When we go out as a family Hubby and I have an agreement we use to manage "tricky" behaviours and make sure everyone is safe. It goes like this- One of us looks after the 4 older kids and the other looks after Autistic MissG. 13 year old Master L is on the Autistic Spectrum as well, but does not have such intense sensory sensitivities, and has never been a "runner". He can also tell us when he is struggling with feeling overwhelmed, so whoever is watching the older 4 just needs to be aware to check in with him periodically and he will be safe. 5 year old MissG, on the other hand, has a lot of sensory sensitivities, and it is just a normal part of a day out for her to have a few meltdowns and/or run and hide at some stage of the day. So one of us watches her like a hawk and supports her while the other keeps an eye on the other 4 kids. When the G-watcher gets tired, we switch. Being the G-watcher is a tiring job, so we often switch a few times over the course of an outing, especially if we are somewhere really busy or somewhere we are not familiar with. When she was a bit smaller we had the option of putting her in our Macpac back carrier, which was really useful, but she's just too big for that now. The most tiring thing is that you can't really take your eyes off her. It sounds like an exaggeration, but it's not. Sometimes, if she has a slow build up of sensory input that causes an overload, there are warning signs- like covering her ears, trying to hide behind you or yelling at someone (anyone!!). But if the overload is caused by someone unexpectedly jostling her, or a sudden loud noise or change of environment there is no really noticeable warning and she will just bolt. I have now lost count of how many times we have "lost" G. We panic less (but still panic!) about the bolt now than we used to because we have learned that she doesn't go too far. She finds the first available "safe spot", usually somewhere small and dark (you'd be surprised how many small dark places there are in this world) and she sits in there until she feels better. She will hear us calling her name but still not come out or respond at all until she feels calmer. It's not nice at all to have that happen and have to figure out where she is and wait out the calming process. So- you just can't really take your eyes off her because she can disappear in a second and it takes a long time to restore order, so to speak. I actually prefer it when she has a meltdown because I know where she is and I know she is safe. Meltdowns are pretty confronting for people who don't know what they are looking at though (and even for some who do know!!), so avoiding them is nice.
We went on a family outing this weekend. We left in the afternoon, went to a busy market, then out to dinner and we saw a movie that started at 7pm. We knew it was going to be tricky for her..... plenty of people to bump her, heaps of visual input, loud noises and bright lights, having to eat somewhere new noisy and with different smells, and the unfamiliarity of a cinema with it's huge screen and loud volume. We would also have her out past her normal bedtime, so she'd be tired, but we counted on her sleeping in the car a bit at some stage on the way to one of our destinations.
And- we had a new weapon against sensory overload with us- her recently acquired ear defenders. We call them ear muffs, because it is easier to say. They look like headphones, but have no speakers in them. They are well padded so they are comfortable, and G likes to wear them. At first we just used them at home to see how they went. She tried them when there was loud music on or if someone was talking when she was feeling overwhelmed (sometimes she says "everybody stop taking") and they seemed to help. I was reluctant to use them outside the house because I worried that they would bring attention to her and single her out as being different, but Hubby pointed out that if she's having a meltdown she pretty much stands out anyway. Add that to the fact that she seems completely unaware that anyone else even notices her, and I decided to let go of my overactive anxiety muscle, and bring the ear muffs for her to use if she wanted to.
It was like magic.
We were out for 8 hours and we had not one meltdown or bolt. She remained responsive and reasonable the whole time, held my hand when asked, and mostly behaved like the other kids (aside from some flapping and inappropriate volume). We did have a moment in the restaurant when she decided it was time to leave but others weren't finished eating yet, and she was very restless in the cinema. But- not one single meltdown and no running away or hiding. We had the ear muffs out all the time and she just put them on and off as she wanted to. It was like having the ability to control just that one area of sensory input gave her the help she needed to manage regulating her responses to all the other input she was exposed to. The ear muffs don't stop sound from reaching her at all, they just make everything quieter. We can still talk to her and she hears us, but she doesn't get all the smaller sounds as well. Wearing them is like someone turning down the volume to everything except the one or two loudest things in the area, and it makes sounds seem further away. The outing was so much easier with the ear muffs that I am well and truly over my worries about how they look on her. Actually, I think they are my new favourite thing.