Sensory Issues

The sensory world is perceived differently by people who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

People with ASD can be

  • insensitive to sensory information (don’t feel enough) or are
  • oversensitive to sensory information (feel too much).

One sense can be highly tuned while another is muted. Sometimes they find it hard to turn off the channels and too much information is coming through at the same time. Filtering out irrelevant information becomes difficult. Sometimes the channels are mixed.

It can become so overwhelming that they have a meltdown or temper tantrum.

Imagine living in a world where:

  • the sound of a refrigerator humming (500 metres away) grates on your nerves.
  • the smell of a person’s perfume is like bleach and makes you want to vomit.
  • you are oblivious to physical pain, so that you are unaware of burning your hands when the tap water is too hot.
  • you would rather starve than eat some foods because their texture or smell is unbearable (like being forced to eat meat that has been rotting for days).
  • the frequency of light from a fluorescent tube is like a strobe light at a nightclub.
  • you are not sure where your body ends and other objects begin.
  • you can feel like you are dizzy and falling.
  • it is painful to feel the light touch of a hand.

Every child with ASD is different and needs to be assessed as an individual. An Occupational Therapist can complete a sensory profile for children to map the problem areas. They will assess the outer senses (taste, touch, sight, sound, smell) and the inner senses (vestibular and proprioceptive). I hadn’t heard of those last two either!

The vestibular sense helps you keep your balance (it’s the thing that goes haywire when you are on a rocking boat for too long and you get seasick).

The proprioceptive sense lets you know where your body parts are in space (eg., an awareness that your arm is at your side or how close you are to furniture) and how much force is needed to do a task.

Parents can do their own sensory profile. List each of the senses and try to work out if your child is under-sensitive (actively avoids) or over-sensitive (seeks out) in that area. Try to step into the child’s body and ‘feel’ the world through their senses. Think of specific problem behaviours and consider whether a sensory issue may be the cause. Here is an example of a profile that I put together for my son Michael (3 years old)**:




Behaviour or Reaction

Taste Under sensitive Seeks out strong taste eg. vegemite, salty foods (now loves curry)
Touch Over sensitive in head/neck area Avoids being touched at back of neck and head, hates haircuts, getting hair wash, teeth cleaning. Insistent on wearing the same soft t-shirt every day.
Sound Over sensitive Covers ears in shopping centres and playgroup, meltdowns. Hates some sounds (eg., vacuum cleaner, hair dryer, hand dryer). Upset at birthday parties.
Smell Over sensitive Food refusal. Hates the smell of most fruit (phenolic smell – probably smells like nail polish to him) and has meltdowns when confronted with foods.
Sight Over sensitive Avoids or looks away from bright lights (especially fluorescent light), agitated, covers eyes. Difficulty finding things right in front of him.
Vestibular Under-sensitive Seeks out swinging, spinning, trampolining,
Proprioceptive Under-sensitive or reduced awareness Never sits straight, always leaning on things for support, falls over when support moved.Loves being supported from all sides (eg., heavy blanket, inside boxes, deep pressure hugs, wearing weighted vest). Always getting into small spaces.

I believe that dealing with sensory issues is very important for people with ASD and there is so much that can be done in this area to help.

Some strategies are simple (eg., earplugs, iPods, movement/exercises such as trampolining, dark sunglasses, Irlen lenses, removal of fluorescent lights, weighted vests, movement cushions, chew sticks, squidgy balls).

Some strategies are more complex (sensory integration therapy, auditory integration, behavioural optometry, desensitisation).

An Occupational Therapist can guide you in this area or you can find out more in the many books that are available.

** Leith Johnston, Michael’s speech pathologist at the Wesley Hospital in Brisbane, showed me how to do this type of sensory profile (there are also questionnaires that can be used). Thanks Leith.