Autism and Sensory Issues

Along with difficulties in communication, social interaction and rigidity of thought, many people on the autism spectrum also experience sensory issues. This information sheet gives an introduction to these issues and how to support an autistic person with sensory issues.

For non-autistic people, it is hard to understand the impact of sensory issues on the lives of people with autism. Each autistic person is affected differently, so it is almost impossible to predict exactly how sensory issues will impact on a specific person.

We all experience the world through our senses and our brains interpret the sensations for us so that we can make sense of our experiences and take appropriate action (for example we feel cold so we put on a jumper).

Because we experience many sensations at once, our brains have a filter system that helps us to pay attention only to what is most important and relevant at the time. This filter system may not work in the same way in autistic people.

Autistic people can be either hypo- (under) or hyper- (over) sensitive to any of their senses. The experience will be different for each person, and their own sensory issues may vary depending on the day, stress and anxiety levels.

Overloading of the senses can lead to meltdown or shutdown if sensory overload is sufficiently high. Keep a record of these events, with details of what went before to try and work out the trigger.

The senses

Vision

Some autistic people have an excellent eye for detail. and may see patterns, colours and forms that others do not see. This can be an asset, but it can also be distracting.

Hearing

Some autistic people find the pitch of certain sounds painful or notice the low hum of electrical equipment nobody else hears. They may find it hard to cope with being in a noisy environment. Others may like to have music on very loud or enjoy loud banging.

Smell

Some autistic people may find it difficult to cope with strong smells like perfume and deodorant. They may find it difficult to access environments like public toilets and restaurants. Others may seek out strong smells.

Touch

Some autistic people do not like to be touched. They may not be able to cope with the feel of certain fabrics, or labels in clothing. Others may enjoy pressure, so may like to wear tight or heavy clothing. Autistic people may experience heat, cold and pain differently.

Taste

Some autistic people have very limited diets, due to having particular preference for certain textures and bland food. Others may seek out strong flavours like spicy food (these people are under-sensitive to taste).

Body Awareness

Proprioception is our body awareness sense and is the way we know where our bodies are in relation to other objects and space. We get these messages through our muscles and joints. Some autistic people may be clumsy, drop things, bump into things or they may seek out input by jumping, banging, biting.

Balance and Movement

Vestibular is our sense of balance and movement and is sensed by our inner ear. Autistic people may seek out this sensation by spinning, flapping, unusual body positions or they may find some movements unbearable and may experience forms of motions sickness.

Interoception

This sense helps you understand and feel what’s going
on inside your body. Internal receptors receive signals
and send information to the brain. Autistic people who
lack awareness of these signals may find it difficult to
recognise when they feel hungry, full, hot, cold or thirsty
and needing the toilet.

Strategies to support autistic people with sensory issues

  • Be aware of each person’s sensory issues and adapt your approach. Completing a sensory profile can help.
  • Keep things simple to avoid over-stimulation.
  • Modify the environment to suit the person’s sensory needs if possible. For example you could avoid fluorescent lighting and replace it with subdued lighting, spotlights and uplighters; introduce carpets, curtains and soft furnishings to large rooms to muffle harsh sounds and echoes; and use screens or partitions to divide up large rooms.
  • If it is necessary for an autistic person to de-sensitise themselves to a particular sensory issue, introduce this very gradually, always keeping the person’s wellbeing as a top priority.
  • Provide different textures to handle or apply light touch followed by firm pressure for tactile seekers.
  • Use weighted jackets and blankets for short periods of time for autistic people who seek pressure.
  • Give items to mouth, suck, bite, blow and chew and opportunities for pushing, pulling, carrying and jumping.
  • Provide opportunities for rhythmical movement – jogging, swimming, trampolining, climbing, dancing.
  • If certain behaviour seems unexplainable, look at the person’s sensory profile and ask yourself what they could be getting from the behaviour.
  • Provide visual supports to back up verbal information e.g picture/photo cards. These can also be used to prepare a person or be used by the autistic person to communicate a difficulty with the sensory environment.

Acknowledgement:

This information comes from the website of Autism West Midlands https://autismwestmidlands.org.uk.
We have their permission to use this material for a short period whilst we are setting up our own website. Copyright is with Autism West Midlands