SENSORY PROBLEMS AND AUTISM
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
Sensory Integration involves various systems in
• The vestibular system responds to movement and
• The proprioceptive system receives feedback
from joints and muscles and joints
• Our five senses - sight, hearing, touch, eyesight
Characteristics of Sensory Integration Dysfunction
Following are some signs that a child may have
a dysfunction in sensory-motor processing:
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
• Firm, unmoving touch is better than light or
• Light touch may be tolerable after firm unmoving
• 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.
'hug machine' is an interesting option for some children
with sensory problems.
to read her personal story about coping with sensory problems.
Click here for the full
range of Asperger's and autism fact sheets at www.autism-help.org
This autism fact sheet is licensed under the GNU