Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sensory Issues And Autism

Chocolate seeping into a cavity or the pungent odor of a dead skunk - they both send our senses reeling.  But what about the sound of flourescent lights, the feel of socks donned hours ago, or annoying carpet patterns?  Typically, the brain filters out bothersome stimuli. But for autists, the brain may not organize stimuli as well nor filter  out stimuli that would drive most of us crazy. Easy tasks, like wearing a shirt, making eye contact, or writing, can become a violent showdown.

Whether hyposensitive (needing extra stimuli) or hypersensitive (needing less stimuli), autists battle their senses everyday.  The hyposensitive kids can appear rough, clumsy or loud.  The hypersensitive kids prefer low volumes, darker areas, and may dislike clothing. 

While the five senses get bombarded, the other senses, such as the vestibular system, can be more dysfunctional. If you get carsick, you are well aware of your vestibular system.  It detects changes in balance and is closely related to vision. An autist may trip easily because of carpet patterns, or he may fall out of his chair at school if his vestibular system doesn't function well.

Another affected sense, the proprioceptive system, tells our bodies to compensate for changes in our balance and our environment. This system is closely related to fine motor skills and coordination and tells us how far to reach for an object, how hard to squeeze a glass while drinking, and the correct pressure for stroking a pet.  An autist may write too hard; grip, squeeze or twist her toys agressively, or talk too loud. She may be unable to make her fingers use scissors, buttons, zippers, or eating utensils. She may know how to ride a bike, but can't get her legs to do the work.

Also on the battlefield is the oral sense, which helps us to blow, suck, whistle, speak, bite, chew, eat and drink.

Sensory Integration Activities should be a part of your plan of attack.  They are as varied as autistic children themselves, but here are some tips to take, tweak, or toss:

For head banging, try deep pressure activities on the body or face; crawling over large stuffed animals, jumping/ landing on soft cushions; climbing into small spaces, wrapping up in weighted blankets or vests; rolling on a theraputic ball and getting 'squished' by the ball too! Running, jumping, and rolling downhill strengthen the vestibular senses. It's no wonder our kids love those trampolines!  Walking while carrying objects can improve balance.

A child who rocks herself may enjoy swinging, jumping, roller coasters, merry-go-rounds; activities inwhich she is in motion.  Hand flappers might enjoy music and drumming objects or shaking small instruments and/or stuffed animals to a beat. You might even try a metronome.  Here's a link for a free one online

Sensory integrations worthy of your arsenal combine both touch and sound such as: running fingers through containers filled with beads, beans, small plastic shapes, packing peanuts, smooth stones, foam cut outs, sand, or even gravel.  Water provides excellent opportunities for integration. Dunking objects into the kitchen sink provides smooth and wet surfaces; the child can control the sound and splash as items are dropped into the sink. Bathing or swimming is a fabulous full body sensory integration. Your child may also enjoy arts, crafts, constructing, using a mouse, or digging with sticks in the dirt.  The benefits of these are endless as they utilize many senses at once, provide great comfort, and can improve fine and gross motor skills.

Oral senses can be strenthened by blowing pinwheels, bubbles, a pencil across a table, cotton balls, using a straw, imitating facial expressions and making mouth noises. There are a number of different types of therapeutical eating supplies.

If your child struggles terribly getting her muscles to do what her mind wants them to, break each activity into baby steps. Your first step might just strengthen the muscles needed for the activity.  For example, building hand and finger strength with play dough long before learning to write, can help ensure success. With time, a big dose of patience and practice, you can help your autist build a peace treaty with her senses! 

Annie Eskeldson writes for families of very young autists and has 2 published children's books: 
Ashi's Gift and the sequel Ashi: In a Class all by Myself.  Visit  for more details.


  1. sschell73 Added: 31 Mar, 2011 9:16 am

    I remember that I was sensitive to light and touch before I was diagnosed with AS. delete

  2. jcannaster Added: 30 Mar, 2011 3:46 pm

    I had sensory issues when I was younger...very true. Very good post! delete

    birdakamaude Added: 30 Mar, 2011 3:44 pm

    wonderful post! my kids both have sensory issues, some same some very different, its so important for us to recognize these things so we can identify the source of meltdowns and such..thanks for such an informative post! ;) delete

  3. PChallab Added: 01 Apr, 2011 12:53 pm

    Great post, Annie! All Definitely valid


    daiel_boyd Added: 31 Mar, 2011 6:03 pm

    Annie, I agree! Our boy is 10 years old now, and that was definitely the toughest time for our family! Dealing with all sensory issues :-( delete

  4. Comment by Pavarti Devi 19 hours ago Wonderful, thank you. I have a daughter with PDD-NOS who is 7 and in second grade. Also, I have an audio sensory disorder so I know what you're talking about as a parent and from my own experianse. Thank you for sharing


  5. Added: 02 Apr, 2011 12:22 am

    Great to-the-point explanation of the sensory issues we deal with every day. My autist is 4, and I have a neuro-typical 2 year old ~ our days are ... long ! hah! But ALWAYS adventurous! ;o)) Water is fantastic for us, I love that you included that. We collect water tables for the backyard! And my daughter's favorite ANYTIME is when I plug the bathroom sink and fill it with dry beans. I give her 2 cups and she literally pours the beans back and forth for hours.

  6. Claire_radley Added: 04 Apr, 2011 1:13 pm

    Dealt with this when our baby was diagnosed 8 years back...glad those days are behind us, but willing to help anyone. Please message me privately. great post Annie! delete

    Michelley Added: 03 Apr, 2011 10:40 pm

    Super informative post...thank you ! delete

  7. MysonJACKSON Added: 07 Apr, 2011 11:52 am

    Great post... delete

    Rebecca_mom_of_2 Added: 06 Apr, 2011 1:40 pm

    Couldn't have said it any better myself, Annie...:-) delete

    jason_halloway Added: 05 Apr, 2011 6:57 pm

    Reading and Learning...thank you for this post delete