Written by: Morgan Lennon
In the first few years of life, a child's brain develops by leaps and bounds, building important connections such as language and social skills. The process that creates these connections is the building of synapses - the brain's highway system. This rapid period of growth reaches a peak between the ages of two and three, or what parents like to call the terrible twos!
Think of the terrible twos as the time when your child's synaptic highway hits rush-hour gridlock; too many cars on the road and chaos ensues. Your child's brain is overloaded with stimuli and does not have enough lanes to avoid a meltdown.
Just when the neural growth is hitting its peak, and as parents are reaching the end of their rope, the brain starts a process called synaptic pruning. Think of this as the Marie Kondo of the brain. The brain starts to discard the pathways it doesn't need and strengthen the ones it does. This is what allows us to focus.
New research from Columbia University suggests that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) do not complete the process of synaptic pruning. This means that the vital process of "weeding out" stimuli does not occur for kids with ASD. They are often living with the volume turned up to 11. Because people with ASD do not have access to the volume knob, every stimulus is louder, brighter, and more intense. This intensity can sometimes contribute to incredible skills and talents, and it can also create challenges in everyday functioning.
April is Autism Acceptance Month. Here are a few simple things you can put into practice to support and include kids with ASD:
Kids with ASD may act, communicate, or interact with the world in a way that is unique. Help by reinforcing that this behavior is not weird or strange.
Kids with ASD use behaviors called stimming to self-soothe and focus. Stimming may look like arm flapping, rocking, or other repetitive physical behaviors. When a child is overwhelmed with stimuli, the child can engage certain neural pathways to quiet the impact of the stimuli. So, if no one is getting hurt, allow the child to complete their stimming.
When a child with ASD has a "meltdown" it is not because they are a bad kid, and it is not because they have bad parents. The child is overwhelmed and in distress. Ask the parents how you can support them, and most importantly do not judge!
Many people with autism prefer identity first language - meaning they are a child WITH Autism, not an autistic child. Autism is an aspect of the person but does not define their whole being. Whether a person wants you to refer to them as autistic or a person with autism is up to them, not you!
Here's some great organizations that we work with:
We've had a wonderful partnership with Play4Autism for two years. They are an NYC based non-profit organization that seeks to increase the public's awareness and acceptance of autism, while improving the quality of life and hope for children. They do this through their Kidz into Action Program which offers various sports and recreational activities.
We host classes with them one Sunday a month at our gym. For more information and class schedules: Special Needs Classes
Extreme Kids & Crew cultivates welcoming, accessible spaces where kids with disabilities and their people create a supportive community through the arts, play and conversation. They have a play-space where families share resources and laughter while children play and take part in inclusive arts programming that is open to all members of the family.
Take a look at our absolute favorite resource - The Neurodivergent Narwhal