(CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE SERVICE)
THE SEVEN SENSES ARE:
- Balance – part of the vestibular system that also plays a role in posture and levels of alertness.
- Body awareness (proprioception) – uses sensors both around joints and from inside muscles that contribute to body awareness. Heavy activities that stimulate body awareness that use muscles and joints such as heavy pushing and pulling can be very useful in helping regulate most people’s sensory system.
In children with autism, the brain processes sensory information differently.
Sometimes these differences can cause pain, distress, anxiety fear or
confusion. An individual’s responses to sensations or activities that the
majority of people find enjoyable or at least non-problematic e.g. hair
brushing, may cause an adverse reaction such as discomfort, which may
then lead to screaming.
There are many children who do not show outward signs of discomfort while
in the school environment. When in class, these children may focus on
managing the discomfort by actively working to tolerate/block out sensations
they experience as adverse. They manage to get through the school day but
then release their feelings once back home.
Sensory systems may over respond to sensations. For many people the
noise of finger nails on a chalk board is highly unpleasant – there is no real
danger from the noise but the sensory system responds adversely and can
even go into a protective response e.g. the person covers their ears. It is
common for the sensory systems of children with autism to be over
responsive to sensations that do not cause any problems for the majority of
people. e.g. the sound of a pencil on paper. However, the feelings they
experience are just as real as if it was finger nails on chalk board.
Hypersensitivity is when individuals demonstrate or experience discomfort
with sensations that are okay for the majority of people. When sensory
systems are over responding, activities such as rocking, taking slow deep
breaths, dimming lights and listening to soft music are likely to be helpful.
Some individuals find that they can look or listen but find it uncomfortable
to look and listen at the same time. Sensory systems sometimes under
respond to sensations (people may experience this when in deep thought
and have stopped attending to a situation. They may only realise they had
not been taking in information around them once their attention was regained).
Children with autism can be under responsive to sensory information e.g. they
may not readily respond to their name being called.
Most people’s sensory systems fluctuate in terms of their level of
responsiveness within a day (over responsive, optimum and under
responsive) e.g. they may be more responsive in the morning than late
afternoon. This is also true of the sensory systems of children with autism
but often their extremes of responses are wider than most other people.
It is important to consider that a child may be able to tolerate a sensation
on one day but can have an adverse reaction to the same sensations on
a different day, e.g. going into a noisy hall or school canteen. Their tolerance
can also be reduced by stress or anxiety coming from something else.
HERE ARE JUST A FEW EXAMPLES OF SENSORY DIFFERENCES
EXPERIENCED BY SOME CHILDREN WITH AUTISM:
- It is challenging to automatically filter sensations that for the majority of people are experienced as background noise e.g. a humming noise from the light is given equal attention to the sound of someone speaking.
- Individuals may continue to be aware of or be uncomfortable with sensations that the majority of people typically become accustomed to, such as the feel of clothing against the skin.
- Processing of information may be delayed. Sometimes a child will respond to a verbal request a couple of minutes after it has been given so allow time for this.
- Sometimes the senses become distorted which may mean that some children with autism may see, hear, taste or feel things differently from people who do not have autism.
- There can be difficultly using senses at the same time e.g. some have said they can listen or they can look but they feel very uncomfortable and not skilled at doing both together.
SENSORY DIFFERENCES CAN MAKE SOME ROUTINE ACTIVITIES CHALLENGING
A haircut involves lots of sensations: touch, possibility of small hairs
landing on skin round neck and shoulders, noise of scissors/shaver,
temperature changes during and after washing, person cutting hair being
in very close proximity, music and noise from conversation.
Noise sensitivity: noises that are okay to the majority of people may be
challenging to those with autism e.g. the sound of a washing machine in the
background could be distressing. Preparing for and showing how long the
noise will last can be helpful. A full information leaflet about managing noise
sensitivity is available from Occupational Therapy. It is designed for key
professionals and parents to work through together.
Introduce regular and organised sensations, particularly ones which
stimulate muscles and joints to work in a sustained way for example:
- walking with a heavy back pack (no more than 10% • of child’s weight
and firmly adjusted).
- squashing plastic bottles for recycling with hands and/or feet.
- carrying wet washing out to line or building with heavy rocks in garden
or on beach.
- Some children like the pressure from tight clothes as the sensations
produced by tight clothes are regulating to the sensory system.
- Firm consistent heavy pressure is often helpful e.g. having a heavy cushion over the knees when sitting, or firm hugs from parents.