Pain travels up the back of your neck, knifes your gray matter, saws at your skull. Your head throbs. You close your eyelids to squeeze out light and movement, cover your ears to minimize the effect of sound. You rub the tender muscles at the top of your spine and place warm palms over pulsating pain.
You have a headache.
You twist the childproof lid off a bottle and swallow three Advil. Sit. Hold your head. Eat chocolate. Wait for the quiet.
But. What if you were wrapped in a package that didn't recognize where the world ends and your body begins? If light was a whirling wave, sound a vibrating nightmare? And big body movements that settle everyday sensations now inexplicably cause your body to ache? What if you couldn't identify the location of discomfort or communicate the need for relief?
An everyday headache might roar unchecked through your body like an out of control train. Your skin, usually hungry for sensation, would throb and complain. You might cover your eyes, scream, flail. Push loved ones aside, slap walls, kick and sob, until your face was an explosion of blood vessels and coursing tears.
Behaving in a manner that looks as much like a tantrum as a body in pain.
According to the Mayo Clinic, headaches are generally caused by chemical activity in the brain, nerves or blood vessels in the skull, muscles in the head and neck. There are a multitude of reasons a person might get a headache. For example, exercise, stress, tension, tears, and (in our family) allergens. Most headaches are not life threatening.
Before a person with pre- and becoming-verbal autism can communicate the source of pain, he must first recognize that there is pain. He can then begin to associate words with the sensation. And obtain effective treatment.
When you love someone who can't tell you what's wrong, attending to his feeling-related needs can cause a heart wrenching quandary:
What if the crying is "just" a tantrum?
Consider too: in autism, as with typically developing children, feeding a tantrum attention undesirably breeds…more tantrums.
Which can lead to headaches.
We help our child with autism discern pain-related feelings with words. When he injures his finger, for example, we say, "that hurts" and show him how to create and repeat the phrase using his talker. We acknowledge his anger. Identify body parts. Read aloud. We seek teachable moments all day, every day while working with therapists, teachers and loving, involved family members to create an environment that encourages language use.
What to do when, in spite of your best efforts, there are tantrums and tears anyway?
Sit. Hold your head. Eat chocolate. Wait for the quiet.