“What’s the reason you jump?
When I’m jumping it’s as if my feelings are going upward to the sky. Really, my urge to be swallowed up by the sky is enough to make my heart quiver. When I’m jumping, I can feel my body parts really well, too–my bounding legs and my clapping hands–and that makes me feel so, so good.”– Naoki Higashida, The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism
Sensory issues are common in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Each individual with Autism Spectrum Disorder is unique in their sensitivities to stimuli. They could either be hypersensitive (over-responsiveness) or hyposensitive (under-responsiveness). What Higashida described in the above quote is his own special way of seeking sensory input from his environment, typical of those who are hyposensitive. Such behaviours may seem queer and disruptive to others, but they often serve a function – it could be a form of self-regulation to help them relieve stress or block out uncomfortable sensory stimulation, or simply just to feel euphoria as in the case of Higashida.
This reminded me of one of my first encounters with a student with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The story is real, the names are not.
Story of Pong Kee
I remember it was an early rainy morning. I woke up from a deep slumber and was groggy; my senses yet awakened but my body knew exactly what to do. I washed up, wore the nearest sweater, grabbed my bag and wafted to work.
I arrived at the class and waited as the students streamed in. Each time the door swung open, like clockwork, I would chirp, “Good morning!” Instead of exchanging pleasantries, the students often made their entrance while in the midst of their own vocalisations; sometimes gibberish, sometimes a line from their favourite show; blatantly ignoring my chirpy greeting. It was not till I went before them, locked eyes with them, and repeated “Good morning,” then they would suddenly realise my presence and return a greeting. This morning routine always cracked me up.
As the students were settling down, I noticed that Pong Kee was staring at me from a corner, with a cheeky grin on his face. I told him to take a seat because the teacher was about to start lessons. Seemingly ignoring my words, his hand suddenly reached out for my chest area and swiped across my sweater. I was alarmed and my neurotypical brain started to race with thoughts of how that was an act of violation especially since I am a woman. Defensively, I instructed, “Hands to self!”
That caught the attention of the teacher who hurried forward. By then, Pong Kee was already looking down sheepishly, his hands glued insecurely to his side, as he took quick timid glances at me, probably trying to process the fact that I was in the ‘red zone’ (in reference to a tool used to teach social emotions in special needs education), which meant that I was upset.
The teacher sternly told Pong Kee that he should never do it again because it was inappropriate. After which, the teacher contemplated and turned to me, “He could be trying to reach for the baseball on your sweater to feel the material.”
Perplexed, I looked down at my woolly sweater, and perhaps for the first time, noticed that the baseball print on my sweater was made of suede! I couldn’t help but to laugh at the epiphany of his most naive and harmless intentions. At the same time, I felt terrible for misunderstanding him. I have presumptuously judged his actions through the lenses of societal norms when I should have been more educated about his condition.
But you see, in this incident with Pong Kee, his sensory seeking behaviour ended on a lighthearted note, but that’s not always the case for everyone.
Story of Ishir
I recently heard the story of Ishir, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder. Ishir experiences hypersensitivity to multiple sensory stimuli, and unfortunately one of those, is his own younger sister’s voice. As a result, growing up, he went to great lengths to avoid his sister.
Unable to get him to become accustomed to his sister’s voice, his parents often split up to take care of their children, with the father being the main caretaker of Ishir, and the mother being the main caretaker of the sister. It was tough because they could hardly have family time together, but at least, that arrangement worked. Ishir and his father developed their own daily routine, which they adhered to religiously.
Things started to go downhill when Ishir’s father had to make frequent overseas trips for work. Ishir refused to conduct his routine with his mother, and he started to retreat to his room in isolation increasingly. Over time, he started to cease enjoying food and activities that he used to like, even when his father returned from his work trips.
It came to a point that he had lost so much weight from not eating that the parents decided to send him to the Institute of Mental Health. It was there and then that he was diagnosed with depression.
Where to seek help?
Persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder can be hard to read, and judging them through societal lenses is definitely misleading. There are often more than meets the eye when it comes to understanding an individual on the spectrum. As neurotypicals, we may find it difficult to interact with them, but what we sometimes forget is that it is probably even more challenging for them to navigate this seemingly strange and norms-filled world. Sometimes what started off as a behaviour could escalate into a mental health issue when we fail to intervene early.
If you are a parent of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder / special needs, or knows someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder / special needs, who may need help with certain concerning behaviours or mental health issues, do not hesitate to reach out to our highly experienced Clinical Psychologist and Behavioural Analyst, Dr. Wong Ling Yuan.
- Prepare the child for upcoming situations that may trigger anxiety.
- Plan out ways to reduce the child’s anxiety.
- Reward the child’s use of appropriate coping skills.
- Set up a routine to reduce anxiety.
- Engage the child in play-based activities indoor and outdoor.
- Use visual aids and storytelling to explain emotions and ways to feel better.
- Provide family-focused treatment to increase supportive interactions in the child’s direct environment.
- Identify the underlying function of the child’s tantrums/aggression
- If the child is verbal, teach the child to communicate with his/her words.
- If the child is non-verbal, teach the child to use a way to communicate, such as drawing, writing, signing, or using icon exchange.
- For older children, they may need some space and time to calm down first. A behaviour intervention plan will help to understand the escalation and de-escalation procedure.
- Learn the functions of the child’s self-injurious behaviours.
- Identify variables that trigger or increase the frequency of such behaviours.
- Provide soft padded materials to reduce/prevent injury.
- Teach self-regulation and calming strategies.
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