Sensory Challenges for Those with Autism

Do children with autism have sensory processing challenges? Sensory processing challenges affect a sizable portion of those with autism. The brain’s ability to effectively register and interpret sensory stimuli from the environment and their own bodies is compromised. The brain’s ability to receive, organize and respond to sensory information as it comes in through the various senses is interrupted, resulting in sensory challenges.

Sensory challenges occur when the brain misinterprets sensory stimuli that comes in through various senses in both the environment and through the body. The sensory system is the foundation for higher cognitive function and when misperceptions occur, it can affect everything from body functions to learning abilities.

What Do Sensory Challenges Look Like?

Sensory challenges usually occur as a co-morbid condition with other conditions such as autism, ADHD, auditory processing disorder to name a few. In children with ADHD it can manifest itself in a variety of behaviors including constantly moving, auditory sensory issues, or even things like aggression and delinquent behavior.

There are many children and adults that are affected by sensory challenges, not just those with autism. Those struggles can be minimal or so severe that it impacts every aspect of a person’s life. Sensory challenges can also be combined with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Some children with autism only have challenges in a couple of areas and for others it can be many. For instance, my son could never stand the feeling of soft sand under his feet. Wet, hard sand was fine, but the feeling of the soft sand was like nails on a chalkboard for his entire sensory system.

At 29 years of age, he still can’t stand it today and will run through it to get to the hard, wet sand that his system can tolerate.

Sensory challenges occur when the brain misinterprets sensory stimuli that comes in through the environment and the body. As a foundation for higher cortical learning, when misperceptions occur, it can effect everything from body functions to learning abilities.

Diana F Cameron

Children with autism may have issues with certain fabrics on their skin. Clothing may feel too scratchy (even though it may feel fine to you) to the point where they might itch and scratch and take clothing off. Remember it is not what it feels like to you, it is how their brain is interpreting that input.

My sister who has many sensory issues hears things louder than they are. To me they may be very quiet, but she will be putting her hands over her ears asking me to turn down the sound. Her brain misinterprets the volume and as we ultimately “hear” with our brains (because that is where the information is processed) it sends signals that the sound is deafening.

Anyone can be affected by sensory challenges, and it can affect behavior as well as learning. The good news is, the brain can be trained to interpret information in a more accurate way, alleviating a lot of the discomfort children feel.

Why Do Senses Need to Integrate?

We have 8 senses in total. They are:

  • Vision
  • Hearing
  • Taste
  • Smell
  • Tactile
  • Auditory
  • Vestibular, Proprioception
  • Interoception

With so many sensory input systems, it is important that the brain is able to register and interpret the signals and integrate information to elicit a coordinated response.

What Happens When Senses are Not Integrated?

The vestibular system is commander and chief of all sensory input and when that isn’t working correctly, children end up with sensory issues. This could manifest in many ways from difficulty in learning, sensory sensitivities, being agitated and anxious or poor motor skills and balance just to name a few.

When everything is working as it should, this system works like an air traffic controller. All the information that enters our brain through our various senses hits the vestibular system first and its job is to direct the information to the correct parts of the brain.

A well working vestibular system means a better organized brain. A better organized brain means less stress and learning comes more easily.

diana f cameron

Problems occur when the controller misinterprets information or is confused about where to send the information. Sometimes it may even slow down, or snooze, or miss something completely.

A vestibular system that is not functioning correctly will affect how we learn and our behavior. Your child’s vestibular system might even be like Wi-Fi, continually dropping out, giving intermittent signals leaving your child to guess what goes in between. When this happens, your child might zone out.

Children are sensory creatures. They interpret the world through all their senses. The vestibular system, although commander and chief, integrates with the other sensory systems to help information come together seamlessly in split second timing.

It works with touch so when your child touches something hot, it provides the avenue for the quick retrieving movement, so they are not burned.

It integrates with the auditory system so if your child was riding their bike and heard an out-of-control car coming straight for them, they could move out of the way.

It works with the visual system to help stabilize our eyes during movements. If this didn’t happen, it would be like those home movies you see where the world moves quickly up and down as someone is walking around.

Reading books would be impossible because the words would move on the page as your head moved from side to side while reading.

If our vestibular and visual systems give us contradictory information, then children can experience travel sickness.

This integration and working together seamlessly relies on the vestibular system gathering, interpreting, and sending information to the right parts of the brain for further integration.

When problems occur, a child will either be vestibular seeking

sensory challenges for those with autism

Sensory Seeking and the Child with Autism

If your child’s vestibular system doesn’t take in enough information, they are like a big cup and the drops of sensory input never fill that cup.

You would have a child that needed to move all the time. The vestibular system and brain would seek after the types of activities that gave them more stimulation, and with some children, they never seem to want to stop.

This is because their system is in overdrive trying to satisfy the need for sensory input.

If it is another sense that they seek, they might chew on things, or put everything in their mouth.

They may even lick surfaces like the bottom of shoes because they like the sensation of the roughness on their tongue.

If it is auditory senses they may like really loud music or loud sounds.

For these children, you might see behaviors like:

  • Unable to sit still
  • Need to be constantly moving
  • Extremely impulsive
  • Running everywhere instead of walking
  • Babies may hate tummy time as it is not enough movement
  • Take unsafe risks (like jumping from high things, constantly climbing etc. These are children that seem to have no fear and just act)
  • Love being upside down, or hanging off something
  • Seem to be on full throttle all the time, especially during movement activities
  • May have memory issues
  • Love to be hugged extremely tightly

Sensory Avoiding and the Child with ASD

If your child’s vestibular system takes in too much information, they will avoid movement.

Think of your child as a tiny cup and each drop of sensory information comes in. It doesn’t take long for the cup to be full and overflowing.

If they avoid other sensations besides movements, they may be very fussy eaters or hate the way certain materials feel on their skin.

They might not like hot or cold things and may hate loud sounds.

They may be very anxious and fearful of all sorts of things.

You may see some of the following behaviors:

  • Won’t like sports
  • Won’t like swinging
  • Won’t like spinning
  • Won’t like roller coasters
  • Won’t like hanging upside down on monkey bars
  • Won’t like being turned upside down
  • May not like to be picked up
  • They may appear weak (floppy or slouchy)
  • May not like tummy time (because it is too much sensory input)
  • May have difficulty with coordination
  • May have difficulty with visual activities (tracking and focusing)
  • They might avoid stairs or hold on with both hands to the railing
  • May be fearful of elevators
  • They may appear stubborn (when it is fear driving the behavior because the movement is too much for them)
  • May have anxiety
  • May have memory issues

A well working vestibular system means a better organized brain. A better organized brain means less stress and learning comes more easily.

Diana F Cameron

Diana F Cameron has over 30 years working with the neurodivergent community. Her experience as a musician, early childhood educator and sound therapist has her situated with a unique set of skills when working with children with autism. If you want clear explanations and strategies to use at home, Diana helps parents navigate the journey of neurodivergence.

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