Autism and Sensory Regulation
Updated: Nov 1, 2022
Today we discuss Autism and Sensory Regulation. Children diagnosed with autism have difficulties with social communication and restricted, and sometimes repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests and interactions. It's important to know that autism is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. And for lots of these children, sensory regulation is very tricky.
Let’s quickly point out some sensory issues that children with autism encounter.
Food can often be a huge issue for parents if their child becomes a selective eater. Consider all of the different textures, smells and colours we enjoy in our food… a roast dinner as an example. This might be delicious to us but a minefield of sensory crossovers for a child who is struggling with sensory regulation.
Some other sensory issues may include covering ears to avoid loud sounds, avoiding touch or conversely seeking pressure. Watching things that spin, or inspecting items by eye lining their surface. When a child is closed for communication we use the term “red light” to describe the repetitive and restricted behaviours children demonstrate.
We show you how to respond when your child is closed for communication so you can build connection - helping your child to take the lead while noticing you are speaking their language.
Sensory regulation is adapting arousal to match the environment and activity. Individuals with autism find this problematic and may need extra support. There are a variety of techniques that help but first, it’s essential to identify a child’s sensory needs.
Just like A-typical people, people with autism rely on the 5 senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. There are also vestibular (balance), proprioception (awareness of body position and movement) and interoception (awareness of internal body cues and sensations).
Being hypersensitive is the sensitivity to bright lights or different wavelengths of light. As well as certain sounds, smells, textures, and tastes. This can be very overwhelming and may result in the individual trying to move away from the stimuli as they cannot just “tune it out.” This is sensory avoidance and is often displayed as wanting to reduce physical touch, covering ears to loud or unpredictable sounds, or refusing to wear certain kinds of clothing due to texture.
The opposite of this is being hyposensitive.
Hyposensitive is just as common. The difference is individuals will seek stimuli as opposed to avoid them. Hyposensitivity can appear as an individual being “bouncy”, as they crave movement and will often go above and beyond to get this. They might be drawn to loud noises, bright lights, and vibrant colours. This is known as sensory seeking. Someone who is sensory seeking may make loud noises, continuously touch objects or people, or rock back and forth. This is their way of receiving sensory feedback from the surrounding environment.
You might hear these types of behaviours referred to as stimming. It’s a common way for autistic people to feed their sensory needs.
Can you think of a situation where a sensory seeker might have their needs suppressed?
Schools are a prime example of environments that can be very difficult for sensory seekers.
Sensory overload on the other hand often presents itself as a meltdown as the individual can become extremely distressed in certain situations. To prevent sensory overload, it is important to really understand a child’s needs. Accommodations such as adapting a child’s environment may need to take place.
Hypersensitive people may benefit from ear defenders or an empty, quiet space. Changing routines to avoid busy, loud places might be beneficial for everyday life. Those who are hyposensitive might have a fidget toy or chew buddy to accommodate that desire for sensory feedback. Weighted blankets and frequent movement breaks throughout the day are also suggested.
Speech and language Therapy
We use speech and language therapy to help children make progress with their communication and interaction. However, we do not try to reduce repetitive sensory behaviours. Instead, we support children to make their needs known which helps reduce the stress involved and these repetitive behaviours naturally fade or stop over time.
Knowing your child's sensory differences is an important way to understand their world and by understanding sensory preferences and interests, we help you to join your child in their world and develop trust. This eventually helps you gently encourage them over to your world and a more typical way of communicating.
For further reading head over to The Hanen Centre for more information about helping your child with their sensory needs and regulation.