Sensory issues often accompany autism. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association added sensory sensitivities to the symptoms that help diagnose autism.
Autism’s sensory issues can involve both hyper-sensitivities (over-responsiveness) and hypo-sensitivities (under-responsiveness) to a wide range of stimuli.
These can involve:
For example, many people on the spectrum are hyper-sensitive to bright lights or certain light wavelengths (e.g. from fluorescent lights). Many find certain sounds, smells and tastes overwhelming. Certain types of touch (light or deep) can feel extremely uncomfortable.
This video, by two students at the Ringling College of Art & Design, simulates the “sensory overload” experienced by many people affected by autism.
Hypo-sensitivities are likewise common. A low sensitivity to pain is a classic example. Another is under-responsiveness to the body signals that help control balance and physical coordination. This can result in clumsiness, which has long been associated with autism.
How can I help someone with autism-related sensitivities?
Awareness and accommodation can help ease related discomfort.
Remember each person with autism is unique, and this includes their personal sensitivities.
Examples of accommodations for hyper-sensitivities
- Dimmed lights
- Incandescent versus fluorescent lighting
- Sunglasses or visor to block overhead fluorescent lighting
- Ear plugs or headphones in noisy environments
- Closed door or high-walled work areas to block distracting sights and sounds
- Avoidance of strongly scented products (perfumes, air fresheners, soaps, etc.)
- Food options that avoid personal aversions (e.g. intensely spicy, textured, cold, hot, etc.)
- Clothing that accommodates personal sensitivities (e.g. to tight waistbands and/or scratchy fabric, seams and tags)
- Request for permission before touching
Examples of accommodations for hypo-sensitivities
- Visual supports for those who have difficulty processing spoken information
- Sensory-stimulating toys (e.g. safe chewies and fidgets)
- Opportunities for rocking, swinging and other sensory stimulating activities
- Strong tasting and/or textured foods, cold beverages, etc.
- Firm touch (according to preference)
- Weighted blankets
- Fun opportunities to practice physical skills (catching, dancing, jumping, running, etc.)
- Furniture arrangements that reduce chances of bumping into sharp or hard surfaces
What therapies can help with sensory issues?
- Occupational therapy uses physical activities and strategies to help each person meet their sensory needs and better process sensory input in everyday environments
- Autism feeding programs can address aversions to tastes and food textures, as well as under- and over-sensitivities that can hamper chewing and swallowing.
- Speech therapy can include both sensitivity-reducing and sensory-stimulating activities that improve speech, swallowing and related muscle movements.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy can help gradually increase tolerance to overwhelming sensory experiences.
Autism Speaks maintains a calendar of autism-friendly events. Many of these events provide accommodations for sensory issues.