Spirit of Autism Puberty

Puberty, Autism and Emotional Shutdowns

Spirit of Autism Puberty“The universe hates me!”

My son came stomping out of his room and collapsed onto the floor, heaving a huge sigh of frustration.

Unfortunately, this is not a new scene in my house, as I also have a 16-year old daughter. ‘Nuff said. But more importantly, puberty and autism can create a vicious cocktail that seems to bring on extremely magnified sensory issues, increased hyperactivity, regressive behaviors, and a whole lot of unexplained emotions. My boy just turned 12, but we started experiencing a profusion of puberty related issues as early as nine.

“The universe is incapable of hating, sweetie. What’s wrong?”

Evidently he had built a statue of his Minecraft skin in one of the game’s worlds and he told me that his friend destroyed it.  Minecraft is a unique multiplayer computer game where you learn survival skills and build custom worlds. The creative and building aspects of Minecraft allow players to build constructions out of textured cubes in a 3D world.

First and foremost, I was extremely proud of his ability to articulate to me that he was upset, the reason he was upset, and that he had worked very hard on the statue and it had taken him a long time. This is a HUGE milestone for us! But before we had a chance to begin talking about it, everything started going wrong for him. Everything he touched seemed to break or malfunction. He tried to pet the dogs and they ran away from him. His sister yelled at him for seemingly no reason.

I know from experience that when you have the “everything sucks” filter on, your experiences will follow suit. You know, like when you start out having a bad day it seems that your car won’t start, you spill coffee on yourself, you mess up a client proposal… have you ever had a day like that?

So the first thing I had to do was help diffuse his “universe hates me” perspective, starting with three deep and centering breaths together.

Delayed responses are another typical experience for Autistic children, and once I thought he was in a calmer place (about 30 minutes later), he started crying uncontrollably about the loss of his statue. It was that real guttural crying, too; I felt horrible. I consoled him and acknowledged that he felt upset that his statue was destroyed.

We then talked about choices. I told him he could either play one of his other favorite games (offline) to help get his mind off of it for now or he could choose to talk to his friend and tell him that his feelings were hurt. He could ask him why he destroyed the statue and open the lines of communication.

He had already removed his friend from his Skype list and blocked him from his server! His impulsivity coupled with an intensity of emotions he wasn’t accustomed to had caused him to overreact and shut down.

Once the tears were dry, we played a game called “5 Other Things”. I learned this gold nugget of a coping skill as a teenager and it’s never failed me. The idea is that it’s not what happens to us that causes emotional distress, rather our interpretation of it.  For instance, if a person doesn’t show up for a meeting with me I might immediately feel hurt and angry, assuming I had been blown off. This could rapidly lead to a barrage of negative thoughts: “Did they even INTEND to show up? Am I not good enough for a simple text or phone call letting me know? Who do they think they are?!” etc.

“5 Other Things” forces you to step outside of that neural pattern and look at some other possibilities for the event in question. Was there a family emergency? Are they simply running late? Car trouble? Did one of us write down the wrong day?

Naturally, if someone does this sort of thing to you regularly, “5 Other Things” is not the answer… getting a new friend is J

Being that my son didn’t SEE his statue being destroyed (it was simply gone when he logged back in to the server), we looked at some other possibilities:

  • Did another person playing on that server do it?
  • Did the game malfunction somehow?
  • Could his friend have accidentally done it?
  • Was the site hacked?
  • Did aliens land on earth and destroy all human forms of online entertainment? (Silly can be good if you’re trying to break neural patterns!)

“5 Other Things” worked! After some investigating (and a proven screenshot alibi of the suspect, ha!) he and his NOW UNBLOCKED friend discovered that the server crashed and the world was restored from an earlier version… before he had built the statue.

What a great learning opportunity this was for us! When puberty, autism and emotional shutdowns occur, we now have a blueprint:

  1. Take three deep breaths together
  2. Encourage him to share what is wrong, and praise him for being able to name it
  3. Help diffuse the “everything sucks” filter or mindset
  4. Acknowledge the feelings he is experiencing without judgment or criticism
  5. Play the “5 Other Things” game – without fear of getting a little silly!

OW! Why Did You Just Punch Me?!?

One of the most challenging of my son’s behaviors on a daily basis is his impulsivity. It has also been magnified greatly since the onset of precocious puberty.

What is impulsivity?

On MedicineNet.com, it is defined as:

Inclined to act on impulse rather than thought. People who are overly impulsive, seem unable to curb their immediate reactions or think before they act. As a result, they may blurt out answers to questions or inappropriate comments, or run into the street without looking. Their impulsivity may make it hard for a child to wait for things they want or to take their turn in games. They may grab a toy from another child or hit when they are upset.

What this would look like in school in our experience was my son blurting out a noise, walking up to something and knocking it down, bumping into someone, hitting his head on the desk, etc. This was probably the number one category of behaviors he repeatedly got in trouble for.

The teachers, the para professionals, the counselors, and the principal would always ask the same thing of him: “Why did you…? Why? What were you thinking?”

And he would always answer, “I dunno.” Sometimes he would giggle.

I got told the same thing over and over – that my son must have done whatever he had done on purpose, because he showed no remorse for his actions and refused to tell us why. They were infuriated. They would even go so far as to suggest for a behavioral blowup on a Tuesday morning that I punish him over the weekend by taking away TV and video games. Um… have you ever disciplined a dog 10 hours after he ate a shoe? How’d that work out for you?

Of course he doesn’t know WHY  he did it. Of course he feels no remorse – he doesn’t understand that he did something wrong.

It is NOT a calculated action.

It is NOT a manipulative behavior.

It is NOT intentionally disrespectful.

As a parent, it takes a lot of reminders for me to remember these things in the heat of the moment. When he rides the puppy, sticks his foot in my face, punches me, knocks into me while I have a cup of hot coffee in my hand, blurts out a screeching noise close to my face… this is impulsivity. He doesn’t think, “Hmmm… if I do THIS, it will make Mom yell.” (that’s my daughter’s job, ha ha)

Now, before you start yelling that I am giving him a free ticket to be a butt whenever he wants, that is not the case. I am always striving to find the delicate balance of understanding his actions but teaching him that they are inappropriate. In order to communicate with him in a way he will receive it, I have to remember that he is not doing it on purpose to physically hurt me or irritate the living crap out of me. (Again… teen daughter for that :) Kidding! She’s awesome!)

I also have to remember that sometimes he is just being a boy. My world is submerged in the study of Autism and I can sometimes forget that little boys can be imps.

I wish I could tell you WHY impulsivity is such a huge part of Autism. In fact, I tried to write this blog last week based on the science behind it and it just wasn’t happening. It is what it is, and I’m sharing what we experience and what helps. That’s all I can do!

So what does help?

Create a separate room for “free behaviors”. One of my favorite things to say to my son when his noises and behaviors are at their peak in the common living area is, “This is the quiet room. You may go in the noisy room to scream, throw things, punch your pillow (or keep doing whatever it is he is doing). Out here you need to be quiet and respect the rest of the family.” I even do it with the dogs – send them to another place when they are severely disrupting things in the family room.

Redirection. Ah, the magic answer that comes up a lot… because it works! Changing the focus, getting out of the power struggle and into a silly joke, task, or game will almost always set the stage for peace.

Social stories. My son lacks empathy – he is not currently wired to experience theory of mind (putting himself in another’s shoes). I have actually seen some pretty exciting gains when it comes to this, but for the most part I have to remember that saying, “How would you feel if…?” never gets the answer I want. Not because he’s being a butt, because he doesn’t know. Social stories – observing a third party in a similar situation – help him make a connection.

I’ve always been amazed that my son could do high school math but would burn his hand on our stove and go back and touch it again. The cause and effect factor is completely missing. This helps me understand that coming up to me and knocking down something I’ve just built does not warrant the punishment a parent might normally feel the need to dispense. I have to stop and think, just as much as I am teaching my son to do.

What about you? What challenging behaviors do you see that you can attribute to impulsivity? What helps? I’d love for you to comment below or share your experiences on the SOA Facebook page!

Why is My Child Crashing into Me and Screaming?!?

In my house this weekend, my son was a human (LOUD!) bumper car. Despite all of my refined calming and redirecting techniques, the past few days brought loud screams interspersed with crashing into walls, family members, doors, mirrors, and repeated jumping and falling onto the floor. Ironically, light touches and loud noises from any other source but his own mouth send him into immediate meltdown. How can that be? How can crashing and tight squeezes feel great but a hand on his shoulder make him recoil as if he were being branded with a hot iron?

It can actually be very common for children with Sensory Processing issues to be both sensory seekers and sensory avoiders. How confusing and frustrating it can be!

What is sensory seeking?

As I’ve written before, Sensory Integration is the ability of the brain to detect, modulate, discriminate, and integrate the three special sensory systems – tactile (touch), vestibular (movement), and proprioceptive (body awareness).  Although these sensory systems are less familiar than the five senses we all learned about as children, they are critical in order for humans to experience, interpret, and respond to their environment appropriately.

Sensory seeking occurs when a child’s nervous system is under-responsive to the information being received by the brain, so they continually seek intense sensory experiences for an extended time period to compensate. Some typical sensory seeking behaviors include:

  • Hyper-activity
  • Impulsivity
  • Decreased response to pain
  • Crashing and banging into things
  • Craves “tight squeezes” or bear hugs others a lot
  • Screaming
  • Poor body awareness – clumsiness, touching objects or others too hard or too often
  • Staying in a soiled diaper or underpants

What is sensory avoiding?

Children with sensory avoidant behavior commonly have nervous systems that are overly responsive to sensation, which can trigger “fight or flight” responses to sensory stimuli.  They may demonstrate some of these behaviors:

  • Withdrawing from touch
  • Motion sickness, fear of heights
  • Anxious in over-stimulating environments (public places such as malls, playgrounds, etc.)
  • Picky eater – avoidance of certain textured foods, sensitive to food smells or temperatures
  • Doesn’t like being messy and avoids mud, dirt, messy foods
  • Struggles with self-care activities; will only wear certain types of material for clothing and or wear clothing in a particular way; complains about hair brushing, tooth brushing, and hair cutting.

If your child is like mine, we can relate to almost everything in both lists! However, I did have some success alleviating some of the crashing and screaming while we were in public, and I wanted to share what worked with you.

Things that helped

There’s nothing more frightening than standing in line at the grocery store and having your child uncontrollably scream crash into displays, climb on counters, and swing off things that are not meant to be swung from! OY! When this state of sensory seeking is reached, reasoning attempts fly out the window.

While we were out I offered some tight squeezes, head and shoulder pressure, and “contests” (bet you can’t crab walk to that bench and back in 2 minutes!). These did not stop the behaviors entirely but offered some relief to his body and allowed me a few more minutes to finish our errand. It is good to carry a weighted backpack in the car as an emergency sensory-seeking tool to help get you through a situation like that as well!

Once we got home, I was able to isolate him to a quiet room and really pay attention to what his body was craving. We used blanket rolling, full body pressure on a giant yoga ball while he was lying face-down, spinning, and our newest trick: wrapping a rolling pin in large bubble wrap and rolling it over his back! I then gave him some time in his tent with a digital timer. Watching the numbers count down always calms him. It was important that he knew it was not time out for misbehaving, rather a break that would help him.

Other tools I love for sensory avoidance behaviors:

  • Noise-blocking headphones
  • Personal games to keep him focused
  • Favorite healthy snacks
  • Nature sounds on my iPhone
  • Wubbzy music :)
  • An escape plan!

What things help your child cope with sensory input?