Autism and Sensory Issues: A Parent’s Guide

Understanding how your child with autism experiences the world through their senses is key to helping them thrive. This article explores the connection between autism and sensory processing issues, offering practical strategies and support options.

autism and sensory issues

Understanding Sensory Processing

Imagine your brain as a giant control center, constantly bombarded with information from your eight senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, movement, body awareness, and internal signals. Sensory processing is the amazing job your brain does of taking in all this information. 

It’s like your brain acts as a conductor in a giant orchestra, ensuring all the sensory instruments play in harmony. Now, sometimes this orchestra can get a little out of tune. When your brain struggles to process sensory input, it can lead to difficulties in daily life. 

This is known as sensory processing disorder (SPD). People with SPD might have trouble with certain sights, sounds, or textures that seem perfectly normal to others. A loud noise that sounds like a fun party to one person could be like nails on a chalkboard to people with SPD.

Sensory Processing and Autism

Imagine a child on the playground. For some kids, the joyful sounds of laughter and the bustling activity create a fun atmosphere. But for a child with autism, these same stimuli might be overwhelming. This is because many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) also experience Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

Understanding the Difference: SPD vs. Autism

Think of a Venn diagram with two circles. One circle represents autism, a developmental disorder that affects social communication, learning, and behavior. The other circle represents SPD, a condition where the brain struggles to interpret information from the senses. 

The big overlap in the center depicts the high prevalence of SPD in individuals with autism – estimates suggest over 90% are affected. However, it’s important to remember that there are also people with autism who don’t have SPD, and vice versa.

Why Does SPD Matter in Autism?

Sensory processing difficulties can significantly impact a child with autism’s daily life. It can make social interactions overwhelming, learning experiences frustrating, and even basic activities like getting dressed or eating challenging. By understanding the different types of sensory sensitivities, parents and caregivers can develop better support strategies.

Hypersensitivity: A World of Overwhelm

Imagine a child who covers their ears at the sound of a blender. This is an example of hypersensitivity, where sensory input is experienced more intensely than usual. Loud noises, bright lights, certain textures, or even strong smells can cause significant discomfort and lead to avoidance behaviors.

  • Common Triggers: Loud noises (alarms, crowds), bright or flashing lights, visually cluttered spaces, unexpected touches, certain fabrics (tags, denim), and food textures.
  • Behavioral Responses: Avoidance (hiding from crowds), distress (covering ears, squinting), and overwhelm (meltdowns due to sensory overload).
  • Management Strategies: Create sensory-friendly environments (dim lights, quiet spaces), provide personal coping tools (headphones, sunglasses), and gradually introduce new stimuli in a controlled way.

Hyposensitivity: Seeking Sensory Input

On the other hand, some children with autism might seem to crave sensory experiences. This is hyposensitivity, where the sensory threshold is unusually high. They may actively seek out intense stimulation to feel more connected to their environment.

  • Common Characteristics: Preference for strong physical contact (hugs), fascination with bright lights or repetitive patterns, and seeking constant auditory stimulation (loud noises, background sounds).
  • Behavioral Indications: Risk-taking behaviors due to a lack of response to pain, constant movement (fidgeting, jumping), and difficulty staying still.
  • Management Strategies: Provide safe opportunities for sensory input (weighted blankets, resistance tunnels), schedule “sensory time” with activities like jumping on a trampoline, and ensure the environment is safe for their sensory-seeking behaviors.

How Sensory Processing Issues Affect Autistic Individuals

For someone with hypersensitivity, a crowded room can feel like a cacophony of noise and clothing tags can irritate the skin. This overload of sensory information can lead to anxiety, meltdowns, or shutdowns.

On the other hand, some autistic individuals crave sensory input and might seem to seek out strong sensations. However, this is often a way to self-regulate and cope with a world that feels overwhelming.

The constant struggle to manage sensory input can also lead to social isolation.  A child who hates loud noises might avoid playgrounds or birthday parties. This can make it difficult to build friendships and participate in activities.

The challenges of SPD can also impact self-esteem.  When other kids seem unfazed by things that feel overwhelming, an autistic child might feel different and alone. This can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Helping Children with Autism and Sensory Issues

Sensory processing issues can significantly impact a child with autism’s daily life. From getting dressed in the morning to navigating social situations, the constant bombardment of sensory information can be overwhelming and lead to frustration, anxiety, and even meltdowns.  

autism and sensory issues

Here are some key strategies to support your child and create a more manageable sensory world:

1. Creating a Supportive Environment

Creating a supportive environment at home is key to helping your child feel comfortable and regulated. Predictability is important, so establish consistent daily routines to minimize surprises. Visual schedules with pictures can be particularly helpful for autistic children who process information visually. 

You can also make sensory modifications to your home environment. Reduce unnecessary stimuli by dimming lights, using noise-canceling headphones, or offering a designated quiet space for your child to retreat to when they feel overwhelmed. Finally, explore different sensory tools that might help your child self-regulate. 

2. Sensory Diet

A “sensory diet” provides the right amount and type of sensory input to help them regulate their nervous system. This can include a variety of activities. Deep-pressure activities like firm hugs, weighted blankets, or exercises that engage their body awareness (proprioception) can provide a calming effect. 

Some movements can also be stimulating and enjoyable, with options like swinging, jumping on a trampoline, or rocking. On top of that, calming activities like listening to soothing music, taking a nature walk, or exploring calming textures through play can promote relaxation and a sense of well-being.

3. Professional Support:

Professional support plays a crucial role in helping children with autism manage their sensory processing issues. Occupational therapists can assess a child’s specific needs and develop strategies to address them. Speech therapy, feeding therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy can also be beneficial in tackling various challenges associated with autism and SPD.

However, a collaborative approach involving a team of professionals like psychologists, occupational therapists, and teachers is often the most effective way to support a child’s development. In this team, play therapy can be a powerful tool for addressing sensory issues and improving mental health in autistic children.

The Takeaway

Raising a child with autism can be a rewarding challenge, and understanding their sensory world is a crucial piece of the puzzle. By creating a supportive environment and collaborating with professionals, you can empower your child to manage sensory challenges.


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