You can’t change the radio channel fast enough. You’ve had a bad day, and you can’t make up your mind what you want to want to listen to. You scan the radio channels like you are looking for a needle in a haystack. Then you hear it. That old song that takes you back to a memory in time. As much as you should be focusing on the road, the song takes your mind off the road and you start to visualize a memory. You begin to dance, and you don’t care who is watching. The song ends, and you shake back into reality. You feel something on your face. No one is in the car, and you realize you have a huge smile on your face. Your bad day has melted off your body just by the correlation of a song to a good memory. It is that simple—handling menstruation with your child with special needs can totally change with the simple idea of correlation.
The world of autism revolves around prompts. Signs by the bathroom door. Signs on mirrors. Signs on door handles. Children with autism have minds that are triggered with pictures, expressions, timer sounds, and pointing. We become experts at molding. Let me take you on a journey with me, a journey of one week of happiness. A journey of a routine once a month that fosters happy memories once her period starts. A journey where “correlation and routine” turn menstruation into…a joyride. Let’s retrain the brain.
Menstruation is a mother’s worst nightmare. If a mother could put a hold on her child getting her period, every mother would. Handling menstruation might very well be the most dreaded thing a parent with a child with autism will ever have to handle. But does it have to be?
Prompting Happiness Theory
The lives of young children with autism often revolve around prompts and routines, so a period routine can create happiness and positive memories. Any woman who gets her menstrual cycle will experience mood swings, irritability, and emotional highs and lows. What about a child who struggles with expressing feelings and verbalizing—what will make her feel better? How do we help her mood swings, irritability, and emotional highs and lows? It’s simple: by distraction. The Prompting Happiness Theory is a routine created at the start of the period. This is a seven-day routine with an outcome of highs and lows, and, in hindsight, seven days of good memories.
Sit down and write down a list of things your child loves to do. Then, create a seven-day schedule routine:
Day 1: Movie Night
Day 2: Baking Cookie Night
Day 3: Craft Night
Day 4: Reading Night
Day 5: Dance party
And so on…
There should be one event for every day of the child’s period. Despite what it feels like, children with autism are very focused, especially when it comes to schedules and routines. The prompt in this case is the start of the period, and the focus on the seven-day routine will distract the child from feeling the maximized mood changes. Train the brain to actually think the start of a period is the start to a seven-day party. This will prompt the child to verbalize to you the start of her period monthly. The routine might not be smooth sailing at first. Your child most likely doesn’t feel good, so it may not be all puppies and flowers at first. Stick to it and allow your daughter to get used to it. Every child dips a toe in the water before he/she starts swimming.
There is nothing simple about handling menstruation. Below are some tips about handling the physical aspect of menstruation for a child with autism:
1. Mom’s Protégé
Think of yourself and how menstruation is for you, what you go through, and what helps you. Your child has your gene pool, and chances are, her cycle will mimic how yours is.
2. Pad Art
If you can potty train your child, you can teach her how to handle her period. As always, every painter was at first an amateur. A pad can feel uncomfortable, so the chances your child will not be happy wearing one are a real. Remember, your child has a heightened sensory system. Do not allow the pad to be full before changing it; change it just slightly before. How do you teach your child that? It’s difficult to teach how feeling too saturated feels. So give your child a visual. Create a trigger by drawing a circle on the pad, that if saturation meets that point, the pad needs to be changed.
3. Sleeping Beauty
Prior to their period, most females will feel overly tired earlier in the day than usual. Allow your child to have some naps during the day or earlier bedtimes the week before her period.
4. For Once Be Like the Fun Aunt
Many of us have that fun aunt in the family, the one that sugars our kids up and gives them whatever they ask for. Our children think the world of them. Almost all women experience cravings prior to and during their periods: anything full of sugar or salt is devoured, and yet nothing is entirely satisfying. Your child will feel the same. Many children with autism are on specific diets or restrictions, so allowing your child to have sugar may be something you’re against. If possible, break down some of those restrictions. Feeding the cravings will decrease moods and outbreaks. With children who have cravings and yet cannot express them verbally, there may be an increase in mood-swings due to frustration. A spoonful of sugar never hurts.
5. Increase the Protein
Studies show that woman will experience a decrease in blood sugar during menstruation. This causes cravings and irritability. Increasing protein in your child’s diet will stabilize your child’s blood sugar.
6. Pay Attention
Period migraines/headaches are very common in most women. Due to the overwhelming events that happen to the body during menstruation, realizing your child has a headache can be easily missed. Listen to your child and pay attention to her nonverbal clues during menstruation.
7. Loosen Up
Women understand that dreaded bloating and water weight felt during menstruation. Be sure to dress your child in looser/free breathing clothes during this time so she doesn’t become focused on discomfort.
8. Heat with a Dash of Rice
Heat definitely helps cramps and discomfort. Keep in mind that children with autism have a heightened sensory system, so any heating pad that feels lukewarm will feel hot to them. How do you keep a heating pad on your child? It’s simple: distraction. You can find ‘do it yourself’ directions on making a reusable microwavable rice heating pack on the Internet. No sewing needed, just rice, fabric, and sewing glue. The magic to keeping the heating pad on your child is using a heavily textured fabric. Your child will focus on feeling the fabric and the movement of the rice and forget the feeling of the heat on her stomach.
Our children with autism will face many things in life that are complicated, like menstruation. It is important to pay attention to who our children are and how they process the world. We should not mold our children to situations—we should mold situations to our children. Like a puzzle piece, sometimes you have to keep turning the piece until you find the side that fits. Enjoy your ride; no one said menstruation with a child with special needs couldn’t be fun. Change your perspective to create a better reality.
Maria Rohan is a Registered Nurse at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. Outside of the nursing field, Maria has dedicated her life to working with children with disabilities, trying to provide the most opportunities possible. Having worked with children with autism for 10 years and having the autism diagnosis in her family, Maria writes interactive workbooks for children with this condition. She molds each workbook to their musical voice pattern, their attention span, and their likes. She currently sits on the PTO of STEPS Center for Excellence in Autism and continues to let her love for the children plant seeds of movement.
This article was featured in Issue 59 – Top Strategies, Therapies and Treatments for Autism