“Well, of course growth spurts are good things,” you might say, if you don’t know what they look or feel like.
I’ll let you in on the number one secret that throws off autistic progress: Growth spurts will produce feelings and behaviors appropriate to the developmental age at which a neurotypical person usually meets the milestone.
That means that if you have an autistic preteen making strides in therapy, he can suddenly have what looks like a psychotic episode to the uninitiated, or to the hyper-observant and autistically in the know, a growth spurt that looks exactly like the disregulation that happens in a typically developing two year old.
Remember the terrible twos and threes? They have a reputation because the brain connections formed by neurotypicals in those years — brain connections dealing with attention and communication — produce side effects when they first happen. Think of it like a power surge that temporarily overloads the newly enhanced power grid. I’m not sure why it happens, but it seems our brains like to test new ciruitry (long chain and cross-hemisphere synapses) by ramping up the power to full blast as soon as they’re made.
Here are some things you might encounter in a growth spurt, no matter your age (and I mean this even for the high functioning autistic adults out there).
- Looping. You thought you might get one response/reaction from the communication or motor plan, but you got unexpected results. Your brain isn’t quite sure what to do next! Panic can set in.
- What it might look like: You say something corny to a friend or relative, and to your horror, you keep repeating it. Your child won’t stop saying something annoying to a sibling or to you, even though they seem to look a bit afraid or confused and you’ve told them to stop. Your child keeps throwing the ball at the TV even though you told him it will break. You were getting some cleaning done when you hit your arm on the wall on accident and can’t stop rubbing it. You spent time with friends and want to relax, but you can’t stop thinking of or repeating to yourself something you said. Your student who was making so much progress smarts off and won’t stop the smarting off pattern no matter which consequences you threaten. (This can be annoying like, “I know you are, but what am I?” or angry defiance, like, “NO, you’re a jerk!”) Echolalia in the form of repeated sounds, words or phrases, or even cuss words is also possible.
- What is happening? What you’re seeing is likely a motor plan or mirror neuron advance. Being around friends, gaining language, music, academic, or other new skills, gaining new brain-body coordination, or experiencing deep empathy can all push a long-chain synapse that’s been slowly developing to suddenly lay down the last track that will complete the chain. Your brain says, “Yay!” But also, “What is going on?!” The new development suddenly draws energy from our giant reserves of attention, and at the same time, the brain does what brains normally do — sends a giant test run down that new connection. The result can be profoundly overwhelming.
- What to do about it: Pop the sensory bubble by moving to a safe, calm, quiet space. Your brain is experiencing extreme excitement and confusion at the same time, and you might not be able to control your behavior well. That adds fear into the mix, and the limbic system starts to freak out. As we learned in part 3, emotions are precognitive. That means they bypass the brain altogether. But that means they can be calmed even if your brain is going wild. This is the time for a quiet room, low lighting, a soothing set of sounds, rocking/swinging, no words (very important! communicate with pictures if needed but with as few words as possible), and physical safety for everyone around. You might want to go for a walk in a green space if there is one available, or have time in quiet to swing or swim. (If you’re a teacher and you see this, do not issue a punishment/consequence if you see this behavior. Instead see it as a cry for help getting appropriate soothing sensory input. Your autistic student will flourish when s/he gains self-regulation skills such as sensory soothing, not when s/he submits to behavior modification. They cannot in a growth spurt moment attend to behavior modification at all.)
- Difficulties or changes in sleep and focus. Sleep disturbances and changes are a hallmark of toddler and preschool growth spurts, and they also show up in autistic children and adults. It’s important to know that your sleep changes might be related to progress, because sleep changes also go along with and exacerbate depression and anxiety.
- What it might look like: If you’re making a lot of progress and suddenly have a few nights where you wake up a few times or days when you feel the need for a nap, it would be easy to get discouraged. But more likely your brain is just working on new connections. If you’ve practiced social skills and find yourself completely worn out, for instance, your brain could be doing the double duty of working on mirror neurons from socializing and doing all the things it had to do to learn those social thinking skills. It’s important not to get too discouraged by assuming that it will always be as difficult to think socially as it is at first. It’s important to realize that learning new skills for us can be extra draining because we’re forming a lot more synapses for each new leap we make.
- What to do about it: keep track of the sleep differences on paper or with a fitness tracking device. Talk to your doctor about any changes that last more than a couple of weeks. Use good sleep hygeine like darkening rooms and avoiding screens for at least an hour before bedtime. Set aside time to catch up on sleep or adapt as you can to a sleep change that accompanies the practice or development of new skills (language, social thinking, motor planning). If the sleep change is part of a growth spurt, it will resolve in a few weeks.
- Motor Planning struggles. This includes clumsiness, uncoordination, dribbling your drinks, spilling on yourself more often, dropping things more often, and also bigger things like going the long way through a building, taking wrong turns while driving, and stalling out in crowds.
- What it looks like: Maybe you keep bumping your shin on the coffee table, tripping on stairs, dropping or spilling foods and drinks, bumping into door frames with your arms or head, or dropping your phone. You might poke yourself in the mouth with your toothbrush, struggle to put on boots, or fall off a chair. You might scratch yourself with your own fingernails on accident or feel as though small rubs hurt as much as big scrapes. You might walk into a building through the wrong door and have to walk a long way once you’re inside. You might forget the usual flow of a crowd in a familiar restaurant, workplace, library, or church and feel yourself stuck, unable to figure out how to navigate around a crowd to get where you’re going. Your brain is working overtime on a different issue, and sometimes other functions suffer temporarily.
- What to do about it: Free yourself from shame. Give yourself permission to go more slowly, drink with both hands, sit closer to the table, hold the rail and go one step at a time with both feet on the stair before you go to the next, touch the walls or doorframes as you go to help you orient, draw a map or spend time imagining spaces you’ll enter, mark out the flow of human traffic in rooms so you can keep out of the crowds, take a scenic route if it keeps you out of heavy automobile traffic, use lotion or other sensory soothing options to help your hands feel better. You will also find that the sensory measures that help you regulate in general will be extra helpful in a growth spurt. For instance, a hammock swing can help you feel hugged and soothe you with the swinging motion. It also helps to build your coordination when you feel centered in space from such movements.
- Decision fatigue.
- What it might look like: You might have so much going on in your head that you find it hard to make decisions about food, clothes, and moving around. You might look into a fridge full of food and not know what to eat or feed others. You might not be able to think through an outfit for the day. You might get very anxious or frustrated if someone asks you to make a choice or to give an opinion. Even small things like whether to read a book or watch a movie can feel weighty when your mind is exhausted.
- What to do about it: Make a list or have someone help you make a list of foods you can eat when you’re stressed. Tape it to the fridge door. If you eat mac and cheese and carrot sticks and chicken nuggets for a few days, no harm done. Reducing cognitive load prepares you for growth spurts, because you will have strategies already in place to help you help yourself through the decision fatigue. Have a go-to set of wardrobe rules or outfits, like a stack of clean shirts and pants that go together and a rule that underwear and shirts get changed each day, for instance. Give yourself permission to watch one of a few favorite movies or to read a favorite book for these days. Use the tips for motor planning to plot your movements, and give yourself permission to do fewer things outside the home when you’re feeling very overloaded.
If you encounter any of these symptoms of a growth spurt — especially if they’re happening around the same time — be gentle with yourself. Make yourself at home by soothing your senses, follow lists to help you make decisions, and do your best to get sleep and rest. Once you have leveled up on the skill that was developing, prepare for the next growth spurt by using the strategies outlined above and in the other sections of Your Autistic Brain Owner’s Manual.
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