Dealing with Sensory Issues in Public

Dealing Sensory Issues Public
Every parent with a child on the spectrum can vouch for me when I state, “going out in public is a challenge.”  Transitioning from the house to the car is your first challenge.  Then the challenge shifts to dealing with the sensory problems of the new place upon arrival.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget this one time when I took my daughter to the grocery store.  It was years ago. She was probably two and half.  Since her sister was born just twelve months after her – I had my hands full.

In an attempt to have a successful shopping trip, (the kind where you pick out items and then actually are able to purchase them before having to leave because your child has a meltdown), I had purchased one of those kid backpacks with the leash attached.  I was breaking one of my own cardinal rules that I swore I would never do once I had children – I mean a leash?  I was desperate. I had to get groceries and no one would watch my kids with one being on the spectrum and the other with GI issues.  So I put the baby carrier on the grocery cart and strapped my almost three year old into her backpack with the leash.  She eagerly strolled into the store.  Just like most two and three year olds she was curious to see what lurked behind each corner.  However, after retrieving my third item the sensory sensitivities got the best of her.  She lie down on the floor screaming with her hands over her ears and her eyes clenched shut.  I tried to calm her down.  I tried to talk to her but she wasn’t responsive.  She was in too much pain.  I ended up having to carry her out kicking and screaming while carrying her younger sister in her infant car seat carrier.  All the while listening to comments such as:“Some people need parenting classes.” Or “Someone needs a nap.”

We have come a long way since that day.  Thankfully, my daughter is able to speak and has explained to me her sensory issues.  In her situation we equate it with a frog in a pot of water.  The frog is fine when it is first put in the pot (the store in this situation is the pot).  As the water slowly warms, it isn’t noticeable until the water is so hot that the frog desperately tries to escape.

In an effort to help my daughter not reach her “boiling point,” she carries a “sensory bag” with her and we use visual charts to prepare her.  The sensory bag includes noise reduction headphones, sun glasses, a distraction toy and a sweater (for the freezer section).  Obviously, sensory integration with the expert help of a trained Occupational Therapist can help children adjust to some of these everyday noises but when OT is not an option try creating a “sensory bag” with tools to help your child’s individual needs.

Over the years she has adjusted to not needing all of these tools and I have learned to only go into the store to buy a couple of things.  Most of the time I send my husband or use a delivery service such as Peapod.com or ShopRite’s pickup option.  There is also the option of going to the store after the kids are in bed (while the other parent stays home).  Asking or hiring someone to pick up groceries can be helpful and help you stick to a budget.  Sites such as: http://www.wegoshop.com (covers the Bahamas, United States and Canada), www.Tesco.com, (offers grocery shopping and other shopping delivery services in the U.K.), allow you to pay someone to do your grocery shopping for you or choose your items online and have them delivered to your door.  Let’s face it – there are some days when checking grocery shopping off your list of things to do would be extremely helpful and simpler.

This article was originally published in Autism Parenting Magazine, if you would like similar articles on a monthly basis, please consider treating yourself to a subscription

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17 Responses to Dealing with Sensory Issues in Public

  1. My son’s sensory overload happened when he was waiting for the school bus in the morning or when he was about to step into the school cafeteria – I suspect that the anticipation of the noise he was going to experience is what triggered the meltdowns he’d have on the corner and his point blank refusal to eat in the cafeteria. That was 20 years ago when words like autism, ASD and sensory overload had yet to be incorporated into conversations about developmental delays. I worked with the “buzz words” and behavior at hand: ADHD, auditory processing delays …etc and, like you, knew that I had to come up with some coping strategies for my child. The image of a frog being lowered into a pot of boiling water is a good visual, illustrating that some times, sensory overload sneaks up. Other times, it can be a rude smack in the face.

  2. My son Spencer is a stimmer, and has never had a meltdown in public — he’s ostracized because of his stims (90% happy ones) because they’re not socially accepted by the neurotypical community. The image of the frog in hot water was very difficult to read because of the cruelty of the situation — I fight for animal rights and as well as autistic rights. I respect my Spencer’s stims, I don’t hold him back or try to change him. They are part of who he is. I’m sorry if other people think he’s weird and doesn’t belong.

  3. I live in Oudtshoorn, South Africa where the world’s largest ostrich farms are found and much knowledge with regard to farming methods etc is of a very high standard, but unfortunately the thing that is most important to me very little is known -and that is autism which my grandson is a victim of – even the paediatrician in this area to which I have been referred admits that he knows littel and I have to travel 500km to Cape Town for more professional and knowledgeable treatment therefore the information which I can receive via this communication is most valuable to me. My grandson is now 5yrs old he goes to a Montessori school and I tend to him in the afternoons! Pls help where you can!

    • There is a lot of good information now about how to help kids with autism. If you are looking for a book to read and give to others for an easy start I would suggest “Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wants You to Know” I have two sons with autism . Your grandchild is lucky to have you.

  4. These melt-downs can be easily and PERMANENTLY avoided if they are dealt with on the level of energy disturbances BEFORE the actual “event” takes place. This is how I am continuing to help many parents with children with autism who have sensory processing issues.

    • Hi Rajalakshmi,

      Please elaborate on “These melt-downs can be easily and PERMANENTLY avoided if they are dealt with on the level of energy disturbances”.

      Thanks a lot!
      Brajesh.

  5. Hi. My 12years old son has autism asperger and ADHD. I truly understand the situatuion. He is really sensetive in a strange situatuion. Speciallywhen we go to a crowded party. So we just avoid going there or go late and leave very soon( if we have to go).
    Any way; try to ignore people’s negative or even nonsence positive comments.
    San Marcos Texas.

  6. I can relate to the sensory issue of bright lights in some stores. I had visual problems following a concussion causing me to have a short term sensitivity to the glare from excessive lighting. This was very unpleasant, frustrating, and caused anxiety. Now I understand just a small part of what autistic people endure. I am over 50 years old and had difficulty coping with this even though I understood the situation and knew it would be short term.

  7. My son still has melt downs more because he doesn’t get what he wants. He screams loudly. People stare I’ve learned to people out from staring at us. But I do refrain from taking him to the store Ive been working on sensory on sensory issues. He does a lot of echolila uses some words on his own. He started calling me mama just this year on his own. He is 4 so I cried I absolutely love to hear him call me mama mom mommy

  8. Bruce sometimes all of a sudden covers his ears and I suspect this may be his meltdown, especially if we get to a noisy place. He however doesn’t have a problem with other kids noises but mostly music. The noise reduction headphones may be a good solution to this, but whenever he is done with anything like maybe a cup after tea or a toy, he throws it away or even smashes it. I hope he will find the headphones useful.

  9. I couldn’t take my son to public bathrooms due to the the flushing of toilets and the loud hand dryer. I can take him now. He still covers his ears. Sometimes he will use the bathroom and sometimes not. We just finished 10 days of auditory integration training in Albuquerque and my hopes is this treatment with help him deal noises.

  10. My son is 2 years old and was suspected to have Autism and ADHD. He is not at all responding to his name. will this suspection can be treated or what should i do inorder to get his attention. please help me as this is bothering me from past 2 months.

    Can we suspect Autism at the age of 2 or they were wrong?

  11. Reading all of the comments is making me feel a bit better my son is 6 has austim it his hard some time he has alsow had to wear legs braces day and night and has to go in a wheel chair
    It has upset me so much he has got two younger siblings there are very easy going about Peter James but there
    Do ask a lot of questions but the most that upset me is stranger if he has a tantrum there don’t ask if I want help with my oldest in a wheel chair and a 3 daughter and a 1 year old son and there just walk past

  12. “One being on the spectrum and the other with GI issues”… This suggests to me that the neurobiology of autism runs in your family, like it does in mine. Autism and GI issues are linked.

    The way I see it, some of us have a special sensitivity. Kind of like when Captain Kirk says, “Lower the shields, Captain Sulu,” when he’s going to perform some brilliant tactical maneuver. This means we display the autistic temperament or even Asperger’s. It’s a gift and a blessing, even though it is often an awkward burden. But because our kids’ shields are down (again this is sometimes GI related) any developmental problem might result in their having moderate to severe symptoms.

    I suspect that you are able to empathize with your kids so well because you are tuned to the same wavelength.

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