A child with autism can be very trying at times. Be it a nonverbal child crying and scrambling to figure out what has upset them. Maybe it’s an unexpected change in the routine that has triggered a meltdown. Then of course there are the times when the restaurant doesn’t have any food that fits your child’s sensory-based diet and you forgot the backpack with the snacks at home. While we can’t solve all of these hurdles, there are some really great tricks that I have picked up along the way that helped my kiddos. So, Today I thought I would share five things that have greatly helped with my twins and their unique needs.
This may sound a little cliche, but not only is it effective, but it’s also kind of adorable to watch. It took me the better part of a year working with my kiddos for them to start using this skill. For full transparency, most of that progress came from being out of work and at home for a month. Deep breaths don’t always work, but when I can remind the twins early enough it has helped to head off a lot of meltdowns. The method I used for teaching them began with me picking them up, saying deep breaths, and then taking a really exaggerated deep breath paired with sliding my hand up and down my chest in sync with my breathing. I would usually do two or three of these. At first they usually just kept on crying, but eventually, they started to catch on. Once I saw them lifting their shoulders like they saw me do. I began using my hand on their chest and taking an exaggerated beep breath of my own. They eventually began to catch on and now I can either say “deep breath” or make the gesture of my hand sliding up and down my chest and they will take a deep breath. I really can’t express how cute it is though when they take their over-exaggerated deep breaths.
The Meltdown Journal
Piggybacking off of deep breaths is the meltdown journal. As parents, we often have way too many things on our minds and if we don’t write these down, we tend to miss the patterns that our child is demonstrating. Now, this doesn’t need to be anything fancy. Mine was just quick notes in the notes app on my phone. The idea is to write down what happened immediately before your kiddo’s meltdown, the specifics of their meltdown, then what occurred following the meltdown. Now what we see happening right before the meltdown isn’t always the trigger, but this journal may help you identify a pattern. One other aspect is that while you may not find a pattern among the events before the meltdown, there may be a pattern of what helps end the meltdown. This is what occurred with my son Logan. Almost every time he has a meltdown, if someone just sets his blanket down next to him without making eye contact or saying anything, he will grab it and start calming down almost immediately.
Sleep training with my twins was quite rough. Almost every night once they were in toddler beds they ended up back in bed between my wife and me. This was a double-edged sword. We weren’t sleeping well when they crawled into bed with us. When the next night rolled around we were so tired and exhausted that we couldn’t really stick to our sleep training plan. Enter, the slumber bag. These are kind of like small sleeping bags. The ones we got are dinosaurs. They are machine washable and fit on top of a toddler bed. My twins absolutely love dinosaurs, so they were ecstatic about having these slumber bags. Within about a week of starting to use these, the boys were sleeping in their own beds all night. I really cannot say enough good things about these. Plus, as you may be aware, traveling and sleeping in a hotel can really throw off a kiddo with autism, but we just pack up their slumber bags. Then even the hotel, has the familiarity of their slumber bad and it doesn’t throw them off too badly.
I’m sure many of you have experienced the “sensory diet” that many autistic children have. The “my kid only eats like five things” diet. With my twins it is chicken nuggets, crackers, Nutella, juice, and milk. At least, that’s what it used to be. Now I’m an adult with autism, so I share a lot of the same struggles and challenges with my twins. The sensory diet is one that I really connect with. In my own journey to broaden my diet and be healthier, I began juicing various fruits and vegetables. This required me to cut and handle a lot of fruit. At first, I hated it, the texture of pineapples, kiwis, and strawberry made my skin itch. Over time, just by handling the fruits and vegetables, I got used to the textures. This gave me the idea of exposing the twins to different sensory toys. I went to the dollar store and got slime, putty, playdough, different cloth bags, elastic headbands, combs, hairbrushes, paintbrushes, and masking tape. Over the course of six months, we had sensory playtime twice a day. Once in the morning and once after dinner starting with five minutes and working up to fifteen minutes. At first, they did not like any of the textures, but my wife and I would play with the items in different ways that eventually enticed them. Now once we get the sensory bucket out the twins will play with it for hours. We also began putting various fruit on their plates with every meal. This did lead to wasting a lot of fruit, but they now can take a few bites of a strawberry or apple before they start to make faces at it and spit it out.
Exposure is the key
At the end of the day, it’s all about exposing the child to something new. Normalizing it, if you will. That is the real takeaway. If your child struggles with loud noises. Expose them to the idea of covering their ear or wearing noise-reducing earmuffs. You don’t need to expose them to loud noises, just talk to them and show them what they can do to help themselves feel better. The goal is to expose them to new coping skills and strategies. The more they see or interact with something the less it feels like an unknown. When something is known, it is safe and knowing things are safe makes them easier to interact with.