Seeing the sensory processing differences in my own boys took time. I am still learning about sensory processing but over time it has become clearer to me that supporting those sensory differences can make a big difference. In order to explore this a little more I have asked a few autism expert friends of mine the following question:
Do all autistics have sensory processing differences? Is understanding sensory processing vital to supporting autistic children?
Here are their answers:
Many autistic people have sensory processing differences. Understanding and learning to manage your child’s sensory needs is an important part of helping them to reduce overload and the negative consequences of overload like meltdowns, shutdowns and autistic burnout.Purple Ella – check Ella on Youtube & Ticktok
I believe it depends on individual but I would say the majority of Autistic People do have sensory processing differences. I remember growing up and feeling overwhelmed by lights and noises and for years even though I knew I had Autism and had a diagnosis there wasn’t a lot of people around me that understood Autism and how it affected me.
For years I was just told by teachers that it means I don’t know how to socialise or look people in the eye, it was only till later on life I realised that my reaction to lights, noises and even how small things like the feeling of sand on my feet or eating a bounty chocolate bar bothered me because of the texture of those things. So, I think even if someone doesn’t think they have any sensory processing difference, I believe you may have them like myself and not even know about them.
I really believe it is vital to understand all aspects of how Autism may affect an Autistic Person because I feel that the key to understanding Autism is understanding how it affects the individual and if an Autistic Person has sensory processing differences and it’s affecting the way they live their life whether they are in school, college, university, employment and everyday life then I believe it is vital to understand that and support them in the way that they need supporting but more importantly deserve to be supported.Max J Green, Actor, Producer and YouTuber
My daughter has significant sensory processing differences. Understanding them is absolutely key in supporting her. I can tell you from the way our morning routine how her sensory processing is doing and that will paint a picture of how her day is going to go. When she struggles with getting dressed and teeth cleaning it’s obvious she’s having a difficult time. I also recently learned from an autistic adult that being “unbalanced” in any way can effect sensory processing. I have used this knowledge and it’s definitely helped us.
If I can see she’s finding the day challenging I think about whether she’s too hot or cold and check that she’s not hungry or thirsty and almost always this results in her becoming much happier.Sue, A Sprinkle of Spectrum
I can only describe my son and he certainly has differences in sensory processing. He is over-sensitive to sound and under-sensitive to touch. Smell is massively important to him and he can be attracted and repelled by odours that I barely notice.
When he was young I used to marvel at the fact that we lived in the countryside and yet he had never been stung by nettles – of course he had, he simply hadn’t felt it as acutely as some other people, so I did not know. He also hugs really hard, to the point of unintentionally causing pain.
When he was pre-verbal it was incredibly hard to tell when he was ill – he would just plough on with life until he suddenly crumbled and I discovered that he had a raging temperature – the only thing he could effectively communicate was earache, by pressing his ear up against me.
I think it is extremely useful to understand the basics of sensory processing as the parent of a young child with autism, in order to support them as much as possible while they are learning to communicate. There is so much to learn in general that it can seem overwhelming but in time things do become more familiar and understandable.Martha Smith, Parent Advocate
I think the majority do. Not all may realise they do however. This could be because not all sensory processing differences may negatively impact someone in their environment. Some may even be beneficial.
– If someone lives on a farm being oversensitive to sound might not be a problem rather it might help them notice if their cattle are in danger.
– If someone is undersensitive to temperature this may mean they feel good in temperatures that we’d feel bad in. They may never realise they have a sensory difference.
Each autistic person can be very different in how their autism expresses themselves. Equally we are impacted differently in very different environmentsLoren Snow, Autistic public speaker and trainer.
Although I don’t think sensory processing differences are required for an autism diagnosis, I’ve found it very helpful to have an understanding of sensory processing and sensory triggers when it has come to supporting my own autistic children and those I have taught. I think one of the biggest parts to recognise is that sensory processing differences are just that.. different for each person who is autistic.
Both my children have processing challenges with temperature – one child wouldn’t be able to get into a bath that wasn’t between 35 and 37 degrees whereas the other one would get in the freezing cold water before I’d even added the hot, without blinking. This is one tiny example of how the same processing can require different support for something as simple as getting them into a bath.Ann, Rainbows Are Too Beautiful
I’ve seen it stated that around 80% of all autistics have sensory processing differences, though personally I’m yet to encounter one who has no sensory issues at all. The level and types of sensory processing differences can vary greatly though.
Understanding how differences in sensory processing can affect autistic children (and adults) is very important indeed, when considering how to best support them. On an individual level, completing a ‘sensory profile’ can be useful, to help identify a person’s specific sensory needs, such as what types of input they may crave to stay regulated, or what kinds of sensory input that tends to cause them distress or overwhelm.
Sensory processing is not only about over- or under stimulation, but also about how efficiently different types of sensory input can be processed by a person. This is important to consider from a learning perspective, so that learning activities can be designed with the learner’s sensory profile in mind (for example providing visual information rather than auditory, or adding in tactile or kinesthetic activities, if that is what works best for their neurology).
In addition to this, I’d like to highlight the interoceptive sensory system in particular. When supporting autistic children, it really is vital to understand how this can affect a person, as it can mean that they do not feel physical sensations such as hunger, thirst, pain, or needing to go to the toilet, in ways that we would normally expect. I’ve explained about this more in detail in a recent post on my blog: Interoception.Malin, Sensational Learning with Penguin
I think understanding sensory processing is one of the key elements to supporting autistic children. It’s like unraveling some of the challenges that the child may experience and it’s difficult to convey to others, especially sometimes to staff working with an autistic child, because it can be hard to imagine what it feels like to be sensory seeking or avoidant if they do not experience the same reactions themselves. I think it’s important to observe the child and try to tune in to their sensory reactions so that you can help alleviate or provide more stimulus for them to feel better.
In my experience, from working as a SEN teaching assistant and from supporting families, I’m yet to see an autistic child who doesn’t experience some challenges with sensory processing. The more research we can do as parents or support workers on sensory processing the better!Danielle, PDA Parenting
Sensory processing describes a difference in how peoples senses are processed in the brain. Clothing, labels and certain materials may feel itchy and uncomfortable, lights can feel too bright, loud noises are too much, certain food textures can feel unbearable, hair washing and teeth brushing can feel very uncomfortable for someone with sensory processing. This is why it is important we understand it, so that we can make any necessary modifications to the environment, as these are not always communicated verbally by the person.
It is also helpful to understand that all behaviours are communication. What can we do? What is the problem here? Textures? Noise? Too much going on? What can we change in the environment? Then we make those adaptions where possible, reassuring them as best we can. Everyone is different and very individual.
For example, some children may sensory seek and others display more avoidant. It is important to listen, what works for one person one day may also change the next. Help and make these necessary changes.Nikki Saunders, Author of the Eddie Series Books
There are many courses online and groups to learn about sensory processing. There are therapies to try, such as rebound therapy, equipment to have at home and school to try, such as wobble cushions, weighted blankets, bean bags, bubble lamps, fidget toys, sensory tents and hammocks etc. There is a great book called ‘100 ways to learn through play’ by Georgina Durrant. It’s packed with sensory and fun ideas to practice at home with very little resources! Therapists and dietitians within this area can also help provide tips, therapies and support.
Sensory processing differences are when it harder to organise and react to sensory information. This could be responding to visual stimuli (what we see), sound, touch etc. They could be hypersensitive or hyposensitive to stimuli. For example, someone who is hypersensitive to sounds may find that sounds are distorted, too loud or may find it difficult to concentrate as they are more aware of background noise. Whereas if they are hyposensitive to sound they might not respond to certain sounds and may like the experience of making loud sounds themselves. Similarly for sight, if someone is hypersensitive to visual stimuli they may find it difficult to sleep if it’s too bright, may have visual distortions and may prefer to focus on the details of pictures.
Autistic people can find processing sensory information difficult and therefore it’s really important if you’re supporting an autistic child that you understand sensory processing differences. It’s also vital that if the child you support does have sensory processing differences that you understand their specific needs and adapt the environment and provide suitable support. For example, if you are supporting a child who is hypersensitive to sound it may be helpful to work out ways to reduce background noise in a classroom. This could be by being selective when choosing where they are seated in the classroom (is it quieter at the back/front?), providing ear defenders/music/ear plugs if this is helpful and helping them to avoid more crowded places. The biggest advice I would give though is to speak to them, their family, any professionals who work with them and members of staff who have supported them before to find out what works best for them and how you can support them the most effectively.Georgina Durrant, Founder of The SEN Resources Blog and author of ‘100 Ways Your Child Can Learn Through Play’
It would depend on what sort of sensory differences one is talking about and how they present themselves in the person.
– Could it be that they have simultagnosia and see things in pieces?
– Could it be they are are faceblind and struggle to navigate and bond with faces?
– Could be that they have semantic agnosias (meaning blindness) and have a tactile kinaesthetic way of understanding and the world around them?
– Could it be that they have sensory integration issues that are to do with sensory hyper or hypo sensitivities regardless of if they perceives a sense or not?
– Could it be as a result of alexithymia they have sensory amplification and somatic experiences that potentially cause distress?
-Could it be that their own personality types and sensitives and combination of anything above is apart of their autism “fruit salads”?
By looking at a person’s inner world, the mechanics, the foundations you can then build bridges of understanding, accommodation, empowerment and autonomy/Paul Isaacs, Autism speaker, trainer, consultant and author
All of us, whether adults or children, whether we are Autistic or not, are sensory creatures. We can all have senses that at times are under responsive (called hyposensitive), or overly responsive (called hypersensitive), meaning that we regularly, often subconsciously, are trying to balance our sensory systems. This can sometimes take the form of sensory seeking, where we are trying to activate our senses in any way possible, including all the better-known senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) but also senses like balance and movement (vestibular), positioning and pressure (proprioception) as well as the sensory receptors that we all have in our internal organs (interoception).
How many times have we seen children swinging their feet or tapping their fingers, twirling their hair, biting their nails, tapping their pencil, or clicking their pen? Maybe some of these are sensory seeking actions that we all do too!
Often, in a children’s or youth work setting, or at home with our own children, there can be times when they are sensory seeking, and this can lead to them searching for something to help them to regulate their senses. In the absence of anything to support them, they may end up becoming distracted and disengaged, or even find the sensory input they need by using one of their peers as a fidget/fiddle item! Providing a range of fidget or fiddle toys can be a really effective part of the resource toolkit for children’s and youth workers, or for families, offering children and young people safe ways to meet the sensory needs that they have. Other useful items for our toolkit can include a wobble cushion to sit on for a hyposensitive child who needs to move or a safe comfy bean bag for a hypersensitive child who needs to stay still.
Understanding these sensory sensitivities can also help us to help our children avoid sensory triggers, or if this isn’t possible then to provide ways to reduce their impact e.g. ear defenders for loud noise, or sunglasses for bright or flickering light, as well as to identify a peaceful nearby rest area for if we see them starting to become overwhelmed. This is vital in protecting our children, where possible, from the worst impacts of sensory overload which for Autistic children can lead to a brain overload presenting as a ‘meltdown’ or ‘shutdown’ (less obvious than a meltdown, but just as difficult for them to experience).Mark Arnold – Additional Needs Blogfather, Mark has some helpful blog posts on understanding our senses.
Both my boys (age 9 and 6) have sensory processing differences which manifest themselves in different ways. Listening to what their needs are and trying to understand how they’re feeling has been essential to finding ways of coping. Both of them struggle with loud environments but we find that using ear defenders really helps them to cope.
One of them really struggles with clothes and will only wear specific cuts and fabrics and nothing too big or small. When I find something that works I have to buy a few of them! The other one will only wear ‘soft’ clothes. One of them likes to sleep under a weighted blanket or a stretched sheet, the other hates to feel restricted in bed. Often small changes to the environment will make a big difference so we’re constantly listening to them and figuring out how best to help when they need it.Lizzie, A Curious Journey – Travelling on the Spectrum
My experience living with three very different autistic love ones (my husband, my son and my daughter) is that while we all have some level of sensory preferences as individuals (some people like denim others hate it, some like busy wallpaper others prefer plain walls and so on) I do believe that for the majority of people on the spectrum sensory preferences are much stronger and more intrusive on their daily life. For example while I might, as a non autistic person, not be keen on dark busy wallpaper if I worked somewhere that was decorated like this I would understand that it was for a set period and learn to tolerate it. I would be able to switch off from the walls, or someone talking in the background, or a chair that squeaked and so on.
For my husband and children however these things would be so intrusive, so powerful and all consuming that they would be unable to stay in that environment or even enter it in the first place. So while we might all have a degree of sensory preferences I believe for autistic people these preferences are so strong that they overwhelm everything else in their brain making functioning amidst something that is bombarding them continuously such as a buzzing from a light or a ticking clock impossible. Combined with difficulties communicating when already overwhelmed it can make finding out what the sensory issue is very tricky and even fool us into thinking that in fact the trigger was something else and not a sensory issue at all.
A child in school might get angry over another child saying something, for example, and we assume this is the trigger when in reality the noise of the classroom, the bright lights and the hard chair have in fact stressed the child to a point that they are upset easily by something that might otherwise have never been an issue. Understanding anyone’s social preferences and comforts is fundamental to getting the best from them. Just think how difficult you would find getting through a full day if your clothes were too tight or you had constant buzzing in your ears? We need to understand that for many autistic people communicating these preferences can be very difficult and confusing but it’s so worthwhile if you want them to truly reach their full potential.Miriam, Faith Mummy
Sensory processing preferences are common amongst autistic children and adults. Sensory processing is to put it simply…the way the brain responds to sensory information in our environment and how we in turn react or behave. Whilst it is common it is very individual for each person. Children with autism and sensory processing difficulties can appear to over react to certain situations or on the other hand under react.
My little boy to give you an example Is a real sensory seeker….he loves hugs and deep pressure, he will ask me to scratch his back at night to help him settle to sleep he loves running and jumping and he loves to chew on things ( all activities which provide deep sensory feedback and help him regulate.)
It is most certainly vital that we understand sensory processing to support autistic children. Sensory processing impacts greatly on functional ability. For example, in a school environment a child who has difficulty with noise may find it very difficult to learn in a busy classroom environment. Or at home, a child who does not like certain textures may refuse to get dressed or find particular clothing very uncomfortable and distressing. A full understanding of sensory processing, very particular to that individual child helps parents, caregivers, teachers and professionals to fully understand the child and put in place supports which enable and help that child fulfill their true potential.Grace, Sensory Submarine
In my experience (my children and I) sensory processing differences are common, I cannot however speak for all autistics! I think understanding the impact of sensory differences is extremely vital to supporting autistic children. Interoception is a biggie for us. It is the least understood and recognised of the sensory differences that autistics can experience. Interoception is all about how our body feels and sensory differences in this area mean that we may for example not know when we are hungry or conversely when we are full, or maybe a child might not recognise when they need to go to the toilet. These things in themselves can cause a lot of discomfort and effect behaviour.
But if you take it a step further, difficulties with processing interoception may mean that a child does not recognise the physical symptoms of a stress response (such as a pounding heart, a headache or feeling sick) or they may be oversensitive to those feeling.
Finding an Occupational therapist familiar with the Interoception Curriculum can be really beneficial.Kate, The Passable Parent
I hope you have found this post as helpful as I have, do check out everyone’s websites which are linked beneath the quotes. I would also love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
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