Children with autism lack what I call a “gauge”. Yes, that’s right, a gauge because we all have it. And right now, you’re probably wondering what I am even talking about, which I am more than happy to explain.
But first, what is a gauge?
A gauge according to the dictionary I use, a gauge is a measure; a standard of measure; an instrument to determine dimensions, distance, or capacity; a standard. The image above is an image of a gauge.
Alright, but what does that have to do with autism, or anyone for that matter?
You’re probably asking. Here’s how this fits in. first, I want to explain how a gauge works using a flushing toilet as an example before I can transfer this example to us.
When you flush a toilet, water comes into that big bowl immediately and once water reaches a certain level it would automatically stops coming in, right? But how does that happen because when we flushed no one opened the tap first so that water could come in and no one closed it either? Am I correct? Yes, I am. I know I am.
But here’s what happened
In that whole toilet-flushing process, there’s a gauge that measures water. The gauge knows how much water should be in that bowl and it knows when water has reached that level, and when that happens it activates and cuts the flow of the water same time. The tap is still open outside or wherever it is. Matter of fact, the tap is always open – day and night but the house or toilet won’t be flooded because the gauge has cut the supply and flow.
What could happen if the gauge were to be broken, damaged, or whatever?
Water would pour non-stop. That toilet bowl would be filled to capacity and water would start flooding the whole toilet first and then the entire house if it was inside. Why is that? Because the tap is forever running outside and the guard (the gauge) who is supposed to prevent this from happening is either sleeping on the job or is absent and didn’t even call in sick or send a sick note.
Can I make another example just to make sure everyone follows?
We all know how an automatic washing machine works, right? One of the best inventions by the way but we’re not there, we’re here. When you’re about to do your laundry, you’ll add your detergent, fabric softener, and of course – your laundry. After you’ve done all this and fiddled with a few buttons and selected the level of water according to the size of your laundry.
Water would start pouring into the machine and once that selected level is reached, right there, automatically the water-pouring process stops. Who stopped it? You? No. The gauge in that washing machine did. I hope now we all understand how the gauge works.
Okay, back to our topic
How does this work with us God’s mortals? And how do we get to have a gauge when we’re not a flushing toilet or an automatic washing machine?
When you eat (doesn’t matter what it is), who tells you that now you’ve had enough? Or when you drink (also, doesn’t matter), who tells you that there’s no more room in your stomach even though you feel like continuing? Is it your mama maybe, your spouse, or perhaps your children? It’s your GAUGE! Yes, correct, and I am going to say it again louder and clearer. IT’S – YOUR – GAUGE!
How does this process go?
There are major two of the many hormones that participate during our: feeling hungry, eating, and feeling full’ process. And our bodies – stomachs to be more precise produce them. I can picture someone saying “okay, go on”. The names of these hormones are GHRELIN and LEPTIN.
Here’s how these hormones work:
When you’re hungry your stomach produces and releases ghrelin (aka hunger hormone) to signal your brain that your stomach is empty/ or that you are hungry. Your brain then causes your body to act “hungrily” like feeling tired, irritable, etc. What ghrelin also does is increase your food intake or appetite. Hence stuffing your face when you’re too hungry. And you will eat according to how much you’re feeling hungry, right?
Whilst still eating,
Leptin, the other hormone starts strutting around like a peacock, slowly beginning the process of decreasing your appetite. As you continue to eat, you begin to even reduce the speed at which you’re eating. You started off eating like you’re in some hot dog eating contest because you were hungry but as you continue you slow down. That’s leptin at play right there – your gauge, and once the tank is full, leptin signals the brain that now you’ve had enough.
But children with autism don’t have it.
Or rather let me put it like this – because that’s how it is. It’s not that they don’t have a gauge but the problem here is that an autistic brain is wired a little differently from yours and mine. Remember I said autism is a life-long complex neurobehavioral condition that starts and ends in the brain. What this means is that this brain has a disability in understanding certain information and can’t tap into some parts of itself where information is taking place naturally.
Now, here’s how I learned this
My autistic son used to eat and drink a lot (except alcohol). No, wait. Not a lot but excessively. Nah, excessively is not the right word either, abnormal does suffice although a little. This happened for a few years – two or three at least, and at first, we used to think that he had a gigantic appetite and gave him more food, but we soon realized that appetite had nothing to do with it because he just didn’t stop. He couldn’t help himself.
One time I caught him with a 5L of water that was two or one and a half liters to go. And by then he was around 3 or 4 or 5. He struggled to walk and even breathed like a pig because he was all swollen up and bloated but still helped himself. I was so freakin’ puzzled.
I kept wondering what was wrong with him, but no one knew, not even the doctors. One Sunday lunch I was dishing his food and while busy I realized that even though he “ate” a lot, this was too much but decided to leave it and gave him later. We sat down. Remember, I said realized after I’d dished up that the plate was just too full but was lazy to put some of it back and resorted to leaving it in bowl instead.
Now, follow me closely. I fed him because he couldn’t feed or eat by himself. And as I was busy doing so, I was counting the spoons to make sure I was giving him enough. And after my sure measurements, I pulled the bowl away from him and was about to stand up when he pulled me by the arm.
He pushed me down on the chair to sit and I did because I was curious. As I sat down, he also sat, took my hand, placed it on the spoon, and said his Morse code, remember the kuka term? At first, I refused because the tummy looked like there wasn’t room for one more spoon, but he wanted to eat, nonetheless.
I tried to refuse but he started crying and grabbed me by the clothes until I had no choice but to surrender. He finished the whole bowl, took his big water glass, downed it in one go, and went for the coke next. I was so shocked you could pick my jaw on the floor, but I was also very worried now.
Then one time I decided to put a stop to this binging spree of his. I wasn’t going to allow him to eat so out of control. So, I dished a small portion of food in his bowl, sat him down, fed him and that was it. I waited to see if he would want more but he didn’t. He didn’t look like he wanted more. He looked fine, content even. I took the same big water glass he drank with every day and poured him a quarter and he drank it and put the glass away. Again, he didn’t ask for more.
What did this mean?
Right there I realized that his “gauge” wasn’t working. His body did produce it that’s for sure. And it did go to the brain and told it to send the stop-eating signals. But his brain can’t interpret the message or signal from it, therefore, can’t tell his tummy that it is now full. This meant I had to be his gauge, be the one who controls how much he eats and drinks. And I’ve been doing that to this day, and it’s helped me help him a great deal.
What this also meant is that
An autistic brain as we know by now, it functions and operates differently from ours. A child will keep eating and will be full once the plate or bowl is empty. But so long as there is food, they eat no matter how plenty or small it is. Remember an autistic brain is rigid like that. If your child eats abnormally like this, now you know where the problem is and how to fix it. Control how much your child eats and drinks for them.
This very informative guest blog post about autism was written by Lunga Mhlongo who has a blog called The Autism Wall. Her purpose for the blog is to spread more awareness about autism. If you are interested in reading more about autism or are interested in reading about her experiences as a parent of a child with autism, check out her blog by clicking here.
For more guest posts please click here.
To read more posts about mental health related topics please click here.
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