I hate supermarkets! They are a sensory nightmare for me. The lights are bright, it is noisy with music blaring, people talking, screaming, trollies screeching, tills bleeping. There’s lots of movement, people changing direction suddenly; one isle is cold, another hot…….and then…….
There is choice! Too much choice! I mean how many types of butter or anything else can there be? And have you tried to choose shampoo? It drives me crazy and the only way that I can cope is by making myself a list and sticking to it……in fact what I am doing is limiting my choices to ease the anxiety!
People with ASD are anxious in busy situations. They are disturbed by all the sensory stimulation and social demands when other people are about. In fact other people can seem quite unpredictable. If you cannot read body language and facial expression it is difficult to predict why someone is coming towards you, what their intentions are and how on earth you should react to them. On top of that, in school, shops, restaurants, banks, doctor’s surgeries, hairdressers and many other places we are given choices.
What do you want to buy? What do you want to do? What do you want to eat? Which hospital do you want to go to? Which shampoo do you want?
In my experience many people with ASD cannot settle, focus or deal with situations if there is too much choice. They can easily become overloaded by sensory information and by trying to make a decision. In some this can lead to them going into an extreme state of anxiety or even meltdown.
I don’t really like our modern idea of children’s play. It is true that children do learn through play but everywhere you go children have too much choice of what to play WITH. They have enough toys to open their own store at home, playgroups, nurseries, schools are overflowing with toys and play activities to choose from…and it is no wonder to me that children with ASD can’t settle, focus or concentrate unless they find one thing they like and shut out all the other things around them. And there is STUFF everywhere. The idea of stimulating children by covering every surface with bright colours, busy pictures, things that move and make noise is stupid. I’m not surprised that so many children have poor concentration spans and behaviour as a result.
So what can we do…
First we can limit stimulation in environments we have some control over, your home, maybe even school. I like the idea of the occasional piece of blank wall. It doesn’t mean taking everything away but make it calm! Try it with one room to start with.
Then we can limit choice. If your child is young and cannot make choices at all, you can start by making those choices for them and enabling them to learn to move on from one thing to the next. A ‘now’ and ‘next’ board can help if you put photographs of the things you are going to do. One good resource about this is:
If your child or older person with ASD is overwhelmed but can make choices, then simply ‘this’ or ‘that’ – chose between two things to start with.
Once choice becomes manageable then you can slowly widen the options but think visually……use pictures, draw or just write down what the options are and maybe what the pros and cons are of each. Then you can illuminate the poorer choices until you have narrowed them down. That makes the final choice easier. This can be very useful for teenager with Asperger’s and I have used this technique many times.
Involve them…explain why learning to make choices is a good thing and ask for their ideas. Listen well.
By learning how to make choices slowly and gradually you are teaching a useful life skill. So don’t make choices for people with ASD…teach them how to make their own choices.