How I Help My Autistic Toddler Cope With Sensory Issues

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Our two and a half year old is diagnosed with autism. That diagnosis can come with sensory processing difficulties. These are the techniques we use to help big a cope with sensory issues. When sensory issues are under control it’s much easier to teach big a the lessons he needs to get along in our home, and, eventually, school.

how i help my autistic toddler cope with sensory issues

Being a tiny human is hard. Toddlers have the Herculean task of learning life-long skills to get along in our homes, and eventually, school. Skills like taking turns, washing hands, waiting quietly by the door when it’s time to leave, transitioning between activities, the list goes discouragingly on. These skills are so common we have difficulty explaining, let alone teaching, the steps. All toddlers are learning skills while learning how to learnI mean, can you imagine? Bless their little hearts, I’d be terrible too.

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder or other diagnoses can have difficulties in processing basic sensory information, adding a layer of chaos to an already bewildering world. They’re trying to learn skills, while learning how to learn, in the middle of a damned hurricane.

Our oldest son, Big A, is autistic, and experiences sensory overload. These episodes are easily triggered, making it hard for him to absorb what we’re trying to teach him.

Learning Through Sensory Overload

I’ve been rethinking the way we teach Big A skills and outlined a four-step system:

  • Compassion First
  • Teaching Self-Awareness
  • Guided Regulation
  • Eventual Self Advocacy

If you can think of a snappy way to remember that let me know.

Focusing and following through on these steps has shown a higher probability that the desired skill/habit we’re trying to teach takes root.

Helping Big A keep himself regulated means he can pay attention when we talk about the importance of not hitting his brother. Paying attention when we’re talking about not hitting his brother lessens the need to use discipline in the future. It’s a win-win.

What Does Sensory Overload Feel Like?

Not fun, first of all.

Adults with sensory processing problems use words like “chaos,” “overwhelming,” and “out-of-control.” Author Amanda Sebring described it to me as,

I become an interrobang (?!). There is a physical reaction, for sure, an impulse to literally run away, my brain beating against my skull like ‘NO NO NO THIS IS NOT CORRECT,’ disoriented, all reason and logic dissolving into a rather primal need to escape. I imagine it’s what a wild thing might feel if it were being hunted.

Sensory overload also seems to inspire water references, people reporting excess stimulation “flooding” situations, “drowning” them, coming in “waves.”

toddler and baby watching trains on tv
We were all sick this week and watched a lot of train videos

Compassion First

So, no, I can’t imagine what that feels like. Therefore I try my hardest to start with compassion and empathy.

Sensory overload seems to inspire extreme discomfiture in adults, what do I expect Big A to do with that? His little neurons can’t understand the deluge, let alone communicate the feelings inspired by it and choose an appropriate coping skill.

The way he does sometimes communicate his “interrobang-ness” is bizarre and frustrating to me. Disruptive to the routine, to say the least.

Dozens of times a day (not really, seems like sometimes) I have to remind myself that Big A is not giving me a hard time, he’s having a hard time. Coming from that perspective makes my voice warmer, hands softer, posture more relaxed. Big A responds in kind, ya know, cuz of mirror neurons.

The Fear of Not-Knowing

Big A has a hard time feeling his body or knowing where it is in space. This only makes the sensory stuff even harder to deal with.

I can imagine that, a little bit. When Big A was born I sustained a nerve injury that caused me to be unable to feel my left leg from the upper calf down. It’s very hard to describe (in fact, the late scientist Oliver Sacks describes it as “literally unimaginable” to those that haven’t experienced the injury) but not being able to feel parts of your body reeeeaaaallly messes with one’s head. Everyone has some kind of internal body awareness, that’s why you duck in low doorways.

When that internal sense is destabilized, lots of thought processes are disrupted. I certainly snapped at my husband during various struggles. What do I expect a two and a half year old to do?

old picture of elderly man and woman shaking hands
I read a great book about the Wyndham sisters this week (a powerful family in Victorian England). This is a picture of their parents celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. Isn’t it hilarious?? “chap cheerio chap Mother let’s shake hands about our long marriage the empire cheerio tea.”
toddler wearing pyjamas looking at camera

Teaching Self-Awareness

We spend a lot of time touching and naming parts of Big A’s body.

We use this great brush to vigorously rub Big A’s limbs. “Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” is a popular song around these parts. We play hiding games with blankets and this tunnel system covering and excitedly unveiling body parts. Compression vests and weighted blankets can help with this as well.

We try to take advantage of the routines of the day-diaper changes, meals, bath times, getting dressed, etc, as opportunities to continue naming and touching body parts. When dressing we’ll ask Big A where his legs are and if he can put each one in. In the bath, Big A will point to his belly and then we’ll squirt it with a bath toy. Mealtimes are whiled away pointing out different parts of our faces. Teaching him to point wasn’t easy, but was so worth it.

Getting Descriptive

Lately, we’ve been trying to get even more wordy where this is concerned.

When Big A is flapping his hands in seeming anxiety we say things like, “look, your hands are flapping like birds, are you nervous/excited/upset?” Or “your hands are grabbing at Little A like claws, are you angry/jealous/not sharing?” In times of praise, “look how gentle your hands are! Like soft kitties.”

Now that we’re applying all these godforsaken animal analogies, we’re making them situational as well. Like, “oh, we’re at the library! Time to make our hands slow and heavy like elephants” or “when we touch brother we make our hands soft like butterflies.”
toddler wearing hat looking at camera

Our Coping Skills

Deep Pressure

Big A responds well to joint compression or “squeezes.”

We encircle his wrist, shoulder, or torso with our hands and squeeze; sometimes Big A likes having his body squeezed with our legs.

Vestibular Stimulation Exercises

Our toddler spends a lot of time jumping, probably to stimulate his vestibular system.

Giving him other outlets to stimulate that system seems to lend to an overall air of calm. Josh and I like to place Big A in the middle of a blanket, lift him off the floor, and gently swing him back and forth.

Head & Face Taps aka “Doot Doot Doots”

Tapping around the top of Big A’s head, his forehead, cheeks, and orbital areas seem to ground him. When he’s showing signs of distress (flapping his arms and hands in a more anxious ways, making sounds of vexation, stomping his feet) or attention especially needs to be paid, we begin tapping these areas.

We call this practice “doot doot doots” because that’s what we say aloud while doing it. This is weird but works so well. Tapping substantially calms Big A and is better able to listen to instructions.

Leveling Up: Getting Big A To Ask For Help (Self Advocate)

Our ultimate goals are to a.) get Big A to recognize when he’s feeling off and needing to use these coping skills and b.) ask for them. Trying to turn this into two step process with a toddler who doesn’t use verbal communication that well can be a challenge.

We try to stay calm and say asinine things like “look at those angry lion hands and feet, you’re angry!” It feels ridiculous and usually Big A looks at us with disdain, if at all. Whatever. Nevertheless we persisted.

Next, it’s asking him what he should do to calm down. This usually elicits no response.

We guide Big A hand over hand in squeezing himself while saying “squeezes.” Then joint compressions are given.

Lastly, we administer head taps while saying “doot doot doot,” inevitably causing Big A to mimic saying “doot doot doot.” We go back and forth, tapping and “doot doot dooting,” the eventual hope being that Big A will approach us saying “doot doot doot” when he needs head tap regulation.

toddler working on arts and crafts
Big A loved painting this wooden train set from Melissa and Doug this week

Do you have any sensory processing issues? If you are a caregiver to anyone with sensory sensitivities what are some of your best tips? Let me know in the comments below! Share this article to raise awareness.

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Megan writes everything on Ish Mom. She possesses a bachelor's degree in psychology, a flair for theatrics, and a whole lotta nerve. She lives in the Midwest (and loves it) with her wonderful husband and three young boys.
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