The Brian Wilson biopic, “Love and Mercy”, has a very relatable scene where Wilson is overwhelmed by the noise of utensils and conversation at the dinner table.
Overload, meltdown, outburst, and retreat. That escalation is a feature of my life, at times a daily one. As meltdown approaches, everything feels like shouting, everything is too much. Sounds and social interaction become painful, and adrenaline and anxiety surge, humming through my body and senses, overloading wires insufficient to the immensity of tidal flow. The dinner table scene is a good representation of how I experience overwhelm. A noisy, crowded dinner table is a personal hellscape.
This scene is quite similar to how I experience an autism sensory overload. When sounds, lights, clothing or social interaction can become painful to me. When it goes on long enough it can create what is called a meltdown or activation of the “fight-flight-freeze-tend-befriend” (formerly known as “fight or flight”) response and activation of the HPA axis; a “there is a threat in the environment” adrenaline-cortisol surge.
This makes seemingly benign noises a threat to my well-being and quite possibly real physical danger to my physiology. Benign noises become painful, and if left unchecked, enough to trigger a system reaction reserved for severe dangers. This is what days can become like on a regular basis for myself and many on the spectrum.
“Let me stick a hot poker in your hand, ok? Now I want you to remain calm.”
That is the real rub of the experience of sensory meltdowns. The misunderstanding that someone with Autism is just behaving badly, spoiled or crazy. When the sensory overwhelm is an actual and very real painful experience. It seems absurd to most people that the noise of going to a grocery store could possibly be “painful” to anyone. So most people assume the adults or children just want attention, or they can’t control their behavior. In work situations I get accused of all kinds of things. And when I leave a noisy situation like a party to step out to take a break, people will notice that I’m “upset”. They will assume or worry that I must be upset at something or someone. And that’s just if I do take a break. If I can’t take a break or get my life out of proper oscillations and can’t avoid noise or sensory/emotional overload, then I can get snappy, defensive, irritated and under very unfortunate circumstances even hostile.
What the stress of noise means, in the autism’s world of an over-sensitive physiology and ramped up stress experiences, is that that pain is warning of us of real damage being created in our bodies. So this anxiety and reactivity isn’t necessarily just perceived but is actually happening. We are not being overly dramatic or a brat (what those with Autism are often accused of). Damage to our physiology is what noise can actually do.
The picture shows a school classroom as I see it, as an autistic person. A kaleidoscope of shape and blinding lighting, with vague outlines which are probably other students. Deafening noise. The stench of different smells. The confusion of many voices, including some heard through walls from neighbouring halls and classes. School uniform that feels like barbed wire on my skin.
In the chaos, a different voice which I have to try to listen to. It’s so hard. My brain doesn’t want to tune the rest of the noise out. Apparently I’ve been asked something, but I miss it. The voice gets more strident, the class turns to look at me. The intense stares overwhelm me. The person next to me jostles me and it feels like an electric shock on my skin. Only six more hours of hell to go…. only six….
Some of our autistic pupils simply cannot do this alone, without ‘time out’ to recover from the pain and exhaustion during the school day. Not for hour after hour of puzzling painful chaos.
We’ve turned classrooms into a hell for autism. Fluorescent lighting. Endless noise. Everywhere, bright patterns and overloading information. Groupwork and social time. Crowded hallways and relentless academic pressure. Autistic children mostly could cope in the quieter schools of decades ago. Not a hope now.
We cannot simply exclude autistic pupils for entering meltdowns. Meltdowns are part of autism for a good number of autistic young people.
Whilst mindful that of course everyone needs to be safe, the way to achieve safety is to stop hurting the autistic children. Punishing them for responding to pain is not something any of us need to do.
What schools need to do is to understand autism. In understanding it, we can help to stop putting the children in pain and exhaustion. It’s actually quite easy. And quite cheap.
Plenty of policies and programs limit our ability to do right by children. But perhaps the most restrictive virtual straitjacket that educators face is behaviorism – a psychological theory that would have us focus exclusively on what can be seen and measured, that ignores or dismisses inner experience and reduces wholes to parts. It also suggests that everything people do can be explained as a quest for reinforcement – and, by implication, that we can control others by rewarding them selectively.
Allow me, then, to propose this rule of thumb: The value of any book, article, or presentation intended for teachers (or parents) is inversely related to the number of times the word “behavior” appears in it. The more our attention is fixed on the surface, the more we slight students’ underlying motives, values, and needs.
It’s been decades since academic psychology took seriously the orthodox behaviorism of John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, which by now has shrunk to a cult-like clan of “behavior analysts.” But, alas, its reductionist influence lives on – in classroom (and schoolwide) management programs like PBIS and Class Dojo, in scripted curricula and the reduction of children’s learning to “data,” in grades and rubrics, in “competency”- and “proficiency”-based approaches to instruction, in standardized assessments, in reading incentives and merit pay for teachers.
It’s time we outgrew this limited and limiting psychological theory. That means attending less to students’ behaviors and more to the students themselves.
The specialists that serve this “special” track aren’t so much specialized in the lives and needs of neurodivergent and disabled people (managing sensory overwhelm, avoiding meltdown and burnout, dealing with ableism, connecting with online communities, developing agency and voice through self-advocacy) as they are specialized in deficit and medical models that pathologize difference and identity. Such framing is too limited to see us.
So heartbreakingly many can’t even bring themselves to use our language or educate parents about our existence. After autistic students age out of our care, we erase them again as adults.
More children than ever before are being diagnosed with autism. But what about the adults? Some of these individuals have never been diagnosed but have always known they were a bit “different.” Others were diagnosed but did not have the same degree of societal acceptance or the same number of resources available to help them cope with a neurotypical world.
Now this group of adults is the demographic that best understands what people with autism need, whether or not they know how to articulate it in a way the rest of society is able to grasp. But what these men and women have to say about autism is important. These people need to be heard!
The video below encourages adults with autism to get involved in the discussion and asks others to be cognizant of the needs of people with autism and invite them into the conversation. The neurotypical community needs adults with autism to lend their voices and experiences to help make the future brighter for the next generation!
Being an autistic parent of an autistic child means navigating a world that doesn’t see us as whole while advocating for two people at the same time. Specialists don’t take autistic parents seriously, don’t trust that we know our own needs, let alone a child’s. How can we when we’re in need of special services and accommodations, too?
After sensory overwhelm, the next most important thing to understand about autism in the classroom is autistic burnout. Autistic burnout is unknown in the deficit and medical models. To hear about it, you have to go to #ActuallyAutistic people. We live this.
If you saw someone going through Autistic Burnout would you be able to recognise it? Would you even know what it means? Would you know what it meant for yourself if you are an Autistic person? The sad truth is that so many Autistic people, children and adults, go through this with zero comprehension of what is happening to them and with zero support from their friends and families.
If you’re a parent reading this, I can confidently say that I bet that no Professional, from diagnosis, through any support services you’re lucky enough to have been given, will have mentioned Autistic Burnout or explained what it is. If you’re an Autistic person, nobody will have told you about it either, unless you’ve engaged with the Autistic community.
Autistic Burnout is an integral part of the life of an Autistic person that affects us pretty much from the moment we’re born to the day we die, yet nobody, apart from Autistic people really seem to know about it…
Scientists are increasingly recognizing a moral imperative to collaborate with the communities they study, and the practical benefits that result. Autism researchers are joining this movement, partnering with people on the spectrum and their families to better address their priorities.
Events like The International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) annual meeting are waking to the harm that has been done. They are finally including autistic people and autistic perspective.
So many of us in this system want to do better. Students and teachers find themselves in spaces guaranteed to result in feedback loops and meltdowns and the eventual burnout of everyone involved. Responding to fires and stresses caused by overloaded sensory spaces and deficit ideology consumes more time, people, and passion than available and starves a better future of oxygen.
The logic of the connection between “special needs” and “special [segregated] places” is very strong – it doesn’t need reinforcement – it needs to be broken.
Further, the “special needs” label sets up the medical “care” model to disability rather than the social inclusion model of disability. It narrows and medicalises society’s response to the person by suggesting that the focus should be on “treating” their “special needs”, rather than on the person’s environment responding to and accommodating the person – including them for the individual that they are.
There is another insidious but serious consequence of being labelled (as having or being) “special needs”. The label carries with it the implication that a person with “special needs” can only have their needs met by “special” help or “specially-trained” people – by “specialists”. That implication is particularly powerful and damaging in our mainstream schooling systems – it is a barrier to mainstream schools, administrators and teachers feeling responsible, empowered or skilled to embrace and practice inclusive education in regular classrooms, and accordingly perpetuates attitudinal resistance to realising the human right to inclusive education under Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
In other words, the language of “special needs” leads to, and serves to excuse, a “can’t do” attitude as the default position of many general educators – it effectively deprives inclusive education of its necessary oxygen – a conducive “can do” classroom culture.
The label of “special needs” is inconsistent with recognition of disability as part of human diversity. In that social framework, none of us are “special” as we are all equal siblings in the diverse family of humanity.
We have autistic children who need us to support them as architects of their own liberation against the schools and clinicians and institutions and police and prosecutors who would crush and destroy them.