Super Sensory Session - Understanding Autism
Thu, 21 Mar 2002
Last Saturday I attended the annual Autism conference in Pasadena. On that day I had the unique experience in participating in a Super Sensory Session. I thought I had a pretty good understanding of autism but I was humbled by my experience. I want to share this with each of you so I'm sorry if this will seem long winded.
The session was held in a small conference room with 20 participants. Many were parents of autistic children, some were special education teachers and others were therapists who service the autistic community.
After initial introductions the participants were asked to change into burlap sacks in the place of their shirts. These were not special sacks, they were the scratchy real Mc Coy. When we returned to the room after changing into our sacks we were assualted by the smell of pinesol, incense and candles burning. We took our seats three to a table facing front.
On all sides of the room were placed boom boxes playing different things from music to loud talking. No two boom boxes were playing the same thing and each one was turned up quite loud. We were told to sit up straight with our hands in our laps and feet flat on the ground. No fidgeting or twiddling was permitted. Next a bright light was shone on each of our faces with the teacher behind the light. We were asked to imitate her facial expressions through the glare of the light.
We were told that we would be watching a video and that we would be tested on the video at its conclusion. The video was then turned on. When we could quite hear it we asked that it be turned up. Remember the boom boxes were still on. The video was turned up to the maximum but to our surprise we still could not hear the voice of the person sitting in the chair reading the story. There was a white noise over the sound of the video so you could not ever really make out the words that were being spoken. The video was visually boring in that the person sat in a chair reading a story (that you could not hear) and there was no other movement except for a cat that would walk into the picture a couple of times. The video played for about 10 minutes which seemed very long since I couldn't move around and the incense was blowing right into my face.
At the conclusion of the video we were given thorny branches and pots of paint. A white page was handed out that was the "test" on the video. The questions were written very tiny in light yellow. We were told to write our names using the branches and the paint and answer the questions on the test. I couldn't read the questions at all and I found myself doodling and trying to paint pictures. At the conclusion of this part of the session we were asked to go and change back into our regular clothes.
When we came back into the room the noise and smells were gone. The chairs were set up in a circle and we were given water to drink. We each discussed our feelings about the session. It was very interesting that each person had their own unique response to the sensory overload. Some people withdrew and got inside their own head. Others focused on the pattern the incense was making with its swirling smoke. Some wanted to run out and escape. Many stated that since they couldn't tune in they were bored and were doing other things to occupy their attention. I felt like I couldn't solve any of the problems. I couldn't listen harder. I couldn't focus better to see the questions on the test page. I couldn't write any better using the branch. It was a very helpless feeling. I had no emotion about the other people and I felt inadequate and stupid.
We all came away from the experience in awe of our children who daily live in this autistic experience and manage to do as well as they do. It is also important that as advocates for the kids we must constantly remind others of the sensory overload these kids are experiencing. Teachers are urged to remove extraneous non educational material from the walls, parents are requested to limit the chaos in the child's environment, we are all asked to turn down the volume. This not only benefits the autistic person but also the typicals. It is no wonder that the autistic is described as aloof and withdrawn, if you were bombarded with unnecessary and irrelvant information constantly how do you think you would react? You can't really know until you have been in that place.
The annual autism walk is Saturday June 8th. I am raising money for "Team Casey" again. Whatever you can contribute will be appreciated. The checks should be made out to UAA (United Autism Alliance). If you would like to walk it will be at Griffith Park. There is a shorter walk for children and others who cannot go the full 5 kilometers. If you want to sponsor your own team contact me and I will get you the forms. I don't know if autism can be cured, I not even sure that I would want to "cure" Casey, but I do know that I would like more people to understand what he experiences and raising money helps us get the word out.
thanks for listening.