but here you would need to know what the child’s normal level of focus/attention would be in order for you to judge a change in behaviour;
  • If you sense that your child is “wound up” or overly busy/excited (outside of normal);
  • Anxiety attacks, tears and frustrations for no apparent reason;
  • Higher levels than usual of sensitivity to textures, fabric, clothing, tags or any other thing that may rub against their skin.

It is important for families to understand that the subtleties of what causes or contributes to a sensory overload can in-fact be your child’s most loved activity these holidays.  Best advice we can give you is:

  • Try to identify the patterns of behaviour your child is showing;
  • Realize that swimming for 2 hours or jumping on the trampoline for 30 minutes can be as big a trigger as going into a shopping mall or busy restaurant;
  • Note that each situation will be different and how much sensory input it takes for your child to reach his/her threshold will co-inside with a good or bad night sleep and even hunger or boredom;
  • Meltdowns are purely reactions to feelings (in most cases of over-stimulation) and not a sign of your child being naughty;

Most importantly take into consideration the fact that sensory meltdown and behaviour changes are merely a physiologic response and not a controllable behavioural reaction.  Everything in moderation is advised because too much of a good thing can be destructive.

Ilse Kilian-Ross

Ilse Kilian-Ross is the owner of Amazing K, a registered ECD and Partial Care Facility in Johannesburg. Amazing K is a private adhd school, autism school and therapy centre for children from age 2 - 6 years where learners receive the best of both the schooling and therapy world. The autism school offers Individualized Education Programs, Speech- and Augmentive Alternative Communication (AAC) therapy as well as a full and adapted Academic Curriculum.