Jessica is four and likes to rock. When not involved in other things, she sits in a corner, holding her favorite toy, and sways back and forth. Billy is three and likes smells. Rather than greeting a person by making eye contact, he will reach for the clothing and sniff it. When Jamie, five years old, is asked to attend to a table-top activity, he responds by flapping his wrists and waving his arms. At six, Luis can't stand to be touched. If another child brushes against him, he throws himself into a beanbag chair and covers himself with a blanket.
Why are these children doing such unusual things? While parents and experts agree that many of our children with Autism-related conditions show unusual behavior, there are various interpretations as to why. Some will call these behaviors "maladaptive" and will aim to eliminate them through behavior training. Some believe that the child is seeking attention and will ignore them. Professionals using a sensory processing/integration approach, however, interpret the behaviors as a language which children use to communicate their wants and needs to those around them. If we can learn this language, we can start building new ways of communicating with our children.
Each of us has a unique way of taking in sensory information from the world around us and from within our bodies, so that we can interpret what is going on and relate to the world. As babies, most of us enjoyed the touch and smells of our parents and the sensation of movement as we were being rocked or driven in a car.
We loved feeling our limbs move and spent hours kicking our legs in the air. We then added the ability focus on sounds around us, distinguishing voices, recognizing music and knowing to ignore background noises. While we could always see, we gradually used our vision more effectively to identify the world out of reach -- people, toys and the exciting sights on a stroll to the park. This last sensation -- vision -- proved to be so good at providing important information.. We focused on this more and more, using vision as our primary conscious means of learning about the world. Therefore, visual input became a priority. Eye contact became essential for communication, recognizing letters for learning and watching our step for safety.
Children with Autism have their own priorities. They may prefer the sense of smell over vision, like Billy, who would rather smell than look at a person. Or, like Jessica, they would much rather rock back and forth than attend to what is being said, since the sensation of body movement really feels good to them. While this may look unusual to the outsider, it provides us the opportunity to understand our children better.
As parents and teachers, we need to recognize these behaviors as expressions of preferred sensory channels and use them to build our communication. In other words: Develop our skills at speaking "Sensorish." The child is saying to you: "This is my language. This is how I relate to the world."
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