The Sensory Side of Autism
Understanding and using the sensory system to help children with autism
The way many children with autism perceive the world around them is often distorted. What may seem like an ordinary smell, sight, sound, touch, taste, or movement to you and me might go unnoticed or seem threatening and noxious to them.
To help understand this better, let’s compare the sensory system to caffeine.
Some days, just a little caffeine is enough, and too much will leave you jittery and unable to focus. Other days there just isn’t enough caffeine to get you going. You need multiple cups, and without it, you’re not alert and at your best.
The sensory system works in a similar way. There are times when a child can be over responsive to sensory input, and the input they receive seems as if it is coming through a megaphone. In other words, a little bit is too much. Other times, a child just can’t seem to get enough input and will seek it out until they do. This is considered sensory under responsivity.
A child in either state won’t be alert, focused, able to emotionally regulate, or function at their best. Their behaviors will grow undesirable or unpredictable.
Understanding the sensory system and using a sensory approach can help children with autism learn, socialize, communicate, and participate in the community. To do this, we want to provide:
Interventions to enhance their sensory system. This includes the tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular systems.
- Allow kids frequent opportunities for tactile input through messy play and exploring the world with their hands. For kids who appear sensitive to touch input, expose them to tactile input in a way that feels nonthreatening to them. A great way to do this is through sensory bins. Start with dry textures (rice, beans, oats, sand, cotton balls, etc.), then move to damp textures (water beads, kinetic sand, moon dough, etc.). You can learn more HERE.
- This system gives us our spatial awareness and lets us know what our body is doing in space. Proprioceptive input helps get a child into an internal state of organization, and it’s calming. Encourage activities like jumping, climbing, running, pushing, pulling, animal walks (such as a bear crawl or crab walk), and helping with household tasks like vacuuming or carrying in groceries. You can learn more about proprioception HERE
- The vestibular system helps us know where we are in space. This is vital to understanding the world around us and how to interact with it. We gather vestibular input through receptors in the inner ear as we move our head through space. Activities that provide this input include spinning, swinging, sliding, being upside down, rolling, rocking, and riding a bike. If a child is oversensitive to this type of movement, start small and build up as their tolerance increases.
Strategies to help with transitions. Children with autism are often visual, so use picture schedules or timers to show them when a transition is coming. A blanket, stuffed animal, or toy a child loves can be used a transition object. Remember that proprioceptive input is calming, so hugs or other forms of deep pressure or heavy work are also helpful with transitions.
Strategies to accommodate over sensitivities. We can modify the environment and use tools and strategies to minimize behaviors that result from over stimulation:
- Wear noise cancelling headphones or listen to music that the child finds calming
- Have a sensory box with fidgets, stress balls, items to chew on, etc.
- Plan time for physical exercise
- Use light covers, sunglasses, hats, or dimmers to decrease bright light
- Avoid heavily scented items
- Create breaks in a busy schedule
- Provide calming input through proprioceptive activities (hugs, massage, etc.)
- Create a space with toys, pillows, and blankets where they feel safe and relaxed
CINDY UTZINGER is an occupational therapist, mother of two, and author of Why Is My Kid Doing That?, a book to help parents better understand their child’s behavior.