Many kids with ASD and SPD struggle with agitation and even tantrums when people enter their homes. It can happen when their parent returns home from work, eager to scoop them up. These kids become shy, run away, even hit!
Many, even most parents, believe that this is “bad behavior”, being defiant, or expressing anger at having people entering their space. As an OT, I think about it differently. Here is what I think is happening, and how to help your child handle this experience more effectively.
Sensitive children, which includes but isn’t limited to kids with sensory processing disorders, experience transitions as big charges of energy. We all register a charge when events end or we switch locations, and when people come into our space, but those of us with less sensitivity do not react as intensely, and we return to our baseline level of arousal very quickly. So quickly that it isn’t even on our radar. You would have to hook yourself up to a device that measures symptoms of arousal such as galvanic skin resistance to see the small reaction from a person without sensory sensitivity.
Not so for the sensitive person. They are super-charged by transitions, and with little kids, it often is expressed as outsized and socially inappropriate aversion or agitation. Thus, the scream, the withdrawal, the running away. This response is often followed with agitation as the adult walks away and the child is now sad to lose the connection. It can all seem a bit strange.
The long-term answer? A good treatment plan that reduces overall, everyday arousal levels. The short-term answer? Here is my protocol that helps kids avoid getting so out-of-sorts with greetings, and builds social skills. The nicest thing about this protocol is that it looks normal, not clinical, and it does indeed lower the brain’s level of arousal. Keeping calm, but staying in the game socially, trains the brain to handle more interaction, not to flee.
- Greet the child from a distance. This may be 5-15 feet. Use a warm but not over the top tone. Keep it short but friendly. Don’t linger on eye contact.
- The child has been provided with an object to handoff to the greeting adult. It doesn’t have to be meaningful, especially if the child is under 2. Anything will do. The idea is that it is a meaningful interaction that the child controls. They release it to the adult. You may have to repeat it with two objects. The adult’s grateful response is also warm but not effusive.
- Now is the time to offer a hug or a kiss. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. With older kids that have language, I use “Handshake, hug or high-five?”. I offer the child a choice of contact, and this alone can get them from feeling imposed upon to empowered.
- If the child is still protesting, the adult sits near the child, engaged in something that could be fun for the child. A book, scribbling, something appealing. No offer or invite; the position and the activity are the invitation. The child may come over and begin to engage. Connection accomplished!
Grandparents and others can think that this is coddling, or too much work. After all, why doesn’t she greet me warmly like other children? It is hard to parent a child with sensitivities, but your primary focus is on helping the child feel calm and comforted. Explain that this is helpful and that the child really does love them. He just needs a bit of help to express it.
We should be able to get out of the way emotionally for the sake of little people. If a family member cannot wrap their head around the need to support instead of impose themselves on a clearly agitated child, then they need more help to understand sensitivity.