Don’t Desensitize, teach how to Recognize!
By Jaclyn Hunt
Desensitization is the reduction of an emotional response to some sort of negative or aversive stimulus. The purpose of desensitization in autism is to unlearn an anxious response in the presence of an annoying but probably safe situation. For example, an autistic child has an anxiety attack during a thunderstorm because of the noise associated with the crashes of thunder. Or, an adult on the spectrum throws a temper tantrum due to the presence of a crying baby in a restaurant. Yet another example could be a young autistic girl being afraid of the vacuum cleaner because of the unpredictable loud noises it makes and the ominous presence it has in the house. The situations are endless, and it is important to realize that although these situations are fairly safe, they are extremely scary and unpredictable to the person on the autism spectrum.
Personally, I am not a big fan of using desensitization techniques for those with autism. Frequently, many with autism have memory issues and are very rigid when it comes to patterns and behaviors that often times render desensitization methods useless. I believe that in some cases when you attempt to desensitize by placing that person in the uncomfortable situation over and over again, it only increases his/her anxiety, perhaps even solidifies it further. Instead, what I like to do with my clients is teach them how to be more aware of their surroundings, recognize the various possibilities in every given situation, understand the importance of aversive situations, and accept that they must be capable of tolerating these temporary occurrences. For instance, one of my clients had an intense reaction to the train horn whenever he went for a run in the park. The sound always caught him off guard, and he would carry the anxiety of the situation with him for the remainder of the day. Usually, he would forget about the experience by the time he went out for his next run a few days later. The cycle would then repeat.
Our first course of action was to go to the park together so that I could assess the situation. Once there, I observed how he was completely unaware of his surroundings, was focused on his cell phone, and was very much dedicated to his run. He wasn’t paying attention to people, animals, or even the objects that surrounded him. To attempt to desensitize him when he was so absorbed on the task at hand would be downright cruel, and counter productive. So, my first thought was to take a look at myself and understand why a train would not scare me if it came by at any particular moment in that park. I discovered that whenever I am somewhere I take a look at my surroundings, assess the people around me, and I look for potential dangers and any possible positive interactions or activities that may be available for me to enjoy. This comes automatically to me, so I had to break it down into smaller pieces in order to teach my client how to do the very same thing.
To begin, I started talking to my client about the park’s surroundings. “Take a look at those people over there, they look like they might be having an argument. We better give them their space.” He would then look and agree with my assessment. Then, I would say things like “It is very sunny out right now, looks like we’ll have good weather for the duration of your run.” He would then look at the sky and agree with that assessment as well. Soon, I would point out the train tracks and tell him that there’s a very good possibility that a train will be coming by soon. He would then become aware of the train tracks, and check out the situation. I could see him looking for a train with wide eyes and nervous anticipation. Eventually, after many visits to the park and various experiences with the trains coming by, he became aware that it was a possibility and that there was no danger to him. In fact, he learned that the train horn is a warning signal so that people or cars are not near the tracks when the train comes by. This fact actually provided comfort and security to my previously anxious and stressed out client. Finally, he understood that the train horn is a temporary discomfort meant for the greater good and safety of him and all those who frequent the park.
Fortunately, this technique can be translated to any number of situations that cause fear or anxiety in a person on the autism spectrum due to a seemingly unpredictable situation. We need to make the unpredictable, predictable. For example, think about fireworks on or around Independence Day in America. If reminded of the month, and the possibility that the neighbors might shoot off fireworks because of the holiday, the person on the spectrum will at the very least not be taken off guard. Likewise, Halloween is another holiday where many things are out of the ordinary. People are out and about in strange costumes, flashing lights, and scary masks. Typical behaviors are replaced by out of the ordinary ones and very unpredictable to someone on the autism spectrum. Doorbells can be rung at any given moment, other loud noises, unfamiliar odors, and even some vandalism can occur from even the tamest of people. All of these situations can be terrifying to not only a child on the spectrum, but the adults as well.
What I would suggest in this situation is to first educate the person about the tradition of Halloween. Talk about the history of the holiday, watch videos of different situations that can occur on and around the day, encourage participation in the day’s activities, and tell stories of your own experiences as a child on Halloween. Next, remind the child or adult about the day on a regular basis, covering the days before and the days following where residual activities can take place (parties, weekend celebrations even if the holiday falls during the week, etc.). Also, when taking your child trick or treating, or to a Halloween party, discuss as many likely scenarios as possible. Indicate the presence of various costumes, foods designed to look scary but are still the same foods your child loves decorated in different ways, and the possibilities of spooky sounds or music to add to the ambiance of the holiday. Finally, it is important to stress that Halloween will not last forever. It is a holiday that comes once a year, although the celebration may last a few days, and then it is gone until the following year. When a person on the spectrum knows that it is only temporary, instead of fearing that this new unpleasant situation may last forever, they are more likely to be able to tolerate and accept the activity knowing that it will all be over soon.
All in all, preparation and explanation is key when dealing with fears and anxieties due to unpleasant, unfamiliar, and unpredictable circumstances. Do not desensitize someone on the spectrum who hates babies crying by having them watch a video of a baby crying over and over again. It is out of context and holds no meaning to the real life situation. Instead, talk to them about the reason why babies need to cry, prepare them for the possible situations where babies may be present, and teach them to tolerate it because the baby will not cry forever. It is merely a temporary situation that will end very soon and will not harm your child in any way. To reiterate, teach your child or adult on the autism spectrum how to be more aware of his/her surroundings because awareness makes for more predictable situations. Show them how to recognize the various possibilities in every given situation by utilizing this newly found awareness. Furthermore, make them understand the importance of aversive situations, and accept that they must be capable of tolerating these temporary occurrences just like everyone else does. Most importantly of all, realize that we must be the ones to give our autistic children and adults the gift of awareness and understanding so that they can be free of fear and anxiety. This opens them up to a whole new world to fearlessly explore.
Jaclyn Hunt is a Life Coach specializing in the Autism and Special Needs Population. She works with adults on the spectrum, parents of autistic children and adults, spouses of adults on the spectrum, and anyone affected by autism or other related special needs. Visit her website to learn more: