This series of posts on “Ten Things” is based on the article “Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew.”
I’ve dealt with enough public tantrums in my life to know that a trip to the grocery store with Alyssa almost always resulted in a tantrum. But from my perspective, I just saw a meltdown because she couldn’t get her way. I knew she didn’t process things the way the rest of us do, but still thought her response was primarily due to self-centeredness.
That is why this next point totally changed the way I interacted with Alyssa in public places:
My sensory perceptions are disordered
The article explains “why a “simple” trip to the grocery store may be hell for me… dozens of people are talking at once… cash registers beep and cough, a coffee grinder is chugging. The meat cutter screeches, babies wail, carts creak, the fluorescent lighting hums… the fish at the meat counter isn’t quite fresh, the guy standing next to us hasn’t showered today, the deli is handing out sausage samples… they’re mopping up pickles on aisle 3 with ammonia… the fluorescent light is too bright; it makes the room pulsate and hurts my eyes…there’s glare from windows, too many items for me to be able to focus, so many bodies in constant motion… now I can’t even tell where my body is in space.”
Just reading about it is overwhelming! I can’t imagine trying to process all that when your body and mind are just unable to handle it. And to top it off, Alyssa could never say “I’m feeling overwhelmed with all the external stimulation. Can we find a less noisy, busy place?” (Or anything remotely similar).
I remember a trip to the store shortly after reading this article. I was much more aware of Alyssa’s response. When we first entered the store, she was much quieter than usual, probably trying to process all the unfamiliar sights, sounds, and people, and had some ‘tunnel vision,’ not looking around, just focusing on one thing. After several minutes in the produce section, she started to become frustrated with something. For the first time ever, I realized she was probably on sensory overload and expressing it the only way she knew how.
Once I realized all that she must experience on a supposedly ‘simple’ grocery run, I was better able to help her by finding times when she was in the right mood to go to the store, interact calmly with her if she started to get frustrated, help her find a quieter aisle, etc.
It didn’t always work, but even when it didn’t, I can tell you that my perspective helped me. It was so much easier to deal with her calmly if I understood what was probably happening in her mind. It just made sense.
Knowledge is power. And in this case, knowing a little bit of what autistic people experience on a regular basis can help us do what we can to make their world less scary and overwhelming and hopefully more enjoyable for all involved.