Sensory Issues: The Autism Files

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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)**:

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Senses

Sensitivity

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.

19 thoughts on “Sensory Issues: The Autism Files

  1. Michael loves to feel enclosed, deep pressure, big hugs. Apparently that is a proprioceptive issue. It also makes him feel secure and less anxious. Temple Grandin made a ‘squeeze machine’ for this very purpose. I wish we had one.

    • Thanks hughesy. You have said that before but you can keep saying it – I like the sound of it. Regarding the symptoms, you may be suffering from ‘intern’s syndrome’ or iatrogenic illness. – young medical students find themselves experiencing the symptoms of every disease they study.

  2. I saw the film on Temple Grandin’s life a few days ago,and I could remember and appreciate even more all your posts on ASD.
    I taught also that her name was such a strong symbol (maybe because I never heard that word used as a name) before), being a temple.

    • Temple Grandin is my hero,and not just because of how she deals with her ASD but for her unique perspective and innovations in the management of cattle. Can’t wait to see the movie (not out here yet).

  3. I learned a lot reading this, thanks. Recently I came across something I never heard of, called ‘neurotypical syndrome’.
    http://isnt.autistics.org/
    It seemed curious to me that there is an ‘Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical’. huh? I said, thinking that it must finally be that ‘normalcy’ has been outed as a neurosis. But then I found it was something else indeed.

    I saw the Temple Grandin story. I could not help but come away with love/respect for a person of that incredible intellectual and perceptual caliber, not to mention strength of character.

    • That’s hilarious that website – turning the tables on us ‘neurotypicals’. Temple Grandin is a classic. I read her biography and she has overcome so much – they would have had her in an institution. She also suffers anxiety and panic attacks (especially in her teens) and comes out on top of that too.

  4. I just wanted to add the there is hope! With the help of therapies and biomed (and simply getting older), my now 8 year old son with ASD can tolerate most foods, many textures and sounds. The one big thing left is the school bell, but that is a HUGE difference to the 3 year old that sat in the middle of the sand screaming, because he was overwhelmed by the feeling of every single grain of sand on his hands. So – hang in there, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, even if that tunnel has a lot of turns!

    • Thanks for stopping by and your comments Christiane. My son is now 9 and has improved incredibly with the help of early intervention and biomedical treatments. The sensory profile has indeed changed and we now have no problems with hair-washing etc., He still has visual issues,food refusal for many foods and proprioceptive issues, but they are manageable. I will blog about biomedical stuff soon.

  5. So interesting, Gabrielle. I’d never heard of the names for the two inner senses, either. So many behavioral characteristics and perceptions run along a continuum. Though I don’t have ASD, I share some characteristics with Michael, especially being sensitive to sound. I don’t like loud voices (people shouting, etc.) and I don’t like harsh, mechanical sounds.

  6. You are right about things running on continuum. I know a lot of people who are sensitive to sound (but who don’t have asd). Some kids have Sensory Integration Disorder which is sensory issues (but they don’t have asd). I know a man with aspergers who can hear the air conditioner being turned on in the local shopping centre (which is 2 blocks away from his house) and it annoys the hell out of him. If they are given a hearing test some people with asd respond to sound levels that humans do not normally hear. It becomes a problem if it interferes with day to day activity.

  7. I applaud you for taking your experiences and sharing them in a manner that will no doubt help and educate others.

  8. Gabrielle, I thought you would ne interested in my new book, SQUIRMY WORMY, HOW I LEARNED TO HELP MYSELF which is a sensory tool in a child’s picture book format. I’m thrilled that it is endorsed by Temple Grandin! You can check it out, along with what other critics are saying at http://www.lyndafarringtonwilson.com
    PS– love what you are doing!

  9. My 6 year old son has autism. He has bad sensory problems. At his last I.E.P. his O.T. said that he needs to start being told what autism is and to explain it to him. I have no clue where to start or what to say. They told me that there are books out there as what to say to him and to ask other parents out there what they said or what books they read. Can I get any suggestions please? Thank you a lot.

    • Hi Kelly – thanks for stopping by. There are lots of books (that the child with ASD can read themselves or have read to them). Amazon.com has heaps of books (you can do searches on aspergers, autism, sensory issues or whatever you are interested in, and you can read what the books are about and read reviews of them). A couple of books I know of are ‘I am utterly unique: celebrating the strengths of children with asperger syndrome and high functioning autism’ by Larson; and ‘Aspergers Huh? A child’s perspective’ by R. G. Schnurr; and ‘All cats have Aspergers’. I believe it is important for the child to grow up knowing they have ASD and what it means. I always used the term autism around my son, so he got used to it from a very early age and I read him books that describe autism. As you travel along the road of being a parent of a child with ASD you will learn heaps about it and you will be able to explain things to your son – don’t panic about it – you have time to educate yourself (and the OT and other therapists will educate you as you go along). You can email me if you have other questions or issues. Best of luck.

  10. Pingback: Quick Tip (The Novelty Bag): The Autism Files | Gabrielle Bryden's Blog

  11. Pingback: Quick Tip (Novelty Bag): The Autism Files | Gabrielle Bryden's Blog

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