Autism and Sensory Differences. The Consequences are not a Game!

unnamedStellaOver the past few weeks you have seen how badly the various sensory differences can affect the child; transforming the way he relates to others and to the world around him. Unfortunately the consequences of those problems are often overlooked despite the fact that, in my experience, they are very important indeed. So before we continue to look at the many other differences that might affect your child perhaps we should pause to consider the ramifications of those sensory differences.

In the first article in this series we looked at the effects the sensory differences might have if the child grew up with them. What though of children who seem to be developing normally until (for whatever reason) that development stalls, stops and then goes ‘into reverse’ – something that often occurs between the ages of 12 to 18 months old?

Such children lose previously acquired skills and, if their senses also  ‘unravel’ (as they seem to), they will no longer see, hear or even feel as they used to. Sometimes even their sense of balance and proprioception (an essential part of the body’s ability to move) disintegrate too. In effect their world suddenly shifts shape. Is no longer predictable. Instead the jumbled information his brain now receives is disorientating and confusing; leaving him in a nightmare world.

In medieval times, the ordinary folk, most of whom were illiterate, explained such seemingly inexplicable events through stories of changelings that were woven into folk lore: all having a similar theme – of a young child being stolen by fairies or piskies and replaced by a stranger.

And yet looked at from another angle the picture alters completely. No longer is the child stolen. Instead (either suddenly or more gradually) it is the child himself whose finds that his whole family has been transformed so that they are no longer the people he knew. The child who finds that the world around him – and everything that formerly gave him comfort – hurts. Hardly surprising then if he withdraws into himself or if his reactions become strange and unpredictable.

My second book A Positive Approach to Autism (2000) told the true and tragic story of two young brothers who both developed autism during their second year. Whilst both now also have bowel problems (something we’ll explore later in this series) their mother described the way in which their former abilities  degenerated and the sensory problems gradually gained prominence.

Thus the eldest child became progressively hypersensitive to touch and sound and also developed double vision as you can see from the drawing he did of his Mom – seeing two of her – one large and near to him and the another smaller and further away.  Nowadays his eyes trouble him greatly, being very dry, and, as the picture indicates, each eye seem to work independently at times. Can you imagine just how horrendous living with such distorted images must be?

Meanwhile the younger went from showing no sign of clumsiness to being identified as a clumsy child in a relatively short period of time. Sadly he also lost the ability to see colors and, worst of all, gradually ‘lost touch with his body.’ Thus his spontaneous facial expressions and movements gradually became labored and exaggerated – and (to his mother’s distress) now attract attention and laughter.

Small wonder then that he has a number of behavioral issues, for he has suddenly found himself wrenched out of a normal childhood and thrust into a strange and incomprehensible world where his perceptual experiences no longer match previously known realities.  How is he to understand a world turned into chaos? How indeed would we?

Perhaps (fortunately) the nearest most of us will experiencing anything similar is being lost in a thick fog which baffles and disorientates us. Time and distance are distorted. You still see, but what you see bears no relation to reality; you still hear, but can no longer discern which sounds are close and which are distant, for everything appears unnatural and distorted.

The consequences? Terror.  Fear.  Anxiety.  And the way the child copes with those feelings is through withdrawal, a dislike of change and obsessive or compulsive behaviors: things we’ll explore further next week.

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