How to deal with sensory needs in times of change.

I’ve been having this discussion with people a lot recently, why are we all struggling so much at the moment? Then last week I had a huge realisation.

As neurodiverse people with autism and/or adhd, we are far more sensitive to changes in energy, weather, activities and routine. We adapt a sensory diet to fit round these things so that we can remain regulated and enjoy life. But what happens when major changes occur, such as lockdown, and we don’t adapt our sensory diet?

We all have a baseline or “zone of regulation” as I like to call it. Most of us do things, whether subconsciously or consciously, to keep ourselves or our children in this zone so we are happy and regulated. For example, during term time perhaps your child comes home and is overstimulated so needs quiet time in a dark room. On the weekends they’re understimulated so you do more physical activities like bouncing on the trampoline. In the school holidays this naturally changes because there is no school.

Enter lockdown.

This hit my stimulation level like I have never known. I was completely understimulated. Because I couldn’t do my usual routine I was sat laid out on the sofa unable to do anything. It was hell and I needed a dopamine hit. So I reached for my phone and started playing games and talking to people online. This lifted me into the regulation zone. Hooray it worked!

Recently I have found being on my phone too much has made me feel tired, sluggish and bored. I’m understimulated. But how?? Because I have been able to go out and do other things. I don’t need my phone anymore in that way. What I hadn’t done is evaluate where I was at on my “stimulation scale” (loving all my new made up terms today 🤣).

As in the picture, I needed to stop and ask myself where I was on that scale. Then judge what activities would help keep me in the zone of regulation.

Last week I took kiddo to the park and on an open air tram ride. He LOVED it! He remained regulated until right at the very end where the excitement started to tip him into overstimulation which I could tell by his physical signs of eyes rolling back in his head etc. So we went home. When we got home he was regulated from the car journey. Then I let him go on the trampoline. Disaster. He was overstimulated in seconds and ended up in full blown meltdown for over an hour. Before I let him go on the trampoline I hadn’t considered where he was on the scale of stimulation.

We are often told by OTs whether our children are sensory seekers or avoiders and told to make sure they get lots of the input they need. But what happens when the environment changes? Our baseline changes and we need different things. If we don’t check in with ourselves and carry on with the same sensory diet we will, for want of a better phrase, be totally all over the place.

So, if you or your child are struggling with the world opening and closing all the time this might be why… just remember to take stock of where you are before deciding on activities. Maybe even get your kids to score from 1 to 10, 1 being bored and 10 being excited. It just might level out everyone’s moods a little bit…

Think about where you or your child is on the scale of under to over stimulated before you decide on an activity.

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