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How a Baked Potato Upset Autism's Apple Cart


One of my many hats as an autism advocate is to help parents and teachers discover unexpected (and often seemingly insignificant) things that might be serving as triggers to a child’s struggles. Over the past few years I’ve been involved in situations where an open sachet of potpourri, fresh fabric softener used on a well worn blanket, a different watt light bulb, a shift in the position of a heating vent, and a newly installed dimmer switch have all been revealed to be the driving force behind someone’s moment of meltdown.

My own teenage son becomes somewhat agitated at the sound of an apple being sliced — so much so that one of our family jokes when he’s being slow to obey is: “Josh, don’t make me go get an apple!”

This weekend I was personally reminded of the unexpected antagonists that can rise from seeming nothingness to upset autism’s apple cart — bringing with them piercing and sometimes prolonged pain.

My husband celebrated his birthday and as a family we sought to celebrate him with a good and satisfying supper.  I found some steaks on sale; gathered the ingredients for a gloriously fine salad; and selected some of the prettiest potatoes you have ever seen.  It was a meal fit for a king and it was one we all should have enjoyed as we gathered around the table for jubilant feasting.

As the steaks came in sizzling from the grill, we took a moment to toss the salad and place those beautiful baked potatoes on our plates. Then we sat down to sup. The food looked lovely and the smell was divine. But suddenly things shifted — at least they did for me. In the autistic mystery of that moment the vibrating auditory tones of my potato being mashed and mixed with butter and sour cream and cheese and chives sent my autistic neurological system into shutdown shock!

My bones began to burn with an electric intensity similar to sticking your finger in a socket while wading in the water. My brain legitimately felt as though it was shaking in my skull — a seizureish symptom I’ve experienced since childhood in certain settings. My fingers flicked. My arms flapped. Everything ached and my ability to properly process what was happening around me became cloudy. It was awful.

As you read this you may be sincerely thinking:  “Come on, Lori!  All of this because of a baked potato?” To which I sincerely respond: “Yes, my friend!  All because of a blasted baked potato!”

Autism is often an odd thing, with its challenging characteristics regularly aroused by equally odd things. I’ve written and spoken many times about how at its core, autism is a neurological issue — one with outward manifestations that can allegorically be explained as we compare the autistic individual’s neural pathways to the manner in which a stereo’s sound is caustically conducted when carried along a frayed speaker wire — a wire which can produce debilitating static as it seeks to do what it was created to do, but can’t quite pull off doing successfully because of its fray.

For whatever reason, the sonic vibrations of a baked potato being prepared traveled along my central nervous system’s static filled “frayed wire” like kryptonite — immobilizing me and causing my coping skills to crash.

Even 24 hours after our family meal the seismic activity continued. That night sleep evaded me because sheets that are normally soothing were suddenly seething with physical aggravation — like sandpaper rubbing against a sunburn. The next morning I struggled to find clothes that could be appropriately worn in public because my tactile senses were so raw that everything I tried on rubbed them even “raw-er.”  The sound of our automobile’s engine, which carried us to a scheduled destination, caused an internal agitation similar to what it must feel like to swallow a functioning pneumatic paint shaker!

As the day inched along I continually labored to settle and soothe my body’s twitches and tremors. In the afternoon my attempt to help my husband find a tie for an evening event prompted another semi-seizure as the overwhelming array of his ties’ textures bludgeoned my brain and created further neurological chaos. Even my depth perception became somewhat disengaged, as I discovered somewhat abruptly while trying to ride my bike around the block with my daughter — lesson learned!

There are a dozen other oddly related things I could list that fell out from that doggone pernicious potato. But they don’t really matter at the moment. What does matter at the moment (and the very reason I write) is this: I want you to know that severe sensory reactions can be caused by things you might never believe could even be a bother — an apple, a dimmer switch, a small sack of smell goods, a tyrannical “tater” — and the manifestations that flow forth may linger and last for quite some time.

If you have a child or a student on the spectrum who is able to speak or communicate via AAC, please listen to them when they tell you something is bothering them — a taste, a texture, a sight, a sound — even if you can’t fathom that the thing they mention could possibly pose a problem.  Believe them when they talk to you about things that are hurting them and look for ways to provide relief.

If you have a child or a student who can’t speak or explain the source of their suffering, then strive to watch and work with the eyes of an investigator — examining their environment for any clues as to the cause of their struggle. Notice what’s around them (things big and small) when they enter into anxiety or distress. Look for patterns in the places where they seem to be having pain. Think through new additions that have entered the area, as well as old anchors you may have recently removed. Look, listen, and seek to learn from how they interact with everything. You might be surprised at what you discover.

Dear reader, there is so much I could say on this. There are books that could be (and should be) written to help people better understand this realm of autism’s reality.  For now, let me simply remind you (as I’ve been recently reminded myself) that sometimes the smallest and most seemingly insignificant things in someone’s surroundings may be the very thing causing the biggest behavioral battle in their body. Be patient with your children, with your students, with the stranger who’s struggling in the store, and honestly with every person you pass — because you never know when a “potato” might be pummeling them and upsetting autism’s apple cart!

Getty image by Lesyy.