About sensory sensitivities and autism
Our environments are full of sensory information, including noise, crowds, light, clothing, temperature and so on. We process this information using our senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.
Autistic children are sometimes oversensitive or undersensitive to sensory information. This means their senses take in either too much or too little information from the environment around them.
Not all autistic children have sensory sensitivities, but some might have several.
Oversensitive to sensory information
When autistic children are oversensitive to sensory information, it’s called hypersensitivity. These children try to avoid sensory experiences – for example, they might cover their ears when they hear loud noises, eat only foods with a certain texture or taste, wear only certain types of loose-fitting clothing, or resist having hair cuts or brushing teeth.
Undersensitive to sensory information
When autistic children are undersensitive to sensory information, it’s called hyposensitivity. These children seek out sensory experiences – for example, they might wear tight-fitting clothing, look for things to touch, hear or taste, or rub their arms and legs against things.
Oversensitive and undersensitive to sensory information
Some children can have both oversensitivities and undersensitivities in different senses, or even the same sense. For example, they might be oversensitive to some sound frequencies and undersensitive to others.
Typically developing children have sensory sensitivities too, but they often outgrow them. Sensory sensitivities tend to last longer in autistic children, although children often learn to manage sensitivities as they get older.
Sensory sensitivities can sometimes seem worse when children are stressed or anxious. Sensitivities can also make children feel stressed and anxious.
Sensory problems can affect a child’s whole family. For example, if a child is oversensitive to noise, it can limit where the child’s family goes or the kinds of activities the family does.
Signs of sensory sensitivities In autistic children and teenagers
The outward signs of sensory sensitivities vary depending on whether children are oversensitive or undersensitive. Here are some examples of different sensory sensitivities:
- Sight: undersensitive children might like bright colours. Oversensitive children might squint or seem uncomfortable in sunlight or glare.
- Touch: under sensitive children might seek out different textures or rub their arms and legs against things. Oversensitive children might not like the sensation of labels on the inside of clothes or try to take their clothes off.
- Taste: undersensitive children might enjoy eating strongly flavoured food like onions and olives. Oversensitive children might eat only certain textured food.
- Smell: undersensitive children might sniff everything. Oversensitive children might complain about smells like deodorants or perfumes or smell things that no-one else does.
- Sound: undersensitive children might turn up music or speak loudly. Oversensitive children might cover their ears to block out loud noises.
- Sense of position, balance and movement: undersensitive children might have unstable balance. Oversensitive children might have excellent balance.
- Temperature: undersensitive children might want to wear warm clothes in summer heat. Oversensitive children might not feel the cold and want to wear shorts in winter.
- Pain: undersensitive children might ignore injuries or have delayed responses to injuries. Oversensitive children might overreact to little hurts.
Helping autistic children and teenagers with sensory sensitivities
What you do to help your autistic child with sensory sensitivities depends on how your child reacts to sensory information.
If your child is easily overwhelmed by sensory information, you could try the following:
- Have a ‘quiet space’ your child can go to when they feel overwhelmed.
- Give your child extra time to take in what you’re saying.
- Introduce your child to new places at quiet times, gradually increasing the amount of time they spend there in later visits.
- Let your child try ear plugs or noise-cancelling headphones to help with sound sensitivities.
It’s also a good idea to speak with people ahead of time about your child’s needs if you’re going somewhere – people might be able to adjust a few things to make it easier. For example, if you’re making a playdate for your child, you could ask for it to be in a place that’s familiar to your child. You could look out for cinemas that have ‘sensory friendly’ movie screenings.
If your child needs more stimulation from the environment, you could try these suggestions:
- Arrange for extra playtime outside.
- Give your child toys that are extra-stimulating, like playdough or a squishy ball.
- Have a certain time of the day to listen to music or bounce on the trampoline.
- Speak loudly in an exaggerated way if your child tends to ignore sounds.
Awareness of pain
Some autistic children who are undersensitive might seem to be less aware of pain. For example, children might not notice when objects are too hot, or they don’t react to experiences that typically developing children find painful, like breaking an arm in a bad fall.
We don’t know much about how autistic children process pain sensations. It might be that they express pain differently from other children.
Helping children who seem less aware of pain
If your child seems unaware of pain or has a reduced sense of pain, there are several things you can do to help:
- Teach your child which objects are hot and cold: you could try labelling objects in your house as ‘hot’ or ‘cold’, using either words or symbols, like fire and ice.
- Keep dangerous objects out of reach: cover hot objects like the stove immediately after use.
- Talk with your child’s health professionals: health professionals rely on cues like facial expressions or actions to know whether your child is experiencing pain, so it’s important for them to know if your child expresses pain in an unusual way.
Getting help for sensory sensitivities
Occupational therapists can assess your child's sensory sensitivities and develop a plan for managing them. They can also help you come up with appropriate strategies if your child self-stimulates or ‘stims’.
If you think some sensory issues are happening because your child isn’t seeing properly, you could get your child’s vision checked by an optometrist. This will help rule out any visual problems.
If your child ignores sounds and people speaking, you could get your child’s hearing checked by an audiologist. This will help you rule out any hearing problems.
If your child’s behaviour hurts themselves or other people, it’s best to get professional advice. An experienced professional can help you understand and manage your child’s behaviour. A good first step is talking with your paediatrician or psychologist.