Identifying Sensory Needs in Children with Autism

Autism, pixabay

Many children with autism have unique sensory needs. Children on the autism spectrum may be hypersensitive or hyposensitive to certain sensory experiences, leading them to seek out or avoid those sensations. These sensory preferences manifest in anxiety and meltdowns, repetitive motions, and other atypical behaviors.

Sensory processing issues aren’t unique to children with autism. However, they are incredibly common among kids on the autism spectrum. Up to 90 percent of children diagnosed with autism also have sensory processing disorder (SPD), according to Spectrum News.

Sensory processing disorder adds difficulty to the lives of children with autism. Children may become easily overwhelmed by common sights and sounds or act indifferent to danger and pain. Sensory differences can also result in exceptional abilities. Children may have perfect pitch, synesthesia, or heightened attention to detail as a result of their sensory perception.

In order to meet the needs of a child with autism, parents must understand their child’s unique sensory preferences. The difficulty lies in the fact that while many children on the spectrum have strong sensory preferences, they can’t always communicate them.

One way parents can help is by managing their child’s anxiety in response to sensory overstimulation. Pharmaceuticals targeting anxiety and depression may help some children with autism-related anxiety, but they aren’t suitable for all children.
There is evidence that CBD products may ease anxiety in children with autism; one study found that a CBD-based drug reduced anxiety by an average of 46 percent in men with Fragile X syndrome, a condition related to autism. CBD-based pharmaceuticals aren’t yet on the market, but some parents have turned to commercially available CBD oil to help their children. Before adding CBD to their child’s treatment plan, parents should always thoroughly research CBD products and questions to discuss with their child’s doctor.

The best way to manage anxiety in a child with autism is by identifying which sensory experiences are triggering and which are soothing. The following framework can help parents identify their children’s sensory needs in order to better accommodate them.

Types of Sensory Needs in Children with Autism

1. Movement
Children who are hypersensitive to movement may dislike swinging, spinning, rocking, riding in the car, while children with diminished vestibular sensation actively seek out these sensations but may have trouble with balance and coordination.

2. Sight
Children with sight hypersensitivity are often triggered by fluorescent lighting, bright colors, and visually busy environments. They may have trouble discriminating colors and shapes or seek out dark and dimly lit spaces. Children with sight hyposensitivity, on the other hand, enjoy observing moving objects, television, video games, and other exciting visual experiences.

3. Sound
Increased auditory sensitivity causes children to struggle in noisy environments. Children may become overwhelmed by loud noises or large amounts of background noise. Children with diminished auditory sensitivity frequently enjoy toys that make music or noise and turn television and music volume above safe levels.

4. Touch
Heightened sense of touch is associated with an aversion to coarse fabrics, food textures, and being touched, held, or groomed. Children with a dulled sense of touch frequently enjoy tight clothing, weighted blankets, and other types of deep touch pressure.

5. Taste and Smell
Children with increased sensitivity to taste and smell tend to have aversions to strong odors and tastes, and they often prefer bland and familiar foods over strongly flavored or new foods. Children with under-performing olfactory systems have trouble distinguishing tastes and smells and may seek out strong odors and flavors for sensory stimulation.

6. Body Awareness
Body awareness, known as proprioception, is a child’s sense of where his body is positioned in relation to itself and the surrounding world. Poor proprioception manifests in weak posture, coordination, motor control, and spatial awareness. Children with weak body awareness benefit from the proprioceptive activities described at Bright Hub Education. Heightened proprioception is generally not an issue. The sensory checklist linked at Sensory Smart Parent can help parents identify their child’s specific sensory needs.

Sensory issues often seem like inexplicable behaviors to parents of children with autism. However, many frustrating and worrisome behaviors are based in sensory differences that are easy to grasp once parents understand the basis of their child’s sensory needs. With this guide, parents can begin to accommodate their child’s sensory differences and make the world a safer, more sensory-sensitive place.

Text: Jenny Wise /2019