Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Dealing with Sensitivities and Triggers when the Whole Family has Autism Spectrum Disorders

These days, Autism Spectrum Disorders aren't uncommon.  In fact, it’s pretty clear that there's a strong genetic link. 

People with ASDs Collect Together 

If you have autism in one form or another (or if you have a sibling on the autism spectrum), there's a better than average chance that you will have at least one child on the spectrum.

It's not vaccines, it's not head trauma or defective parenting. It's genetics, pure and simple. The apple really doesn't fall too far from the tree.

What's less well documented is that people with autism seem to prefer the company of others on the spectrum. In fact, it seems that we have an arguably better sense for detecting individuals like ourselves in social situations than regular people.

The odds of a person on the autism spectrum partnering with another person on the autism spectrum seem to be higher than most.

The upshot of this is that there are many families out there which contain more than one person on the autism spectrum. In fact, I'd go so far as to suggest that it's more common to have more than it is to have just the one.

Navigating Triggers and Sensitivities 

One of the toughest parts of being a parent in a family with a single individual on the spectrum is “navigating the maze of triggers and sensitivities”.


Many people with autism walk around on the verge of a meltdown (an explosive state) or on the verge of a shut-down (an implosive state).

All it takes is a “trigger”, to set them off. The triggers are generally undocumented and are quite often unknown - even to the people who have autism. They aren't big (or even bad) things. Nearly anything can be a trigger depending upon the life-experience of the person.

As a parent, one of the most important tasks in your life is to identify these triggers and find ways to avoid them.  If you're an adult with autism, then it's also your mission in life to identify your personal triggers and sensitivities.

This is easier said than done because triggers often run deeper than you'd expect.

For example, a child may have a meltdown when asked to clean their room - and you might start to identify the trigger as a “room-cleaning” issue - when the real issue is more to do with how (or when) you asked the child to clean their room.

In fact, ask as child, even a non-spectrum child, to do anything while they're engaged in playing a video game and you're sure to get a negative response.

The only way around this is to keep trying to identify triggers and to look for patterns.


Triggers are frequently “the final straw” in a long list of sensitivity tripping events.

The same triggers may (or may not) cause a meltdown depending upon how many sensitivities have already been tripped.

For example, if your child has had a good night's  sleep, a trigger like spilling milk in the morning might not have the same impact as the same event after a long and difficult day at school.

As such, it helps if you can also identify your child's particular sensitivities and try to avoid, or at least reduce them.

This isn't too hard for most sensitivities, such as cooking ingredients, itchy clothing, specific smells and the sudden re-scheduling of events but sometimes the sensitivities are centred around (or tripped by) other individuals - particularly family members.

Dealing with Family 

As I mentioned earlier, it's becoming increasingly common to find families where more than one individual has an ASD.

One of the big problems with this is that quite often, the things that calm one member of the family trigger other members. For example; verbal stimming (where an individual makes a constant noise mainly because it feels good).

In short bursts, verbal stimming is tolerable but over longer periods it becomes a major issue.

Like any family issue though, this needs to be solved via compromise. 

If possible, alternative forms of stimming should be suggested but of course, not everyone can change their stims. Sometimes the change has to come from elsewhere (noise blocking headphones,spending time in open spaces or perhaps covering up the noise with a louder one).

Family Meltdowns

The worst problems occur when the meltdown activities of one family member triggers a meltdown in others.

If you don't catch a meltdown before it starts, you generally can't stop it and just have to see it through to the end. If reactive meltdowns are common in your household then you need to work out a good “meltdown procedure”.

All people who feel a meltdown state coming on need somewhere to retreat to (somewhere they can be alone). Different individuals need different places because the last thing you should do with an individual in an uncontrollable state is to put them with someone else in a similar state.

The process for dealing with meltdowns  for multiple individuals becomes the same as the process for dealing with single individuals once they're isolated. 


Ericka Aspiegirl said...

oh i LOVE THIS. great stuff, keep it up!!!

Ericka Aspiegirl said...

for some reason, my 9 yr old son's meltdowns or shut downs, make me melt down. :(
ive noticed too, if hes sick, im extremely concerned, as if it were happening to me specifically. obviously i feel horrible if any of my kids are sick, but for some reason, even with his almost 3 year old sister, i still feel worse when he is sick than when she is. :/

Steve Borgman said...

Gavin, thanks for this great article! As a therapist working with families like this, I'm going to share this article and work together with those family members to identify triggers and work on assessment and prevention!

Irene said...

Is it possible as an adult to start to learn triggers? Someone close to me is unable to see them coming? How does he begin to learn so as to try to avoid his shutdowns/meltdowns?

Gavin Bollard said...

It's definitely possible for an adult to start to learn their triggers (and sensitivities). It's just a matter of understanding what it is you're looking for, plus a willingness to think more objectively about things that have happened in the past.

To do this, you need to think about the meltdown, and what the last things were that happened before it... then think about the day. Would that same thing have triggered a meltdown anytime or was it a particularly bad day.... what made the day bad.

Once you're at that stage, you just have to get into the habit of maybe once an hour (or less if your meltdowns are infrequent), stopping and asking yourself... am I having a good day? Why or why not? What can I do to change this? If the day is excessively bad, you need to take some time out or treat yourself. It's not worth risking a meltdown.

oleswava said...

So pleased I found this blog:) I'm not ASD but my husband is and two of our three children are as well. I've read only a couple of your posts and I already feel I've learnt a lot. Thank you:))