Most autistic individuals will have some sensory sensitivities. These sensitivities can mean they are over- or under-sensitive to certain sensory information. For example, if a person has over-sensitive hearing, sounds may seem louder, possibly even causing pain and sensory overload. Your child may struggle with sensory issues, and sometimes it can feel like you have to be a detective to work out why they’re struggling with something – sensory issues can take some unpicking!
Sensory dysregulation is often one of the most significant causes of discomfort for autistic children. It can create high levels of anxiety and even impact their ability to empathise and process language. Sensory issues can lead to challenging behaviours. I’m sure you can imagine how hard it might be to understanding others and self-regulate when smells, sounds, or lights are overwhelming or causing pain. Fortunately, sometimes simple changes in an environment can have huge effects.
What are the senses?
In addition to the five primary senses we all know about (sight, sound, taste, touch and smell), there are actually several others that are important, especially where autistic individuals are concerned. By understanding these and finding ways to incorporate activities that stimulate these senses, your child’s quality of life can be massively improved.
The additional senses are:
Proprioception: this is our sense of our body. It allows us to know where our body parts are without looking at them. It’s what we feel when we stretch and contract our muscles, and when we experience deep pressure, like hugs.
Vestibular: this is our sense of balance. It allows us to move without falling or bumping into objects and works in tandem with our proprioceptive sense to navigate our body and limbs.
Interoception: this is our internal body sense. It’s what allows us to know what’s going on inside our bodies: such as hunger, tiredness, nausea, or needing the toilet.
Nociception: this is our sense of pain. It’s what allows us to know if something is harmful to our bodies. Like when we cut, bruise or burn ourselves or when we strain our muscles.
Thermoception: this is our sense of temperature. It allows us to know if we are too hot or cold.
Activities that stimulate the senses can be incorporated into what’s called a ‘sensory diet’. A sensory diet is not to do with food but with a range of activities your child can engage in every day that may help them regulate their emotions and behaviour. More on this later.
Hyper- and hypo-sensitivity
Many autistic individuals are sensory avoiders (hyper-sensitive) some of the time and sensory seekers (hypo-sensitive) at other times. For some individuals, these can change through their lives or from one moment to the next.
Sensory avoiders (hyper-sensitive) may:
- have issues with clothing being itchy or uncomfortable, tags must be removed, may need very soft fabrics
- prefer bland food
- avoid physical contact
- be unable to cope in busy / loud environments
- be oversensitive to light
- require a calm, neutral and minimalist environment
- have difficulty with eating different textures and brushing teeth due to oral sensitivity
- over-react to pain and temperature changes
- be overcautious due to fear of falling
- have anxiety caused by fear of sensory overload
- have difficulty sleeping
Sensory seekers (hypo-sensitive) may:
- have little or no reaction to pain or extreme temperature, for example won’t wear a coat in the winter
- have little or no reaction to loud noises, bangs, etc.
- not be distracted by bright lights, enjoys flashing lights, fireworks, etc.
- seek crunchy textures and spicy flavours in food
- love movement – swinging, jumping, roller coasters
- crash into furniture and walls while trying to get enough sensory stimulus; may break furniture, doors, etc.
- want tight hugs, massages, back scratches, etc.
- have a ‘stompy’ walk to try and get more stimulation
- walk on their toes to get a sensory hit
- love textures, eg highly textured surfaces, running hands through sand or rice, messy play
Your child will have their own unique sensory profile; they might be oversensitive with some senses and undersensitive for others. The good news is that figuring this profile out can help you reduce the severity and frequency of their meltdowns and shutdowns. One of the best tips for dealing with meltdowns and shutdowns is to remove the things in the environment that might be causing the sensory overload or remove them from the situation if it’s possible.
Here are a few tools you can use to get an idea of your child’s sensory profile:
- Autism Education Trust sensory checklist
- Sensory questionnaire from the STAR Institute
- Sensory profile questionnaire
- The charity bibic will do a full assessment of your child and provide you with a sensory diet to use at home
How can you support your child’s sensory needs?
Getting to grips with your child’s sensory issues may take a bit of trial and error. You need to observe your child’s behaviour and work out what they might need (this is what we mean by being a detective!). For example, if you have a child who chews up all the collars and cuffs of their clothing, then something like a chew toy or necklace might help. There is a massive range of chew devices available; some are made to look like regular jewellery and so are less conspicuous.
If you have a child who is continuously and intentionally crashing into things or even breaking furniture, then something like a mini trampoline may help them get that sensory feedback that they crave. Or deep pressure, like rolling an exercise ball over their back, or going swimming, which provides excellent deep pressure and can be very calming as it uses major muscle groups. Even chewing gum, if it is safe for your child, can provide very satisfying and calming sensory input.
If your child has a very specific sensory issue, the internet can be a useful tool. Just just search for ‘autism’ and the issue. For example, try googling ‘autism’ and ‘toothbrushing’. There’s a wealth of information out there on just this subject (such as flavourless toothpaste and super-soft toothbrushes to name a few).
It’s very important to note that most of the time, you don’t have to buy special ‘disability’ sensory items. The word ‘disability’ can increase the price dramatically! Often you can find sensory toys in places like Lidl, Amazon or toy shops, like Smyths or The Entertainer.
Sometimes your child may need a reduction in sensory input. A popup tent or play tent – these are inexpensive and widely available – creates a safe environment that blocks out everything else around that person. A blanket can do the same thing, as can a hooded top.
Hats and sunglasses can reduce light. Ear defenders can reduce noise, but can also help an anxious child visit new places, as some children fear unexpected loud noises (many BAS parents swear by these inexpensive ones from ScrewFix). Listening to music can block out unpleasant stimuli, too.
We recommend doing a bit of investigative work with your child before spending money on anything, as creating a collection of sensory toys and devices can be expensive. Locally, both Gympanzees and Jigsaw Thornbury have free lending libraries you can borrow from to ‘try before you buy’. The charity Cerebra also have a lending library.
Some helpful links:
- Chewigem sell excellent chew toys and jewellery
- Sensory Direct sell a wide range of sensory equipment and are very helpful
- I’ve created a video about Sensory Processing
- Create a sensory diet for your child
- This is a great book from NAS about sensory issues: Sensory strategies: Practical ways to help children and young people with autism learn and achieve by Corinna Laurie
- Can I tell you about Sensory Processing Difficulties?: A guide for friends, family and professionals by Sue Allen
- Useful articles: Sensory Processing Issues: Strategies You Can Try at Home and Understanding Sensory Processing Issues