Introduction to Sensory Processing

Many children with autism struggle with sensory processing. As shown in a previous article, sensory issues are now part of the diagnostic criteria.

Our senses affect how we respond to the world around us. Many children are either over-sensitive (hyper) or under-sensitive (hypo) and it can be tricky for them to cope with their reactions to what is going on around them.

Below are some examples of different issues that our children may have and just a few tips on how to help them. This is an extensive subject with many research projects underway, so there will be more in depth articles to follow.

  • Taste

Some children may need to sniff their food before tasting it, or they may have a preference for very bland flavours. Similarly, they may prefer textures that are only crunchy, dry, or liquid or they might love spicy food. Trying new foods can be really challenging. My son declared that he hates kiwi fruit and it’s the worst thing in the world; he’s never tried it but he wanted to make sure he didn’t have to. When he did try it later, he decided that he loved it. I still can’t persuade him to try anything that looks too wet or ‘slimy’ (as he puts it).

How To Help: Offer the child a small amount, but don’t force it. If your child has a preference for certain textures or flavours, try to introduce similar items to their diet so it is balanced and healthy.

  • Sound

I’ve found that for most children and adults that I’ve worked with noise is a big trigger for negative behaviour. Many autistic people are sensitive to certain noises or pitches. Sudden noises, such as a police car or fire alarm, can be really distressing. In addition, areas with a lot of background noise- such as a busy cafe or supermarket can cause a build up in anxiety.

How To Help: Ear defenders are a good option and available in many colours and sizes. Alternatively, having an iPod or MP3 player handy when out and about can give the child something auditory to focus on and block out the rest of the noise.

  • Touch

This can be pressure on the body, the feel of clothes, physical contact with other people like hugging or holding hands, brushing teeth, getting their face wet, or experiencing pain. Some of our children may be hypo (under) sensitive to pain or temperature, whilst others may really struggle with something as (apparently) simple as a hug.

How To Help: For a child that is over-sensitive to touch, a verbal or visual warning may be needed. Don’t force the child to hug/cuddle/touch something if they find it too distressing as this could only exacerbate the issues.

For a child that is under-sensitive, then they may like a weighted jacket or blanket, or deep pressure massage.

  • Vision

Children with autism are predominantly visual learners. This means that they take in a lot of information through what they can see. Some colours or sights may be distressing or overstimulating. They may struggle with bright sunshine or the flickering of a strobe light.

How To Help: Sunglasses and window shades in the car- these have been a lifesaver for me and avoided many a meltdown due to the sun being “too shiny”. Try to keep bedroom walls clear of clutter and posters, this will help the child to be settled at bedtime rather than visually over-stimulated.

  • Smell

Smell can be a particularly emotive sense for many people and children with autism are no different. Some scents may be preferred and a source of comfort,  whereas a change in washing powder or air freshener can be very upsetting.

How To Help: Introduce new scents slowly. If a change in behaviour is noticed as a response to a certain smell, it may be best to avoid it.

  • Proprioception

This is basically our sense of position and movement. It’s something that many children with autism and ADHD struggle with as their sense of spatial awareness and connection with their own body can be a bit disjointed. This may manifest as clumsiness and issues with personal space.

  • Vestibular

This ties in very closely with proprioception in that it affects spatial awareness but also incorporates balance. Again, it can manifest as clumsiness or a child who spins or swings quite vigorously in order to get some sensory feedback from that sensation.

How To Help: Sensory circuits and physiotherapy exercises can really make a difference with these issues. There will be a guide to sensory circuits on the website in a few weeks, as it is such an effective way to help with behaviour due to sensory imbalances.

Occupational therapy and physiotherapy can help the child to master their fine motor control and strengthen their core. An occupational therapy assessment would be the first port of call to assess which difficulties the child has and how to help them individually. 

As I said before, this is just a brief introduction to sensory issues and there are more in depth articles on the way. In the meantime, please feel free to e-mail me for advice or further information.

© Peta Slaney, 2020, All Rights Reserved.

6 thoughts on “Introduction to Sensory Processing

  1. I love how this article focuses on helping and understanding instead of forcing things. After all, if someone experiences the world differently, trying to make them stop reacting to it isn’t going to make them more comfortable!

    1. Thank you. I truly believe we need to focus on how we can help. Forcing them to endure something uncomfortable isn’t going to help! We accept it with neurotypical people; she likes to sit in a certain chair, he hates a draft…it would be nice if people could show similar compassion to those with neurodiversity and additional sensory issues!

      1. Yes, absolutely! Everyone has quirks and different comfort levels. We accommodate it in non-disabled people and we should accommodate it in neurodivergent people too.

  2. I’m really particular about food texture. My biggest issue is with anything slimy or rubbery or both — think cooked mushrooms and eggplant. This is really hard because I am not a meat eater and restaurants rely heavily on mushrooms and eggplant as meat substitutes. And the main reason I gave up meat is because I cannot stand the texture of visible fat — either the white marble fat in between lean meat, or the fat under the skin. The skin of chicken is the worst!

    1. Yes, I totally get that! It’s often the texture rather than the taste. I hate anything slightly soggy or overly moist. Soggy toast-I’d rather not eat it! Eggplant/aubergine: I don’t eat it at all. It is especially difficult as a veggie or vegan. Although my other half has a knack for making veggie stir fry without losing the crisp texture of the vegetables. Do you find you are particular about other sensory inputs, such as certain sounds or clothes?

      1. Oh boy! Where to start? I can’t bear the sound of chewing. I have to wear clothes at least a size too big so as to not hug my body in the wrong places. In the summer, when I walk in sandals I have to keep stopping to remove little pieces of sand or grass that have got between my foot and the shoe. And the only bra I can be comfortable in is an athletic bra!

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