Autism and overload – One thing at a time

boyDoes your child peer at things out of the corner of his eye or take quick short glances?  Is he slow to respond to your questions?  Or find it hard to walk and talk at the same time?

This seems to happen because, in contrast to most people, who automatically process information from several senses simultaneously and then react to it,  the child can generally only cope with one bit of information at a time – ‘mono-processing.’   Thus he often uses peripheral vision rather than looking directly at a person or object because that limits the amount of stimulation he receives.

While hearing differences provide one reason for his slow response to questions, mono-processing is another,  for it means that there is often a time lag between the question and his ability to take it in and then reply.  And that delay can sometimes make his answer apparently meaningless as the conversation has long since moved on.

So why would he be unable to walk and talk at the same time? Sadly some of the actions that most of us do quite automatically actually necessitate conscious thought on the part of the child with ASD.  And that makes everyday life exceptionally difficult. Just imagine if you really had to concentrate in order to be able to walk. Or stop walking simply so that you could speak.  But mono-processing is only part of answer for other factors come into play too as you’ll see next week.

overloadEven so, despite the difficulty he has in processing information,  it seems as if the majority of such children do take in everything that is going on around them – even when they appear to be in a world of their own.  And yet they are generally unable to ‘process’ or assimilate that information fully until they are alone or in a quiet place: which is why such children often do much better in a relatively quiet classroom.  Perhaps that explains how such children sometimes surprise their parents or teachers by displaying abilities that others did not know they had – like the two I know who both taught themselves to read without anyone realizing.

So what happens when those coping mechanisms are not enough and the child finds himself overwhelmed by everything going on around him – adding to the anxieties he already has?  Once again we find that overload initiates a range of automatic reactions similar to those already discussed in a previous article.

The result? This is the child who suddenly ‘explodes’ with blind panic. Or withdraws abruptly, or becomes more obsessive or compulsive. The child who freezes.  Sometimes though the reaction is even more severe so that he becomes extremely lethargic.  Or even falls asleep without warning as his brain ‘shuts down’ in order to protect him: something that can be mistaken for epilepsy.

Such reactions are echoed in the accounts of people who were unfortunate enough to find themselves living under great stress. While examples span the world for now I’ll just focus on two people, both of whom were held hostage in Lebanon towards the end of the last century.

Thus in his book An Evil Cradling author Brian Keenan described an incident in which he raged in a blind panic as he was transported in the boot of a car whilst in his book Taken on Trust his fellow prisoner Terry Waite talked of a period during his captivity when he felt a compulsive need to tell himself a story and simply could not stop until he reached the end.

Perhaps you think that the anxiety felt by people with ASD is not comparable to the intensity of the fear the hostages faced? Sad to say I’m afraid it often is. Indeed a recent study by researchers at Brigham Young University has confirmed that anxiety is a major problem in autism and is frequently debilitating (and sometimes overlooked). They have also identified it as one of the most disabling factors in older children and adults.   Given all the stresses involved such findings hardly seem surprising do they?

Top tips:

  • Avoid overload wherever possible.
  • Use calming techniques – music, walking or trampolining etc. More ideas can be found at: https://www.cdd.unm.edu/ecspd/resources/pdfs/QualityChildcare/Resource%20Guide/SelfRegulationTipsandStrategies.pdf

Got tips of your own?  Please share them.

 Autism and Exposure Anxiety.   Don’t look at me!