By Seana Smith, co-author of the Australian Autism Handbook, Edition 1
The five senses: under or over reactions
Touch, taste, sound, sight and smell are the five senses we are all familiar with. Many children do not like loud noises and spit out food they don’t like the taste of.
Children with autism very commonly take this a step further, finding some sensory inputs completely unbearable. You might have seen children with their hands over their ears or wearing headphones to block out
Other children may be the opposite. Instead, the seek sensory stimulation, like throwing themselves around on trampolines or wanting to be squeezed very tight.
Some children may like to look at objects out of the corner of their eyes. My son loved to see his reflection in mirrors and windows. He could spend literally hours moving and staring at his reflection.
Many children on the spectrum just cannot bear the taste of some foods. Some may also dislike having different textures in their mouths and avoid soft foods or crunchy foods. Conversely, others may insist on only have crispy, crunchy foods!
Having either under or over reactions to sensory stimulation is seen in a very high proportion of children on the spectrum.
Some children may be over-reactive to one sensory input and under reactive to others – just to keep us on our toes! An example of this could be a child who may hate to be hugged but loves hearing loud crashing noises.
My son used to love stroking silky material. This became very distracting on the soccer field as he was transfixed by stroking his slippery shirt. He clearly loved to touch things, yet he seemed to feel no pain at all.
The two other senses
As well as the commonly known five senses, we also talk about two other senses which are less widely known.
Vestibular sense means the perception of our body in relation to gravity and how we move and balance. A child who spins around and never feels dizzy seems to be under-reactive, whereas one who gets carsick may be over-reactive.
The proprioceptive sense helps us know where our body parts are in relation to each other and in space. Children may not be able to grasp things firmly and may find it hard to dress. Or they may love the feeling of being squeezed and may love to bang themselves hard against objects (ideally soft ones like sofas and beds.)
Sensory issues and diagnosis
The best-known diagnostic criteria are those in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Part of this criteria is the presence of ‘Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities’. Under DSM-5, being hyper- (over) or hypo- (under) reactive to sensory input, or having unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment, is now listed as one of the possible behaviours needed for an autism diagnosis.
Having an assessment for sensory issues as part of an overall ASD assessment is often very helpful to families.
How sensory sensitivities affect behaviour
The child throwing a tantrum in the supermarket may feel blinded by the flickering fluorescent lights. They could be finding the noise of other shoppers and their trolleys overwhelming as well.
A child who refuses to eat their food and is throwing plates around may feel they will vomit if they try to eat it. The child screaming in the park may find the scent of a flower unbearable.
What looks like hyperactivity may simply be a child trying to work out where their body is and how to manage their movements. As a result, often what may look like bad behaviour can be a fairly logical response to feeling overwhelmed.
Sensory sensitivities can also impact learning and socialising in many ways. The child who shies away from other children may just find them too noisy. A child who is continually getting up from the table may be seeking movement to calm him or herself.
Occupational therapists are generally the best professionals to help with managing sensory processing issues. They can assist with adjusting a child’s environment to help them feel more comfortable and confident.
Sensory integration therapy can also be used to try to treat the causes of over and under sensitivity. This may mean brushing to help with touch issues and various exercises to address vestibular and proprioceptive problems.
Understanding sensory sensitivities
To some degree, sensory sensitivities are found in almost every person on the spectrum. Helping your child to manage their own combination of these can benefit learning, socialising and behaviour. Some sensory challenges can be overcome, others may need to be managed for a lifetime.
And my son? He is no longer hyperactive, far from it, he’s quite a couch potato these days. He does still like looking at himself in the mirror though and will still gaze at his movements in reflective surfaces like windows. And he does love being hugged.
Seana Smith is a Scottish-born writer, blogger, autism parent and co-author of the first edition of the ‘Australian Autism Handbook’.
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