Wow, it’s dusty in here. I haven’t passed by my blog in maybe 6 weeks. That’s a long time in the blogosphere.
We’ve been busy, clearly. In addition to the general chaos of life, and the fun and games of selling our house and trying to find/buy another one, Melon has had a sensory flare up.
We should have expected it really. It was about this time last year when Melon had the “sensory explosion” that made us finally realise that she was autistic.
You see, the Melon of summer 2013 wasn’t the happy, settled little girl that I write about on a daily basis on my Facebook page. She was having several meltdowns a day, she was hypersensitive to texture and temperature, her sleep disintegrated… I’ve written about this time before, so I won’t go into in detail again, but suffice to say the main trigger was summer. The heat, the light, everything about it. And now, the temperature is hotting up again, we’re back onto the light summer evenings, and the same thing is starting to happen. So many other autism families that I speak to are having similar experiences,
At Christmas time, I read loads of articles, I saw loads of memes, all talking about how hard Christmas can be on autistic children, and the way it affects their sensory differences. I haven’t yet seen a similar piece about summer, so I’m going to write one. Apologies if I’m stating the bleeding obvious at any point, but one of the purposes of me writing a blog was to pass on my learning to those who are learning too, and to any readers who don’t have a child/relative on the spectrum.
The first, and the most obvious point…summer is hot. Hot is uncomfortable for many people, autistic or not. It makes you sweat, it makes your clothes stick to you uncomfortably, it can make you feel sick and dehydrated. For anyone, this can be unpleasant. For someone with sensory differences, it can be unpleasant to the point where maintaining concentration and communication is downright impossible.
Let’s move on to textures. Like I said, Summer is hot. We wear less clothes, so do our children. Arms, legs, bodies… All parts that are usually cushioned from the world by clothing (although not as much as you’d imagine in our sensory home!) are suddenly exposed to a deluge of sensory stimuli – grass tickling feet and legs; arms feeling the breeze; insects crawling and landing on you; increased likelihood of skin-to-skin contact with strangers in public places; wearing open toe shoes; hats sitting tightly, or irritatingly around the width of your skull; wearing shoes without socks; greasy, cold or oily sun cream on your face, your body, your legs; clothes becoming wet from sweat and clinging to you; running round in a wet swimming costume with it sticking to you and slowly drying out against your skin…
Even for a sensory seeker like Melon, many of these stimuli are simply intolerable. Constant daily exposure to them renders her unable to concentrate on other aspects of her life like communicating, organising herself and concentrating at school. She gets overloaded, she melts down.
Some autistic people, including Melon at times, will seek to block out an impending sensory overload by wearing their coat or other extra layers indoors. Melon has been doing this, despite the heat, becoming distressed if we try to persuade her to remove her coat or the extra blanket on her bed. She also likes to wear her swimsuit under her clothes as she finds the tightness of it comforting. Of course, these extra layers in hot weather serve to raise her body temperature, making her really uncomfortable and in some cases resulting in us having to make her take them off to avoid her becoming dangerously overheated. One other thing Melon does to try and stay calm is “mouth” objects – she places them in her mouth to “feel” them. In summer, with the increased amount of time spent outside, the risk of her “mouthing” something dangerous is tenfold.
Now let’s consider the visual aspect of summer. It’s bright. Light is everywhere. The sunlight is bright, people wear bright coloured clothing, the sunlight casts constantly moving shadows across every surface. Tree branches flutter in the breeze… That’s a lot of visual input to deal with. Or, If you’re a sensory seeker, that’s a lot of visual input to have to try and ignore. There’s also the elephant in the room – those summer nights. The ones where it doesn’t get dark till 10pm. For our children who have a regimental bedtime routine, who need things to be the same, familiar, safe, how confusing must it be to suddenly find bath time and story time being executed in bright blazing sunlight?
Then there’s the sounds. The sound of summer. Lawn mowers, bees, flies, police sirens, other people’s music sounding twice as loud because you and they have the windows open. Oscillating fans in the bedroom at night, the buzz of an air conditioning unit… To a neurotypical person, these things are just the background music to summer. To someone with sensory differences they are a crashing great symphony that can serve to drown out even thought.
One thought I had, and it probably spans several different sensory areas, is footwear. Our human feet are a crucial part of our balance system. Enclosed in normal shoes our toes and feet are protected. Suddenly place these same toes and feet into open toe summer shoes, and the sensation is totally different. I have seen Melon try to run in sandals with her toes curled up. I didn’t understand why at the time, now I realise it was because she couldn’t bear the feeling of grass, plants and other things brushing lightly across her toes as she was moving. Now, I either put socks on her or avoid sandals altogether.
Beyond the texture issues though, running with curled toes seriously affects your balance, which feeds into those vestibular sensory seeking and defending behaviours that are experienced by so many autistic people.
The smell of summer. I’ve heard people use the phrase “it’s stinking hot”. And you know, sometimes it really is. Things smell more in the summer. There’s the good smells – flowers, rain hitting the scorched earth, newly mown grass… To me, these are all pleasant, natural, soothing scents, but they might not be for everybody. There are other smells – the smell of barbecues, the smell of fuel and cars, the smell of people. On a windless day, scents can hang heavy in the air. Even I as a Committed meat lover can find the smell of barbecued meat a bit off-putting. Imagine how it must feel for someone with sensory differences and taste issues centred around food.
Then there’s the smell of people. A side effect of all that heat and the uncovered bodies is that we can smell more of each other accidentally than at any other time of year. Sweat, perfume, aftershave… It all seeps out of our pores and into the atmosphere around us. I vividly remember when I was pregnant with Melon, I had to sit in a car with someone, a male, who I knew socially. He had been to the pub the day before, he was a big guy, it was a small car. The smell of the alcohol in his sweat, mixed in with the aftershave he was wearing made me feel physically sick (pregnant women have a heightened sense of smell). I couldn’t tell him, he’d have been deeply hurt, so I Managed to open a car window and got through the journey without dry heaving too obviously. Imagine if I was Melon, and I couldn’t open the car window, or verbalise the fact that I felt sick, and everyone around me just expected me to carry on as usual…
There are other issues with summer. The fact that school shuts for several weeks and routines are totally disrupted, the prospect of a new teacher, new term, new pressures lurks on the horizon. For those with grass pollen allergies, which is many of our children, the pollen count is at it’s most irritating, nose tickling, head-muddling high during the summer months. Those light evenings also mean social gatherings, barbecues, parties, visitors…all of which serve to disrupt and alter the familiar and the routine, and they require a level of casual sociability which just doesn’t come naturally to many autistic people.
I’ve made summer sound pretty dreadful here. It honestly isnt. There are many, many aspects of this wonderful season that Melon enjoys, especially the chance to be outside so much, and spend so much time around nature.
I can’t deny the difficulties it throws up for though. For us and for her. You may not share any of the challenges I’ve written about. You might find this list woefully inadequate. I hope it has helped you get a little closer to understanding the sensory experience of one little autistic girl, my daughter, as she navigates her way through her usual daily routine, summer style. Writing it has certainly helped to reinforce some things in my mind. If it helps you understand yourself, or someone in your life a little bit better this summer, then all the better.
Summer summer summertime, let’s just sit back and unwind… Maybe….