Question:

First, my son does a lot of running and pacing when he is open spaces such as a gym or outside. Sometimes I get him to play or do activities, but it is very difficult. What are some strategies, activities, or therapy methods I can try to help my son not be so overwhelmed or overstimulated with open spaces?

Second, when trying to do activities like reading, drawing, and identifying colors, my son’s attention span is extremely short. However, he loves electronic games and loves my iPad. When he has an electronic device he will literally sit down for 15–20 minutes at a time, if I let him, and play with them with 100% focus. Is there a reason or an explanation for this other than that’s just what he is interested in?

Answer:

Your son’s behaviors are typical and both of these issues are tied to processing visual information. Most kids on the autism spectrum gravitate toward unidimensional visual input from TVs, iPads, and computers because that is a very simple form of visual input to process. It makes sense to their brain and is visually pleasing. However, multidimensional visual input, such as in a gym or in a large open space, is much more difficult to make sense of, so running and pacing is an attempt to figure out the boundaries of such an environment. Also, running and pacing can definitely provide calming vestibular and proprioceptive input to self-soothe.

Here are some things that may help:

  • When entering the gym or other open space, walk the perimeter with him once. Allow him to run his hand along the wall or talk about where the playground ends.
  • Encourage him to wear a baseball hat in large spaces—especially outside. This will limit his visual field, so it will be less overwhelming.
  • Some kids do better with sunglasses. Also, some kids do really well with nonprescription lenses that have antiglare coating on them. Both of these options can serve to reduce visual demands.
  • Try having him wear compression garments under his clothing when going to a playground or gym. You might try something like Under Armor instead of regular clothing. Compression garments improve the sense of self. This can help him feel less overwhelmed by a large environment and where he fits into it.

Best Wishes,
Gwen