If you have a child with Autism, you have probably heard of “sensory issues.” Simply put, a person with sensory “issues” is usually:
- hypo-reactive (under-reacts) to sensory input (things they see, hear, feel, etc.) and may crave certain types of input or
- hyper-reactive (over-reacts) to sensory input or
- has difficulty with integration of the senses – they may have problems processing more than one type of sensory input at a time (for example, they can’t process what they hear when there is too much going on visually)
A related issue is praxis, in which a child may have motor planning challenges (making a plan of what to do and executing that plan), but that deserves its own post.
It is estimated that about 90% (or some say all) people with Autism have sensory “issues.” However, if a child (or adult) does have sensory problems, that does not mean that they are Autistic. Sensory processing problems are the main reason for the “stimming” often seen in Autistics. Stimming, or self-stimulating behavior, is usually done to bring the person to a more ”regulated,” calm and alert state.
As children, we are taught that we have five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. Well, there are actually at least two more: our proprioceptive and vestibular senses. The vestibular sense refers to your sense of balance. Our proprioceptive sense is being able to feel where your body is. It can be thought of as body awareness and it is easy to see that a person with little grasp on just where there body is in space would have multiple challenges, especially with movement. For most people, their bodies receive information from their joints and muscles to let their brain know just where their body is. For some people, that information is not received clearly by their brain. How could one possibly perform complex motor patterns if they have to constantly check where their own body parts are? How could you feel calm and grounded? These people often prefer a strong touch or deep pressure because it improves their awareness of their body.
Here are some signs that a person may be having difficulty processing these senses:
(note that there and an infinite number of other symptoms, but I am hoping to give the reader a representative picture for each)
- Purposely looking at things from different distances or from a different angle (when not related to poor eyesight)
- Closing eyes in visually over-stimulating environments (maybe stores that have things constantly in view with little empty space)
- constantly changing the volume on videos, radio, etc.
- covering (or constantly covering and uncovering) ears
- making noises to drown out other noises
- refusing to eat certain foods with strong tastes (although this may be a touch/texture issue)
- a need to taste things, even when they are not food (not just mouthing, actually tasting)
- a constant need to explore things by touching them
- becoming upset when having to touch certain textures
- bringing things constantly to the nose to smell
- inability to concentrate when in the presence of strong perfume
- clumsiness, running into things
- unable to copy certain movements
- gravitational insecurity, unsure in movement
- constant spinning, excess movement
So what do you do if your child (or you) have problems with any of these? Most occupational therapists (OTs) would develop a “sensory diet.” Don’t think of it in the sense of a restrictive diet (I won’t eat carbs). Instead, think of it as what you feed yourself. If you are on a high protein diet, you will feed yourself a steady stream of protein. If you have a sensory diet for your child, it will provide your child with the appropriate amount of sensory stimulating or calming activities to bring your child back to an alert, calm state. For example, a child who is over-reactive to smell, should avoid strong smells, but you would want to slowly introduce them to desensitize the child to it, so that they can eventually still function when the school cafeteria is making broccoli. A person whose vestibular sense is constantly needing input should have scheduled times during the day when they can spin or engage in activities that will satisfy that need.
Add to all of this that sensory systems change over time. A person who once struggled with one sense may later struggle with another. Sometimes people even go to extremes back and forth between craving and avoiding input in the same day. That is why consulting an occupational therapist is so helpful. We all do things to stimulate or calm our nervous system. Some people clench their teeth. Others doodle or tap a pencil. We have just found “socially appropriate” ways to do this.
It should also be said that for many people, especially those on the spectrum, these issues will probably never completely disappear. Some people find “stimming” by autistics or others uncomfortable to watch, but once you know the reason behind it (or even if you don’t quite get it), hopefully you can understand and allow them to be themselves. It takes a great deal of effort for some people to not do these things that are calming to them, whether it be flapping their arms or jumping or some other movement. Why not allow them to concentrate on living their own lives successfully rather than trying to appear “normal” (whatever that is)?
If you have an autistic child or has a diagnosis or Sensory Integration Disorder, Sensory Integration Dysfunction of if you have been told that your child has sensory “issues,” you will save yourself a lot of frustration by trying to understand in depth what this is and understanding more about your child’s own sensory system. Make sure to speak to the occupational therapist at school or in early intervention and get recommendations for sensory diet activities at home. It is effective and worth your time and effort.
A few additional resources
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED VIDEO (60 minutes): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7UIFMpoabA
(I am not a big fan of the organization that sponsored this lecture, but the information here from Lindsey Biel is the best I have seen in one presentation)
Lindsey Biel, who presented above, co-wrote this excellent book: “Raising a Sensory Smart Child” http://www.amazon.com/Raising-Sensory-Smart-Child-ebook/dp/B004IE9QM2/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1380939083&sr=1-1&keywords=l.+biel+sensory
“Out of Sync Child” by Carol Kranowitz (not my favorite, but a good starter book for people not familiar with the subject) http://www.amazon.com/Out-Sync-Child-Carol-Kranowitz/dp/0399531653
“The Out of Sync Child Has Fun” also by Carol Kranowitz http://www.amazon.com/Out-Sync-Child-Revised-Edition/dp/0399532714/ref=pd_sim_b_1
“Building Bridges Through Sensory Integration: Therapy for Children with Autism and Other Pervasive Developmental Disorders” by Paula Aquilla, Shirley Sutton, Ellen Yack (This book is really not just for Autism. It’s all about sensory issues.)
Disclaimer: I am not an occupational therapist. This information is based on my own experiences and research.