“A meltdown is a highjack of our emotions.” Ron Sandison
By Ron Sandison
Most neurotypicals pay little attention to their sensory processing. When you feel cold, you put on a sweater. When music is too loud, you turn down the volume. For me and many other people with autism, our senses provide unreliable information, causing great discomfort and anxiety. We on the spectrum often experience sensory issues with touch, sound, taste, smell, or sight.
Over 80% of the nervous system is involved in processing or organizing sensory input, and thus the brain is primarily a sensory processing machine. When our brain efficiently processes sensations, we respond automatically with adaptive responses that help us master our environment. Adaptive responses are actions or thoughts that help us meet new challenges and learn new lessons.
Most neurotypical’s emotions and sensory issues are like bottled water; when shaken up they feel a little anxiety—not much else is happening. They find it easy to adapt to a change in their routine. I am carbonated more like Mountain Dew, I get stirred up, KA-BOOM!!! Anyone want to do the Dew?”
Ashlea McKay who has autism describes our processing challenges,
Emotional avalanches can happen at any time and can be caused by a number of factors, including, environmental stimuli, stress, uncertainty, rapid and impactful change, and much more. When this happens my heart pounds, throat dries up, tears fall, senses blast and the room spins.
I call my sensory meltdowns my honey badger moment. I purchased my first honey badger during my honeymoon in the Windy City in December 2012. I saw the honey badger in a downtown storefront window. He growled at me, and I snarled back; it was love at first sight. When I purchased him, I did not realize that the stuffed animal was created from the YouTube video, The Honey Badger Don’t Care.
When you press his paw, every F-bomb and four-letter obscenity spews out in an angry lisp.
In case you were wondering, I don’t bring him to my speaking engagements (fearing something may brush his paw, causing him to go off before a live audience). The crowd doesn’t need to think I’m giving a live demonstration of a meltdown. Instead, I purchased a declawed honey badger from Amazon who travels with me.
I describe my meltdowns as my honey badger moments. Over the years, I’ve experienced many of these at home, school, and in public places. My most epic honey badger moment occurred when I was in third grade at a Cub Scouts Halloween event with Bozo the Clown. Over 200 people were in attendance. My mom decided to have me sit front and center with the other Cub Scouts for the main event: a clown complete with red nose, white makeup, red fluffy side-hair, and a lamb sock puppet.
The poor clown knew nothing about autism and thought it would be comical to take my baseball cap, place it on another kid’s head, and then place it back on my head. When the clown attempted to place the cap back on my head, I grabbed the lamb sock puppet and proceeded to repeatedly beat the clown with it. By the time I was finished, that poor clown’s red nose and hair was on the floor and her makeup smeared across her face.
Needless to say, I never earned my bobcat badge. Instead, the next day, the Cub Scout leaders informed my parents, “Your son is banned from any future events. If he did that to a clown, imagine what he could do to one of our children.”
I have learned five ways to tame my honey badger moments:
First, taking time to understand my sensory issues and level of anxiety.
My sensory kryptonite is the smell of bleach and the sound of bass. I can smell bleach a week after it was applied to a surface, the smell gives me a migraine headache. When I hear the sound of bass my anxiety level elevates. In college I was unable to study when students in the dorm played bass. To avoid the sound of bass, I study in the library and study lab in the dorm.
I informed my Resident advisors (RA) on my floor about my sensory issues to bass and loud music and he enforced an 11 pm sound curfew on our floor which helped me to get a good night sleep.
Second, honey badger moments occur more frequently when I feel tired or anxious.
I had less honey badger moments when I sept 8 to 9 hours a night and exercised regularly. The more anxious and tired I feel, the worse my sensory processing operates. I can tolerate more noise and odors I dislike when I am calm and alone, but less when stressed and in a crowd.
Research studies indicates that involvement in social activities and athletics can help an individual with autism behavioral issues and sensory issues decrease by 20-25% and provide a decrease in depression and anxiety. Running track and cross country in high school and college helped me to learn to control my sensory issues. I found running to be a great coping skills.
Third, spending time in nature makes my sensory issues more bearable.
Walking in the forest or along a stream and watching the deer and ducks. Hearing the sounds of nature— frogs croaking and birds chirping in melody. Dr. Roger Ulrich did an experiment on the effects of nature on stress and healing by comparing the recovery of patients who had undergone a surgical procedure. He compared the recovery rates for recuperating patients who had a window view of nature verses those who had a window view of bricks and his research revealed that those with the window view recovered quicker and required less pain medications than those without a nature view. Feeling calm from nature makes it easier to control our sensory issues.
Fourth, exposure to different environments and social situations has enabled me to adapt and manage my sensory issues.
I went to college at Oral Roberts University which is 950 miles from my home in Michigan. By attending college out of state, I was exposed to a new sensory environment and had to learn to adapt. Different sights, sounds, tastes, and smells, empowered me to handle sensory overload. By traveling and speaking around the world, I learned to try new foods and activities. In the past these new experience would have created a honey badger moment.
Lastly, sensory soothing can help prevent sensory overload and meltdowns.
Examples of sensory soothing could be a hot bath making your muscles soften and mind relax. The hot water is triggering your mind and body to calm down. Sights, sounds, touch, tastes, smells and body movement can activate the calming part of our nervous system and sooth our brains. I gain sensory soothing by reading a book with my dog Rudy on my lap or watching a comedy movie.
Honey badger moments still occur but much less frequently—this enables me to work fulltime, travel and enjoy trying new things. It has been three years, since I had a honey badger moment and this past July I was a speaker at a rock concert and was able to adjust to the bass.
Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of America. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom, published by Charisma House and Thought, Choice, Action. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes. Ron’s third book Views from the Spectrum was released in May 2021.
Ron frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016.
You can contact Ron at his website www.spectruminclusion.com or email him at email@example.com