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How Autism Affects Sensory Processing

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Sensory processing – our body’s experience of and reaction to sensory stimuli such as sounds, tastes, smells, or touches – is often heavily affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In fact, one 2009 study found that almost 95% of individuals in the ASD sample reported extreme levels of sensory processing differences compared to the general population. The particular experiences and challenges that people with ASD experience with sensory processing can differ greatly.[i] Understanding common presentations of sensory processing issues in ASD, as well as their causes, and potential strategies and solutions one can implement, can help parents create a healthy environment for their children where they can feel safe, supported, and capable of coping with sensory difficulties and developing life skills.

Common Examples of Sensory Processing Differences in ASD

The CDC notes that individuals with ASD may “have unusual responses to touch, smell, sounds, sights, taste, and feel.” For example, they may be extremely sensitive or under-sensitive to pain, may resist physical touch, or may be easily overwhelmed by crowded, visually busy, or noisy environments.[ii] Researchers have proposed multiple “subtypes” of how sensory processing issues may present. These include individuals with mild sensory processing difficulties who may struggle with inattention or distractibility, as well as groups with more serious sensory processing issues across all areas, who may experience the most pronounced difficulties with physical movement or with extreme sensitivities to certain tastes or smells. These differences speak to the variety of sensory processing challenges such individuals face, as well as how one can be highly sensitive in one area (i.e. exaggerated responses to noise) while under-responsive in another (i.e. lack of response to pain).[iii]

What Causes Sensory Issues in ASD?

There are a number of potential causes for sensory sensitivity in ASD, although researchers still have much to learn. Some causes may be linked to the nervous or parasympathetic nervous systems of the body. Dysfunction in the sympathetic nervous system could lead to under-responsiveness, while a similar problem with the parasympathetic system could lead to a person being overexcited easily and unable to calm down when faced with sensory stimulation.[iv]

There are also neurological elements which contribute to sensory sensitivity. Researchers cite a possible lack of interaction between certain regions of the brain, as well as “disruption of the auditory and visual processing pathways,” as potential contributors to sensory sensitivity in ASD.

Whatever the causes may be, researchers have speculated that sensory processing issues may account for many of the developmental difficulties faced by those with autism. For instance, auditory processing issues could interfere with language development, while visual processing issues could limit one’s ability to read emotion in the facial expressions of others or to develop the skill to read.[v]

Sensory Processing and its Effects on Behavior

Apart from obvious sensitivities to certain environments or stimuli, differences in sensory processing can also result in unique behaviors. “Stimming,” or self-stimulatory behavior, is a common group of behaviors that can include the repetition of movements, or sounds such as arm flapping, rocking back and forth, or vocalizing. These behaviors are thought to help people with ASD regulate the level of sensory information they are receiving, and better cope with situations where they are experiencing an overload of sensory information. Stimming can be sensory-regulating by providing a new sensation to focus on when one is overstimulated, or by providing stimulation when one is under-stimulated.

Sensory processing differences can also create unwanted or unhealthy behaviors. For instance, a sensitivity to certain tastes may arise in the form of a refusal to eat certain foods or an insistence on a certain restrictive diet. People on the spectrum who experience high levels of sensory sensitivity may also experience “meltdowns,” in which they lose emotional control due to a sense of being overwhelmed by sensory stimuli. Meltdowns are a response to a perceived overload of stimuli – either physical or emotional – and can occur even in response to situations or triggering factors that are not always obvious to other people. For instance, a person with a sensitivity to a certain sound may experience feelings of great distress even if that sound seems normal or unobtrusive to others around them.

What Should Parents Do About Sensory Processing Differences?

Differences in sensory processing in autism do not always indicate problems to be solved. Stimming, for example, is often a healthy way that people on the spectrum interact with the world. On the other hand, there are manifestations of sensory processing difficulties that parents will want to address because they are harmful to the child and their development. For example, parents will likely want to find any sensory triggers for stress or meltdowns in their child. These can include bright lights, loud noises, pungent smells, or similar stimuli in the environment. Parents can be mindful of the sensory environment in activities they share with their child and may search for sensory-friendly activities out of the house. More complex behavioral or developmental issues, such as self-harming behavior, or learning difficulties due to auditory or visual processing difficulties, may be best managed with the aid of professional treatment.

How Does Autism Treatment Address Sensory Differences?

Treatment for sensory processing issues in autism spectrum disorder can help people with ASD learn how to better regulate their levels of stimulation and how to better cope with new stimuli and environments. It can provide tools and strategies for communication of these needs and can help individuals learn and develop skills in ways that take their sensory processing experiences into account. Professional treatment also gives parents more knowledge and tools to use at home in creating a healthy environment, minimizing and responding to meltdowns, and in working with their child to find sensory-friendly ways of learning, playing, and experiencing new things.

At Spectrum of Hope, we work with families to design individualized ABA treatment plans for people on the spectrum of all ages. We will take your child or loved one’s sensory processing concerns into account, and create a plan which addresses any resulting behavioral challenges and developmental obstacles. If you have questions about our approach or would like to begin treatment with us, please call us today at (281) 894-1423.

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