Although the defining characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder are problems with social engagement and restricted interests, the majority of teens on the spectrum also deal with sensory issues that may explain how rigid processing is a way to cope with environmental overstimulation. Sensory issues in teens with autism are connected to greater salience network connectivity, meaning they are more responsive to internal states, like hunger, pain, and temperature, and external stimuli, like people or environments. While some people are more likely to filter out irrelevant stimuli to focus on a specific task, people with autism pay closer attention to the details and get overwhelmed by the bigger picture.
Prevalence of Sensory Processing issues in Autism Spectrum Disorder
Up to 90% of individuals with autism struggle with sensory difficulties to some extent; however, not everyone with sensory processing issues is on the spectrum. Depending on the person and the situation, sometimes problems with sensory processing can look like a preference for simpler environments, slight irritation with certain stimuli, intentional avoidance of some environments, or it can trigger emotional meltdowns. Some individuals are overwhelmed by sensory stimulation, while others are desensitized to normal sensory experiences, such as pain.

Common Sensory Sensitivities

  • Loud sounds
  • Bright lights or colors
  • Being touched
  • Certain fabrics or textures
  • Depth perception
  • Rhythm

Multi-sensory sensitivity can make certain environments feel like riding a motorcycle in the middle of a sensory traffic jam, winding between stimuli and feeling like you are going to lose your balance or get trapped.

Effect on Motor Control

Proprioception is our body’s awareness system that tells us where we are in relation to other objects in space. Many children with processing issues have a difficult time with spatial awareness and depth perception that is connected to lack of awareness of their body’s size and location. This can lead to clumsiness, bumping into people, poor balance, poor hand-eye coordination, and overestimating one’s force when touching others. While they may pay close attention to detail and notice small changes in the environment around them, they have difficulty understanding how it relates to them.

Effect on Social Communication

Based on limited proprioception, they may have poor understanding of other people’s personal space and stand too close to them in conversations which may come across not understanding social cues. People with autism also have difficulty with Theory of Mind application, which refers to assuming other people’s perspectives. Someone with autism may not understand that they are more sensitive to others in perceiving sensory issues and assume that everyone experiences sensory stimuli the way they do. When they feel overwhelmed, they are more likely to internalize it as a reflection of not being able to handle it, rather than recognizing their enhance ability to notice it.
This may also mean they have difficulty knowing how or when to explain their issues with sensory processing because they assume people already understand. It does not mean that people with autism lack the ability to empathize with other people’s perspectives, they just benefit from clearer communication around unspoken social rules. Social interactions can be overwhelming not because of the quality of relationships, but how hard it can be integrate multiple sensory inputs at the same time, such as reading lips before they are able to hear someone speak. It is hard to stay engaged when they have to filter out so many distractions.

Effect on Self-Stimulatory Behaviors

As they are very in tune with their sensory experience of the world, they may seek out different kinds of sensory input rather than try to avoid it altogether when they are feeling overwhelmed. They may come across as fidgety or restless when “stimming.” Rocking back and forth, humming, hand flapping, or jumping may be seen as socially unacceptable behaviors and signs of distress. Likewise, teens with autism are more likely to chew their nails or pull their hair to self-soothe, which may cause concern, even if they choose to engage in these repetitive behaviors to feel better.

Effect on Emotional Meltdowns

Despite increased responsivity to sensory inputs, they do not always recognize that there is a connection between their sensory experience and their internal thought processes or have the somatic vocabulary to describe physical symptoms. This disconnect between their physical experiences, their mind, and their place in the environment can lead their body to shut down to make sense of the full experience. Emotional Meltdowns may look like crying, anger outbursts, or stimming when overwhelmed by sensory input, identifying and managing anxiety, and difficulty expressing emotions in other ways.

How Discover 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.