Autism Sensory Difficulties and How to Address Them
People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) typically have difficulty processing sensory information such as sounds, sights, and smells. This is usually referred to as having issues with “sensory integration”, or having sensory sensitivity, and is caused by differences in how the brain of a person with ASD understands and prioritizes the sensory information picked up by the body’s many sensory receptors. When this breakdown in communication becomes too intense, the person with ASD may become overwhelmed, anxious, or even feel physical pain. When this occurs, some with ASD may act out.
The over and under-sensitivity ASD people experience may affect some or all of the following seven senses:
Including seeing objects as darker than they really are, blurred central vision, having poor depth perception (resulting in clumsiness), and distorted or fragmented images.
Imbalanced hearing (hearing sounds only in one ear), may either enjoy loud noises or be very agitated by them, may have difficulty cutting out background noise (affecting concentration), sounds may be distorted. These difficulties may also contribute to balance issues.
A person with ASD may either crave touch (and not know how much to apply, such as holding a person too tightly) and have a high pain threshold, or shun touch (even common gestures of affection, such as hugs) and struggle with certain sensations, such as those produced by rough fabrics, hair brushing, etc.
Some with ASD may crave strong tasting foods (such as very spicy foods) or even go so far as to try to eat non-edible substances like Play Dough, while those who are hypersensitive to taste will shun all but the blandest foods, and may dislike foods with anything but a smooth texture.
Some people with ASD may have no sense of smell and remain unaware of strong odours (leading them to rely on oral cues; they may taste things to get a better sense of them), while others may find common smells (such as from deodorants, lotions, shampoos, and perfumes) too strong to bear. For this reason, they may be extremely averse to going to the bathroom.
People with ASD may rock back and forth so as to get enough input on where they are situated, as they lack a sense of balance. They may have difficulties with sports, particularly anything gymnastic where the head is removed from an upright position. They may be more prone to car sickness than those who lack ASD.
Body awareness (‘proprioception’)
As people with ASD struggle to orient their bodies properly in space, they may stand too close to others, have a hard time navigating rooms or moving around obstructions (including people), experience difficulties with fine motor skills, or experience Synaesthesia (a condition where senses are “confused”, i.e. one will hear or taste a colour).
How to Help a Person With ASD Cope With Sensory Difficulties
In order to help a person with ASD cope with sensory difficulties, one must first address which senses are hyposensitive (under sensitive) and which are hypersensitive (over sensitive). Sensory balance can be aided by stimulating the underdeveloped senses and soothing the effects of the overdeveloped senses.
One should begin by observing their environment to assess which stimuli is troubling the person with ASD and make changes accordingly (and of course, remove obstructions and make rooms easily navigable for the person’s safety). Then one can progress to creating positive sensory experiences that will stimulate those senses that require extra stimulation.
Reducing Troubling Stimulation
Visual: choose low lighting with a deep yellow hue rather than garish fluorescent lighting, suggest the person wear sunglasses, make sure the person with ASD has a workspace surrounded by high walls, use blackout curtains (especially to aid with sleep).
Auditory: keep doors and windows closed, forewarn the person with ASD when entering a crowded or noise place, provide earplugs, suggest the person with ASD listen to soothing music through headphones in crowded places, create a sound-proof work area.
Touch: warn the person with ASD before touching him or her and approach from the front, never force hugs to “comfort” the person, introduce new textures (i.e. fabric) gradually, provide clothing that is soft and loose (or turn clothing inside out so seams are not against the skin), let children with ASD brush their own hair and wash themselves.
Taste: allow the person to eat what he or she wants, but try to maintain a balanced diet. Take steps like pureeing food to change its texture and see if that helps.
Smell: unscented products (such as shampoos and laundry detergents) should be used wherever possible.
Balance: provide visual cues, such as finish lines, to help a person with ASD determine the steps to completing a physical activity. Teach children with ASD to keep people at arm’s length, literally, so they can determine how not to get too close to others. As mentioned prior, remove obstructions.
Curbing Problematic Stimulation-Seeking
Sometimes those whose senses are hyposensitive will exhibit socially inappropriate or unsafe behaviours as part of their attempts to get enough stimulation. Usually, one can redirect these behaviours in a way that still allows the person with ASD to self-soothe.
Children with ASD may chew on everything they find soothing to chew on, for example; to redirect this behaviour, provide hard candy, latex-free tubes, or straws to gnaw on. Some children may be fascinated with their own feces due to its strong smell or texture and attempt to touch it; provide jelly or another strong-smelling soft substance to play with.
People with ASD often benefit from music therapy, speech and language therapy, and occupational therapy (which can be key in making sure those with ASD can work comfortably and thus live independently).
People with ASD also benefit greatly from time spent in special “sensory rooms”, which are designed to stimulate, develop, or balance their sensory systems. Look for a special school, hospital, or other local facility that works with people with ASD; they will often have sensory rooms. Parents of ASD children may also create their own sensory rooms. Depending on the child’s needs, they may be exposed to soothing music, shiny objects (mirror balls), vibrating cushions, waterbeds, tactile walls, etc. Sensory rooms may also include equipment that is activated by certain motions or pressure, so as to help the person with ASD learn how to orient themselves in space and understand the cause and effect of their physical actions.
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