Sensory Issues in Children with Autism
Sensory issues are common in children with autism and are even included in the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder. Each autistic child is unique, and this includes their sensory sensitivities.
Children with autism might have sensitivities to:
- Balance (vestibular)
- Awareness of body position and movement
- Awareness of internal body cues and sensations
Children with autism can experience both hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness) and hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness) to a wide range of stimuli. Most children have a combination of both.
Many children with autism experience hypersensitivity to bright lights or certain light wavelengths (e.g., LED or fluorescent lights). Certain sounds, smells, textures and tastes can also be overwhelming. This can result in sensory avoidance – trying to get away from stimuli. Sensory avoidance can look like pulling away from physical touch, covering the ears to avoid loud or unpredictable sounds, or avoiding certain kinds of clothing.
Hyposensitivity is also very common. This can look like a constant need for movement(Children runs all the times); difficulty recognizing sensations like hunger, illness or pain; or attraction to loud noises, bright lights and vibrant colors. Children who are hyposensitive may engage in sensory seeking to get more sensory input from the environment. For example, children with autism may stimulate their senses by making loud noises, touching children or objects, or rocking back and forth.
What do sensory issues feel like?
Having unique sensitivities to certain types of sensory input can create challenges in everyday situations like school, work or community settings. For someone who is hypersensitive, it can take a lot of effort to spend all day under LED or fluorescent lights, navigate a crowded space or process conversations in rooms with background noise. This can be incredibly physically and emotionally draining and can leave the children feeling too exhausted to do other important tasks.
Many children with autism use stimming(repeated actions or movements) as a form of sensory seeking to keep their sensory systems in balance. Repetitive movements, sounds, or fidgeting can help children with autism stay, relieve stress or block out uncomfortable sensory input.
Sensory overload happens when an intense sensory stimulus overwhelms your ability to cope. This can be triggered by a single event, like an unexpected loud noise, or it can build up over time due to the effort it takes to cope with sensory sensitivities in daily life. Sensory overload can feel like intense anxiety, a need to escape the situation or difficulty communicating. When the brain has to put all of its resources into sensory processing, it can shut off other functions, like speech, decision making and information processing.
What do sensory issues look like?
Many children with autism show certain behaviours when they are experiencing a sensory issue:
- Increased movement, such as jumping, spinning or crashing into things
- Increased stimming, such as hand flapping, making repetitive noises or rocking back and forth
- Talking faster and louder, or not talking at all
- Covering ears or eyes
- Difficulty recognizing internal sensations like hunger, pain or the need to use the bathroom
- Refusing or insisting on certain foods or clothing items
- Frequent chewing on non-food items
- Frequent touching of others or playing rough
- Difficulty communicating or responding as the brain shifts resources to deal with sensory input (shutdown)
- Escalating, overwhelming emotions or need to escape a situation (meltdown)
Accommodations for sensory issues
Accommodations might mean modifying the environment, using tools and strategies, or creating new habits or routines. Since sensory needs depend the environment, accommodations may need to be adapted for each setting.
Examples of accommodations for hypersensitivity:
- Using light covers, sunglasses or a hat under fluorescent lights
- Wearing ear plugs or headphones in noisy environments
- Working in spaces with a closed door or high walls
- Avoiding strongly scented products
- Choosing foods that avoid aversions to textures, temperatures or spices
- Wearing soft, comfortable clothing
- Adjusting schedules to avoid crowds
Examples of accommodations for hyposensitivity:
- Visual supports for those who have difficulty processing spoken information
- Using fidget toys, chewies and other sensory tools
- Arranging furniture to provide safe, open spaces
- Taking frequent movement breaks throughout the day
- Eating foods with strong flavors or mixed textures
- Weighted blankets, lap pads or clothing that provides deep pressure
What resources are there to help with sensory issues?
- Learn how occupational therapy can help people with autism learn to better process sensory input in everyday environments.
- Learn how speech therapy can use sensitivity-reducing and sensory-stimulating activities to improve speech, swallowing and related muscle movements.