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Sensory differences

The seven senses are sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, balance (vestibular) and body awareness (proprioception). In individuals with autism, the brain sometimes processes sensory information differently to those without ASD. Everybody is different and therefore individuals will experience things differently and respond in different ways.

Sometimes these different sensory perceptions can cause discomfort, distress, anxiety, fear or confusion and result in ‘challenging’ behaviour as the individual tries to block out what is causing the problem.

In some cases one or more of the senses can’t filter out background experiences or interpret information from the environment at a level which is comfortable (hypersensitive). At other times, the registering of information may be poor (hyposensitive) – the brain doesn’t get enough information (hyposensitive).

When the input is ‘too much’, you may find that individuals with ASD rock, flap, spin, hit their ears, etc as a way of trying to block out the overload that they can’t tolerate and to help them to calm down or relieve the discomfort. Or they may hide, or seek a quiet place to reduce the amount of sensory stimuli (sensory avoiding). In cases where the senses do not register information effectively (hyposensitive), the child may seek out sensations such as noises, touching or movement as a way to feel ‘just right’ and get more sensory information to their brain. Sensory seeking and sensory avoiding behaviours can be seen in the same child in different situations.

Things to look out for

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Characteristics - These things might help me (table)

Top tips relating to sensory differences

  • Observe your child and try to find out which sensory differences/preferences they may have — the more you can find out and understand, the easier it will be to support your child; for example some people may be extremely sensitive to noise, light, touch, smell or movement, while others may under-respond to such sensations. 
  • If your child is upset, distressed or behaving in a challenging way, consider whether some adjustment or modification is needed to support any sensory differences.
  • It is important to consider both the environment and the task and what modification and adjustments can happen to enable the child to feel safe and comfortable and therefore be able to play and learn.
  • The sensory needs of a person change with time; so a child’s sensory processing will mature as they get older. 
  • Be aware that your child may only be able to utilise one sense at a time. For example, when they are looking at something they may not hear you
  • When you’ve identified issues which trigger sensory problems, try to avoid these where possible
  • Follow a routine, where possible, to try and avoid situations where your child may feel overwhelmed.
  • Have a quiet time / space so that your child can relax and regain their composure
  • There are several reasons why it can be difficult for people to engage in activities that others manage easily; sometimes this can be the sensory differences, but other factors can be important too e.g. rigidity of thought and behaviour, the need to follow a routine or finding social situations uncomfortable. Sensory differences are part of the whole picture.

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