A few weeks ago four pediatric therapists from our clinic, including myself, made the journey to New Jersey for the Profectum Academy annual conference. We all agreed one of the big highlights of the conference was a panel of six young adults, all of whom are on the Autism Spectrum. They spoke on 4 "C" words, none of which were the "C" word people always talk about when it comes to developmental differences... ahem... compliance (a blog for another day). Instead they spoke about comfort, competence, confidence and control. Comfort, competence, confidence and control are all Foundational Capacities for Development which help to activate, organize and integrate experience. These lead the child forward to the full range of competencies necessary for greater independent functioning and progress (Weider, S. and Sachs, H. Visual Spatial Portals to Thinking, Feeling and Movement 2012). We learned so much I decided to do a four-part blog post about each "C" and then life happened and the blog posts were almost something in my head alone until we carved pumpkins right before Halloween. The whole time we were carving their words kept ringing in my head. Most notably the idea of control.
So how does carving pumpkins have anything to do with control you ask? Well sticking my hand into a pumpkin is probably one of the sensory/tactile things I HATE most. I have an almost visceral reaction to sticking my arm into something cold, wet and gooey. YUCK! My children were all blessed with the same aversion as myself and really no matter how much you try to alter the experience (using a spoon, wearing gloves, etc.) it still is an overwhelming one! At one point I looked at my son, who was really trying to do it because he was so darn excited about the prospect of carving his Jack-O-Lantern to look just like his "pattern" he had made earlier, that he kept pushing forward. I finally looked at him and his unhappy face and used the words Anie Knipping had given us at the Profectum conference- "Is it just too much?" and his face said it all. It said, "Yes mom, exactly. It is just too much. Too much smell. Too much texture. Too much to feel."
During the conference a mom from the audience asked the panel about why they might suppose her daughter elopes. Anie Knipping, Autistic Author and one of the members of the panel, replied "We have no control over when we max out. We need to be given the control to opt out. Let your daughter leave, she is doing the best she can." At that point another man in the audience raised his hand and said he heard Anie speak at a different conference and heard her say how when she is overwhelmed by sensory input she needs to have the ability to leave so he started letting children in his classroom "opt out". He said he has given them the control to go to a safe space or sensory room when needed and it has made all the difference. He said many of the children knowing they can opt out sometimes choose to stay just knowing they have the control.
So here is what I am going to try this upcoming holiday season. I am going to give a little more control to my own children and to the children and teens I work with. I am going to let them make some choices and I am going to look for signs that a kid may need to "opt out". I am going to try to see when a child is overwhelmed and then instead of pushing them through, I am going to say, "Is it just too much?"
** For more information on Anie Knipping go to Meet Anie Knipping - Celebrate the Children