For as long as I can remember, I’ve been victim to one of the most prominent issues that often accompanies an Asperger’s diagnosis: sensory overload. Some of my earliest memories involve dramatic episodes at local fireworks shows; I would clap my hands over my ears and scream until my mom hauled me from the scene. Trips to the movie theater also presented this problem, and my mom soon discovered the correlation between loud, invasive situations and environments and my frequent public meltdowns that left me so distraught.
As you read this, you may nod in recognition, all too familiar with how frustrating, confusing, and unpleasant sensory overwhelm can be for everyone involved. You may not know this, but many people with Asperger’s (myself included, at one point) feel an almost crippling shame that they can’t go out and enjoy their days like almost everyone else can. This shame quickly warped itself into something far more destructive, more monstrous: self-loathing. To this day, I can remember how hatefully I treated myself and everything I stood for, sometimes even letting this horrifying hatred manifest as violence toward myself. In fact, it’s this shame and these suffocating feelings of worthlessness that helped keep me from experiencing life the way I wanted to. My own mind held me tightly in its all-consuming embrace, incapacitating me and rendering me completely helpless (at least that’s how I perceived it).
As I grew older and started making my way up the broken rungs of the educational ladder, my sensory issues began to decrease in both intensity and frequency, giving way to more pressing problems. Socially inept, oblivious to all around me, and incredibly sensitive and vulnerable, I spent my schools days trapped in a never-ending cycle of pain and suffering that I perpetuated myself. This was because I’d spent so much time falling victim to sensory overload that I had neither the energy nor the desire to learn essential skills and allow myself to learn, grow, and be happy. I felt threatened constantly, and there was no escape from the terror I felt on a minute-by-minute basis. We here at AE call this “fight or flight” response “Defense Mode.” It wasn’t until I made my decision to change my life near the end of high school that things really started to turn around for me. This decision became possible when my mother quickly realized how to pull me out of Defense Mode and create an environment where I felt safe and happy. More on that in a paragraph or two.
I can only imagine how rough these terrifying and often confusing public displays of sensory overstimulation must be for you, the parent. You must be frustrated, concerned, and exhausted, and that’s completely normal. I know my mother certainly was. No parent is born prepared for this type of thing, so don’t expect yourself to know exactly what to do at first. Trust in yourself and your ability to provide love, support, and care for your child with Asperger’s.
That brings me to the actual advice part of this piece. To help your child out of “Defense Mode,” you must create a loving, nurturing, safe environment for them so they can “unload” all the weight (constantly feeling threatened by sensory overstimulation) that is pressing down on them every waking second. I know you love your child. I really do. You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t. But if they aren’t receiving your love and realize how safe they are with you, they will stay neck deep in Defense Mode.
You may be asking, “How do I go about doing this?” I’m going to recommend three simple yet extremely effective secrets to ensure that you foster a loving, safe, and empathetic environment for your child with Asperger’s. They are as follows:
- Allow Daily Decompression Time
This is absolutely essential. After a long, difficult day at school, many people with Asperger’s are just done. They’ll climb into the car, eyes glazed and mouth slightly agape, and want nothing to do with anyone. Instead of bombarding them with a thousand, “How was your day?” questions, let them decompress, relax, and process all of the stimuli they’ve taken in over the course of the day. When they get home, give them an hour to do the same thing. Just let them be (WITHOUT ANY ELECTRONICS), and you’ll be amazed at how quickly things will improve.
- Establish Love and Trust In Your Relationship with Them
You love your child, but they may not be receiving that love. As a result, they feel unsafe, and Defense Mode continues to wreak havoc on their psyche. One way you can remedy this is to question, analyze, and possibly adjust your motives when you are interacting with them daily. Instead of coming at them with ways they can do what you want them to do, come to them from a place of love and support and let them know with your words, tone, and body language that they are safe and cared for. All too often, we see parents, grandparents, or other caregivers trying to exercise control (mostly unconsciously) over their child/grandchild/etc., not knowing how damaging it is. Also, don’t try to “get” your child with Asperger’s to do anything. I know that there are numerous things that do need to get done, and I’m not suggesting you abandon your priorities. I’m merely proposing that you change your approach from one rooted in control to one rooted in love and support. You may think it’s what’s best for them, but all it does is put them under the impression that you want to control them. So, let go of your need to control them, show them how much you love them, engage with them, and watch as they soar.
- Give Them Control in Inconsequential Areas
This is big. REALLY big. Trying to assert control is one of the biggest trust killers, especially when both parent and child want control in the same areas. The main step you want to take here involves handing over control to your child in inconsequential areas. For example, say you are planning dinner for the week. Example: Let them choose what the family is eating for dinner one day a week, and be sure to let them pick from two or three choices to avoid further overwhelm. Another example would be letting them choose whether they want to do homework before or after dinner. These may seem insignificant in your world, but they are HUGE in the eyes of your child. Not only does it let them exercise some control over their lives (in a reasonable, harmless way), it allows them to feel valued and special in ways they didn’t think they could be. This is so, SO vital, and I’m confident it will have an incredibly positive effect on your home life.
Well, that’s it, folks. I sincerely hope you enjoyed and learned a ton from this post, and be sure to email firstname.lastname@example.org for any further questions! Take care!