Many individuals with autism struggle with sensory sensitivities, but not everyone with sensory processing disorder has autistic traits. Sensory processing issues are not included in the DSM, but 15% of school-age children suffer from sensory sensitivities. Some individuals are overwhelmed by sensory stimulation, while others are desensitized to normal sensory experiences, such as pain. Up to 90% of individuals with autism struggle with sensory difficulties to some extent.
Prevalence of Sensory Processing Issues in Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism refers to a wide range of neurodevelopmental conditions that present challenges with social skills, speech and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. Many individuals thrive with structure, pay close attention to detail, are sensitive to other people’s emotions although they may struggle with picking up body language cues, and process the world from a rational perspective. Although the disorder was named based on the idea that individuals were “in their own world”, they 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.
Common Sensory Sensitivities:
- 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
Ways to Help People with Autism and Sensory Sensitivities Feel Safe and Grounded
- Learn about their potential triggers: Every individual experiences sensory difficulties differently. Ask what affects them and how it feels in their body. Be patient if they are having difficulty describing sensations. Just listen.
- Encourage the use of headphones in public spaces to minimize overstimulation. Allow them to do what they need to regulate without suggesting judgment or social appropriateness. Self-care is always appropriate.
- Offer toys for stimulation that help reduce anxiety and improve concentration. Small toys like fidget spinners, silly putty, and magnets have become popularized for individuals with and without sensory processing issues. The use of toys meets emotional needs as well as encouraging playfulness and creativity.
- Teach them mindfulness skills. When struggling with overstimulation, one of the easiest resources to access is focusing on one’s breath. Whether this is for awareness or control, it helps the body to self-regulate by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. Mindfulness encourages people to separate the specific senses that are overwhelming them so that they can identify specific interventions to regulate those senses. Mindfulness strengthens one’s sense of proprioception and understanding where their body is in space and time using grounding techniques.
- Encourage them to advocate for their sensory needs in classrooms and social settings. Remind them that although other people may not understand their sensory differences, they can educate them on how to better help them adjust to the environment without judgment.
- Create and seek out sensory-conscious environments. If parks are too crowded, find a trail. If movie theaters are overstimulating, find a library. In a classroom, allow students to stand up, sit on the ground, or to walk around if it helps improve focus. Look for movement-based activities that encourage grounding and coordination, such as yoga, walking, tai chi, or dance. Lower the volume of music. Dim lights.
Seven Stars can help
Discover Seven Stars is a residential treatment center for teens ages 13-17 who struggle with neurodevelopmental disorders. This treatment center focuses on academics, outdoor adventure therapy, skill building and positive psychology in order to build confidence and skills of struggling students. Students leave this program feeling more self-aware and equipped with the skills they need to live happy, healthy lives. We can help your family today.
Contact us at 844-601-1167 for more information about how we can help your child with autism and sensory sensitivities.
Since 2003, Dr. Gordon Day has passionately helped young people with a wide range of family, emotional, social, neurodevelopmental and behavioral problems. Gordon’s mission has been to help people find their strengths and their own passion for living a full and rewarding life. He is particularly sensitive to the pressures, frustrations and disappointments that adolescents face that can sometimes cause them and their loved ones to want to withdraw and throw their hands up in despair.
Dr. Day knows that you really have to understand where a student is coming from and understand their patterns of strengths and needs. When we truly know an individual and their struggles, only then can we truly help.
Dr. Day has pioneered the use of outdoor therapy activities and outdoor living as a dynamic and effective therapeutic tool for learning, confidence building and skill building. His programs provide effective, supportive and encouraging environments that help students find their strengths and power.