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Sensory Overload: How to Find What Works Best for Your ASD Child

October 11, 2023

Needing a Band-Aid after scraping your knee seems like a rite of passage when it comes to childhood. I have many memories of running into my grandmother’s house in the summer and showing her my freshly scraped knee and waiting on the counter for her to come back with iodine and a bandage. It always followed me listening to my friends and trying a new trick on my bicycle—this usually had to do with me trying to ride downhill on a dirt road with no hands, and in some cases, the bandage would have to wrap all the way around my knee.

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This happened so often—I seemed to have been an unusually clumsy child—that the tape and gauze stopped bothering me around the age of four, so I honestly had no idea that those feelings could send someone into a complete and total meltdown for hours after the tape and gauze have been removed.

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I didn’t encounter this situation until I had my son and he received his first Band-Aid-worthy injury. He was around two years old and was still in that wobbly toddler running phase and had tripped going out the backdoor at my mother’s house. The obligatory crocodile tears and wailing subsided for a moment, but once the bandage was securely on his knee, the crying was worse than before. This, of course, sent new parents into panic mode while we tried to figure out what was wrong. Was there something in the wound we hadn’t seen? Did he fall harder than we had thought and broken his knee? Did he hurt some other part of his body that we didn’t know of? The first thing we did was remove his Star Wars bandage to inspect his knee for a second time and, of course, as soon as it was completely gone, he stopped crying. It took us awhile to put two and two together, but with a child who is fascinated with walking but not entirely in control of his extremities, one can guess that a few more bandages lay in his future.

Trips to the doctor’s office notwithstanding, my son did find myriad ways to necessitate being bandaged up. All were minor, but some also needed to be protected from dirt and infection. At first we tried just putting the bandage on without him looking, thinking, of course, that if he couldn’t see it then it might not bother him as badly. This technique lasted all of one application when his little hand reached down and ripped it off of his elbow. Our next idea was to use gauze and tape so that we could wrap the injured area and then secure it with tape without having to adhere it to his skin. Again, this attempt was met with tears and screaming until we had taken it off again. We were running out of options, and since he was also against any type of ointment or wound wash, we were at a loss as to how to help him.

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It took us almost three years, but one afternoon, after a particularly bad jump off of an eight-inch retaining wall, we had a breakthrough. We didn’t have the right sized bandages to handle his scratched up knee so we packed him up and went off to the pharmacy. I found a brand that I hoped would be sticky enough to live through an afternoon of rambunctious five-year-old shenanigans, but not so sticky as to feel overly restrictive and cause him to immediately yank it off. Since it’s nearly impossible to find a large bandage with a “cool” character on it I decided to improvise. I took my son, while my husband looked for something to wash his knee with that wasn’t “stingy,” as our son would say, to the very sparsely stocked craft section. I told him to pick out a sheet of stickers to spruce up the large skin colored patch I was about to plaster onto his knee. I had witnessed him putting stickers onto his arms and legs just a few days prior to this flying trip to the pharmacy and I was hoping that I could essentially tell him that the bandage was just a giant sticker meant to help him heal better.

What happened next is something most people wouldn’t see as any sort of major breakthrough, but then again, we aren’t like most people. With the help of some very brightly colored and shiny smiley face stickers we were able to get our kiddo to wear the bandage for about twelve hours. While this didn’t keep his knees as protected as we would like, it did allow for his body to start the healing process, and that was more than a win in our book. The next day, when he was finally rid of the offending “big sticker,” he wasn’t greeted with any of the other sights that bother him in regards to having injuries. While his knee seemed a bit tender to the touch he was able to jump around and act like his bubbly and giddy self.

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Having a child with autism presents its own unique set of hurdles, and mixing severe sensory avoidance adds another layer to help children navigate. Over the last year and a half, we have found that if you’ve met one person with autism then you’ve met one person with autism. Each of us does our own thing and has our own likes and dislikes and most of us don’t have to deal with things being too loud, too bright, or just too much as a whole. Understanding what works for our son, and what doesn’t, has been a big part of our battle to try to understand his world, and while we have stumbled along the way, we have also come up with some pretty interesting solutions to problems we never even dreamed could exist. The biggest solution we have run across is having our son involved in the decision making processes of things. We explain that something is necessary and then give him options as to how it will be carried out. Like the bandage, he knew it was necessary and then we encouraged him to be an active participant in the remainder of the decisions surrounding it. While we don’t have all the answers, or even all that many, we do get little glimpses into his world, and for that we are eternally grateful.

This article was featured in Issue 67 – Preparing for Adulthood With Autism

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