Sensory Issues in Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder
While not every teen with Autism Spectrum Disorder is also diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder, the majority of teens on the spectrum struggle with sensory sensitivities. Some individuals are overwhelmed by sensory stimulation, while others are desensitized to normal sensory experiences, such as pain. Many teens with sensory processing issues are highly connected to their surroundings and in touch with how slight changes in their environment can have an intense effect on their emotional and physiological responses, which means that they can be more easily overwhelmed. Residential treatment centers for teens on the spectrum are uniquely designed to understand how sensory issues can affect social skills and engagement in treatment.
The guide is meant to be comprehensive, but as such, not every section will be applicable to everyone. Instead, we invite you to click on the links in the table of contents to jump to the sections that most interest you.
How Do Sensory Processing Issues Affect Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Researchers have suggested that “Intense World Syndrome” may help people understand self-stimulatory behaviors in teens with autism. They suggest that social withdrawal, repetitive behaviors, desire for sameness, and difficulties with communication and relational signaling that characterize Autism Spectrum Disorder are not the root problem, but a result of attempts to deal with sensory overload.
Rather than being oblivious, autistic people take in too much and learn too fast. This “hyperfunctionality,” including high levels of perception, attention, and memory, can make social and academic environments feel very intense. Teens with autism often develop repetitive, vigilant, or destructive behaviors as a way to manage an environment that feels threatening and overwhelming.
Sensory processing issues may help explain academic struggles and social anxiety among teens with autism. When someone is overwhelmed by a colorful, loud classroom, it can be hard to concentrate on learning. It takes a lot of energy to filter out what the teacher is saying and what peers are saying in the background. The same applies to many social situations, where teens struggle to keep up in conversation while juggling nonverbal cues, background noise, and trying to plan their response. They are also highly sensitive to somatic symptoms in their own bodies, which can add to their distress in overstimulating situations.
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What are Signs of Sensory Issues in Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder?
When teens on the autism spectrum become overwhelmed by sensory overload, they are more likely to freeze, have an “emotional meltdown” or attempt to self-soothe using self-stimulatory behaviors. In reality, most people engage in a wide range of self-stimulatory behaviors, like nail-biting, hair twirling, leg shaking, or face-touching, when we are feeling bored, nervous, or even excited. While these are all seen as socially acceptable, people are less understanding of self-stimulatory behaviors like hand-flapping, rocking back and forth, clapping, or even self-harming in a number of ways as a way to self-soothe.
Common sensory sensitivities may include:
- Loud sounds
- Bright lights
- Noticing small changes in the environment
- Having trouble filtering out background noises
- Clumsiness and lack of coordination
- Being fidgety
- Problems with depth perception
- Difficulty understanding personal space
- Sensitive to being touched, especially when unexpected
- Difficulty integrating multiple sensory inputs at the same time, such as reading lips before they are able to hear someone speak
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How Does Seven Stars RTC Support Teens on the Autism Spectrum?
Seven Stars is a residential treatment program for teens of all genders ages 13-17 that are on the autism spectrum. As many of our students struggle with sensory sensitivities, we offer close-knit, supportive environment that acknowledges students’ unique learning styles and makes appropriate accommodations. Seven Stars utilizes principles of positive psychology to help these teens discover new passions and truly learn the extent of their abilities. Our staff has years of experience working with a neurodiverse population and uses a variety of evidence-based therapies to help teens become more confident and successful.
At Seven Stars RTC, we offer comprehensive assessments to help accurately understand the areas where your child is struggling and use this information to form individualized treatment plans. Students receive a variety of assessments, which highlight the strengths of students rather than challenges. Assessments help us to identify underlying issues, like sensory processing issues, that may contribute to emotional and behavioral struggles.
Seven Stars RTC takes an individualized approach to therapy and academics to meet the diverse needs of our student population. With rolling admissions, students are able to earn credits through an accredited school and learn at their own pace. During their time on campus, we focus on rebuilding the confidence of students within a classroom setting, giving them tools to manage sensory processing issues, and creating opportunities for the improvement of social skills. Students learn to advocate for their sensory and learning needs with the support of our staff.
During off-campus adventure therapy, students experience fun and exciting activities designed to be both therapeutic and academic in nature. Students learn from their environment while participating in activities such as skiing, backpacking, and rock climbing. Physical activity helps teens integrate their thoughts with their sensory experiences by helping them tap into and work through discomfort using principles of mindfulness as self-regulation techniques. Every aspect of our program is designed to foster personal growth in teens.
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