Long ago, I stopped accepting most of the things that are supposed to be true about people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Recently, I was reminded about two of these supposed “truths”:
1. People with ASD make meaningless sounds such as humming, and sing or recite content from movies just to hear themselves make noise.
2. People with ASD have sensory processing issues that must always be controlled externally by altering the environment or providing them with additional tools such as weighted blankets, noise-cancelling earphones, or other sensory-calming products.
Whether verbal, non-verbal, or somewhere in between, our children have a lot to teach us about how they perceive and process the world around them. Perceptive parents quickly learn a lot from their offspring – about ASD, about children with other differences, and most importantly, about their own children as individual human beings.
This is a little story about tuning in to my 26-year-old daughter, whose habits, movements, sounds, and sensitivities I know almost as well as I know my own, though I don’t always understand the communicative intent of her behaviors.
Three mornings a week, a van arrives to transport Anna to her day program.
Every morning for several years, she would pace, recite movie lines and hum in an agitated manner with her fingers stuck in her ears in anticipation of the van’s arrival. As it pulled up in front of the house and the horn honked, she would gasp loudly and push harder on her ears, then walk out to the van holding both her lunchbox and her ears.
For the past month or so, there has been the same van, same driver, and two quick honks on the horn, all of which have made much of the morning more predictable and easy. However, the time of arrival still varies each day, and that still meant there was enough unpredictability that waiting was anxiety-producing.
Over the last few weeks, Anna would pace, cover her ears, hum and chatter only for a few minutes, then as the time drew nearer for the van to arrive, remove her fingers from her ears, and peer intently out the window. Inevitably, within 60 seconds of the time the van actually arrived (how does she KNOW that?!), she would softly insert her own closely approximated version of the tone, pitch, and time interval of the two quick horn blasts into the rest of her chatter. “Yada yada yada yada beep beep yada yada yada yada.”
It took a few days for this to get my attention, but once it did, I also noticed she no longer gasped and clamped her hands over her ears when the van arrived, and it dawned on me what she was doing. She was preparing her sensory system for the unpredictability of the arrival time, using her own version of the sound of the horn, something like an auditory immunization. It’s brilliant! All of the muttering and chatter seems to be meaningfully connected to the two little honks she makes.
So – two things are still true, after all these years:
• never assume odd noises and sounds are meaningless, and
• it’s easy to miss noticing when our children teach themselves calming and self-management techniques on their own and apply them to specific circumstances.
This story does not negate instances where self-produced sounds may be stimulating or reinforcing for unknown-to-us reasons, nor does it argue against the anecdotally reported benefits of sensory-integration tools and techniques. I appreciate fellow parent Beverly K. for pointing out that we especially need to remember many of our younger children have not yet developed self-management and self-regulation skills to help them deal with bothersome sensory input. For parents of younger children – when people tell you, “It gets better” – this is the kind of wonderful thing they mean.
Watch and listen closely! We never know what our children, no matter what age or ability, might have to teach us!