Autistic children generally shy away from crowds and may exhibit disturbing behavior when in company. There are ways of helping them to cope when they are unavoidably surrounded by people and noise.
Why Autistic Children have Problems with Crowds
Autistic children and crowds are generally a bad combination. There are several reasons for this, including the following:
- Autistic children have problems with social interaction and although they may be able to cope with a one-on-one conversation, a crowd of people bewilders them. They fell overwhelmed and struggle to follow conversation as it jumps from one person to another and one topic to another
- Some autistic children have sensory problems and crowds can cause an overload. This means that the general hubbub of a crowd can be overpowering and may actually cause physical pain in their ears
- Autistic children may find crowds difficult if there are other factors such as loud music or pushing and shoving as this also causes a sensory overload
How do Autistic Children Behave When in a Crowd
Autistic children and crowds do not mix well, and although adults may have learnt coping mechanisms, children often have not. A typical response is anxiety which leads to an emotional meltdown. This is often in the form of a tantrum with loud crying and screaming. Alternately they may revert to rocking or spinning which are self-soothing behaviors. If the crowd is a social gathering, the child may speak at the wrong time and make inappropriate comments.
Tips for Helping Autistic Children Cope with Crowds
Autistic children cannot be completely desensitized to crowds but there are ways of helping them cope in these situations. If parents, teachers and caregivers are all aware of the problem, they can work together to make life easier for the child:
- The best way to cope with crowds is to avoid them. Don’t plan on taking autistic children to a live event with hundreds of people or a sports match where crowds will be shouting and screaming for their teams. Crowded malls can also be a difficult environment for the child
- If a crowded setting is unavoidable, be prepared with items that can help an autistic child to cope. Dark sunglasses can cut back on visual stimulation and ear plugs can muffle noise. If the child enjoys music, an MP3 player with earphones can be a useful distraction
- Removing the child from the crowd and taking him to a cool dark place to recover is beneficial in many cases
- When going into a crowd, have an escape route planned in case of need. If an autistic child throws an uncontrollable tantrum, pick him up and take him away from the people
- If the child starts flapping or spinning, ignore onlookers and allow it if there is no other way for him to gain relief
- If the crowd is small and not too noisy, try and get the child to focus on something that might interest him such as a toy or favored object
Crowds and autistic children are not a good combination but sometimes they are forced together by circumstances. While an autistic child may never like a busy environment, there are ways of reducing the stress and helping them cope. The best way is avoidance but reducing sensory overload is also helpful. As they mature, they may be able to take the initiative themselves by putting on earphones or sunglasses to gain relief.
Parenting your Asperger Child, Alan Sohn and Cathy Grayson, Perigee Books, 2005
Pretending to be Normal, Liane Holliday Willey, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1999