Fact sheet on sensory problems and comorbid disorders with Aspergers and Autism, two Autism Spectrum Disorders


Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders such as autism or Asperger's syndrome see their world in a very different way. The filtering mechanism in their brains often works in a different way in assimilating the senses such as touch, smell, hearing, taste and sight. They may be extremely sensitive to some senses and find seemingly routine events fascinating - the patterns of light on a wall, or the rustling leaves in the wind. The autistic child may also be unresponsive to sensations that their parents find unpleasant, such as extreme heat, cold or pain.


Sensory experiences that parents don't even notice may be extremely frightening or unpleasant for a child - the feel of a certain fabric, sounds of certain frequency, particular colors or seemingly bland foods. The child's reactions can easily be interpreted as wilful misbehavior. Along with this will frequently be difficulties in movement, coordination and sensing where one's body is in a given space, leading to clumsiness and difficulty with tasks such as dressing.


These are problems with sensory integration, as the nervous system has difficulty receiving, filtering, organizing and making use of sensory information, commonly known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction.


Sensory Integration involves various systems in our bodies:

• The vestibular system responds to movement and gravity

• The proprioceptive system receives feedback from joints and muscles and joints

• Our five senses - sight, hearing, touch, eyesight and smell.


Characteristics of Sensory Integration Dysfunction

Following are some signs that a child may have a dysfunction in sensory-motor processing:
Repetitive behaviors such as spinning, head banging or flapping of hands
• Poor coordination and handwriting
• Poor eye contact
• Short attention span

• Avoidance or over reaction to touch
• Difficulty identifying objects by touch
• Clumsiness and lack of balance

• Repetitive or slow speech
• Lack of body image and awareness
• Raised shoulders
• Fear of movement, avoids motor play
• Fear and anxiety in new situations or changed routines.

Children with autism or Asperger's syndrome may be overly sensitive to certain textures, sounds, smells and tastes. Wearing certain fabrics, tasting certain foods, or normal everyday sounds may cause emotional outbursts. The opposite is also possible - the child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder may feel very little pain or actually enjoy sensations we would dislike: strong smells, intense cold or unpleasant tastes.


The brain seems unable to balance the senses appropriately in cases of Sensory Integration Dysfunction. The brain may not be able to filter out background stimuli yet admit what is important, so the person with autism or Asperger's may have to deal with overwhelming amounts of sensory input day and night.


expressing affection with hypersensitive children

Babies who are later diagnosed as autistic are often observed to go stiff when held due to a sensory overload. This coping behavior is one of the earliest observable symptoms of autism, although it does not occur in all cases. It can be very difficult for parents who feel their child is rejecting them personally when the child doesn't want to be touched. Some guidelines to consider in these situations include:

• The child may find it easier to initiate hugging than receiving one

• Touch is usually more tolerable when the child anticipates it

• Firm, unmoving touch is better than light or moving touch

• Light touch may be tolerable after firm unmoving touch
• Initial stimulation may be unpleasant but tolerated later.


Treatment of Sensory Integration Dysfunction

In some cases, parents can minimize unpleasant sensory stimulation. For example, parents can avoid certain clothing fabrics that their child finds intolerable. Others may buy secondhand clothing, or wash new items repeatedly, to minimize the unpleasant rub of new fabrics. It can be very difficult for parents to find these causes of distress especially when the child is very young or does not communicate well. There may be some detective work and experimenting needed to find the sources.


Where are source of distress cannot be realistically avoided, there are behavioral techniques to allow a child to gradually accept the unpleasant sensory sensation. With time and patience, Desensitization can be a powerful technique. For example, a child may scream uncontrollably in supermarkets. The parent will explain to the child that they will stand outside the supermarket for 30 seconds then go home. The next time, it may be explained that they will go in for 30 seconds then go home. Time spent in the supermarket is gradually lengthened until the child has adapted to this environment. For more information, see the Behavior Management Strategies fact sheet.


There are other interventions available that help autistic children to integrate their senses and have more pleasurable interactions with people and their environment. See the Sensory Integration Therapies fact sheet for treatment options.


Temple Grandin's 'hug machine' is an interesting option for some children with sensory problems.

Click here to read her personal story about coping with sensory problems.


Closing button for this sensory problems fact sheet

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This autism fact sheet is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation.

In some cases, babies who will later be diagnosed with Autism display hyersensitivity, and stiffen when hugged or cuddled. This contact is unpleasant due to sensory overload.