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Your Autistic Child Can't Catch A Sneeze in Time?


Do you have a child on the autism spectrum (ASD) that just can’t seem to synchronize the urge to sneeze with grabbing a tissue in time to politely “achoo?”

Well, bless you. You are not alone.

I have met many parents whose children struggle with this life skill. When the teeny nerve endings in the nose are tickled, triggering a sneeze, the child cannot respond quickly enough to contain the inevitable response. You know, the one where up to 100,000 germs are catapulted into the environment at up to 100 miles an hour, uncontained by the crook of an arm, the turn of a head or a fresh tissue.

When this happens, those in the vicinity are not pleased. No one wants to inhale someone else’s germs, or to have mucous land on them. Those kids who cannot manage their sneezing risk alienating their peers and developing a bad reputation.

In order to teach this essential skills to the children and teens who just don’t get it, it helps to know the various ASD related traits and features that might be contributing to the difficulty.

Some possibilities can include:

1. Slow processing speed.

The child feels the tickle, but just cannot respond in that split second to delay the spray.

2. Poor working memory.

They can never remember where they put the tissue.

3. Anxiety.

They can manage a sneeze at home, but at school where their anxiety is high, they can never seem to remember the steps when the tickle comes a-calling, and this can be due to anxiety that spikes at school or in social situations.

4. Poor fine motor skills.

Anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of autistic children may have motor and movement issues. You have got to move fast to smother a sneeze. Some of our children move slowly or are clumsy. A number of them may even have developmental coordination disorder, which is a delay in the development of motor skills that can make everyday tasks very difficult.

5. Sensory processing.

Sensory  processing  allows us to respond to stimuli or experiences in our environment. If a child’s  sensory system does not “feel” or “sense” the tickle in the nose, or if they do not feel it in a timely way, this could this mean he or she is (jargon alert!) “hyposensitive to the tactile experience” that the dust or other irritant is creating. In other words, they might be under sensitive to the signal that warns a sneeze is imminent.

6. Executive dysfunction.

Most kids with ASD struggle with the neurological functions that include, among  many other things, remembering the steps of a task in sequence.

7. They don’t understand how learning this skill has value or relevance for them.

So if your child has some or all of the factors that can result in a sneeze-fail, there’s lots you can do:

  • Use social scripts or narratives  to help younger children understand why they must learn to sneeze hygienically. Avoid lecturing; give facts. There are lots of  online resources to help you to teach this. Start here or here.
  • Here’s a link for an allergist who has some creative ideas for practising blowing the nose.
  • If your child has difficulties with motor skills, sensory processing, or slower processing speed, consider working with an occupational therapist. You can also check out some of the great tips you can find online from some of these valued professionals.
  • Whatever you teach, it is not enough for your child to memorize the steps, or to be able to tell you why it is important to learn this skill. He must practice. The more the child rehearses, the more likely they will be to remember the steps in the moment.
  • Once you’ve taught your child how to “catch a sneeze,” supplement your verbal teaching by using a visual to help them remember the steps. This is especially important for those children who are strong visual learners.

Follow this journey at Autism Goggles.

Getty image by tatyana_tomsickova