About sensory sensitivities and autism
Our environments are full of sensory information like sounds, sensations, lights, textures, temperatures and so on. We process this information using our senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.
Autistic children and teenagers can be:
- oversensitive – their senses take in too much sensory information from the environment around them
- undersensitive – their senses take in too little sensory information from the environment around them.
Not all autistic children have sensory sensitivities, but some might have several. Sensory sensitivities can also sometimes seem worse when children are stressed or anxious.
Autistic children and teenagers usually don’t outgrow their sensory sensitivities but often learn to manage them as they get older.
Oversensitivity in autistic children and teenagers
When autistic children are oversensitive to sensory information, it’s called hypersensitivity.
These children often try to avoid sensory experiences. When they have sensory experiences that they don’t like, they might express distress by crying, wanting to get away from the sensory input, withdrawing or shutting down. They might also put their hands over their ears or eyes, stim more, or seem restless, stressed or irritable.
Here are signs and examples of oversensitivity.
Oversensitive children might seem uncomfortable in rooms with bright lights or when exposed to direct sunlight.
Oversensitive children might not like the sensation of labels on the inside of clothes. They might avoid wearing shoes or brushing their teeth. They might hate haircuts or be uncomfortable with physical affection. And they might wear only certain types of loose-fitting clothing.
Oversensitive children might eat only food with certain textures or tastes.
Oversensitive children might complain about smells like deodorants or perfumes. Or they might smell things that no-one else notices.
Oversensitive children might cover their ears in response to loud sounds like vacuum cleaners or hand dryers. They might get stressed in environments with a lot of competing noises, like shopping centres.
Sense of position, balance and movement
Oversensitive children might have excellent balance and coordination, write very neatly, or not like other people being in their personal space.
Oversensitive children might not notice the cold in winter and want to wear shorts.
Oversensitive children might get very upset in response to minor accidents or injuries.
Helping autistic children and teenagers with oversensitivity
If your autistic child is easily overwhelmed by sensory information, you could try these ideas:
- Have a ‘quiet space’ your child can go to when they feel overwhelmed.
- 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 earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones to help with sound sensitivities.
- Have dimmable lights in your child’s bedroom, and keep sunglasses handy for sunny days.
- Practise ways your child can let you know they need a break. For example, they could show you a card saying ‘break’.
- Give your child time to recover and recharge after they’ve been in busy places like shopping centres, play centres, school or preschool.
If you’re going somewhere that your child might be overwhelmed, it’s also a good idea to speak with people beforehand about adjustments for your child’s needs. 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. Or you could look out for cinemas that have ‘sensory-friendly’ movie screenings.
Undersensitivity in autistic children and teenagers
When autistic children are undersensitive to sensory information, it’s called hyposensitivity.
These children seek out sensory experiences. They might look for things to touch, hear or taste.
Here are signs and examples of undersensitivity.
Undersensitive children might like bright colours. They might hold items up to their eyes or sit close to the TV.
Undersensitive children might seek out different textures, rub their arms and legs against things, explore things using touch, enjoy tight hugs or wear tight-fitting clothing.
Undersensitive children might enjoy eating strongly flavoured food like onions and olives.
Undersensitive children might not notice strong odours.
Undersensitive children might increase the volume of music or speak loudly.
Sense of position, balance and movement
Undersensitive children might have unstable balance, be more likely to enter other people’s personal space, and have difficulties with fine motor skills like handwriting or tying shoelaces.
Undersensitive children might want to wear warm clothes in summer.
Undersensitive children might not notice certain injuries or have delayed responses to pain.
Helping autistic children and teenagers with undersensitivity
If your child needs more stimulation from the environment, you could try these ideas:
- Arrange for extra playtime outside. Jumping on a trampoline, running, bouncing a ball, riding a bike or dancing can be good activities.
- Give your child toys that are extra-stimulating, like sensory toys, playdough, sand, bubbles or a squishy ball.
- Listen to music or sounds at a volume your child chooses.
- Give your child tight hugs or encourage them to do big stretches.
- Give your child soft blankets or teddies.
- Give your child ice blocks or an icy pole to suck or a heat pack to hug.
Awareness of pain in autistic children and teenagers
Some autistic children might seem to be less aware of pain. For example, they might not notice when objects are too hot, or they don’t react to experiences that you might expect them to find painful, like breaking an arm in a bad fall.
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. For example, you could label objects in your house as ‘hot’ or ‘cold’, using either words or symbols, like fire and ice.
- Keep dangerous objects out of reach, and 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.
We don’t know much about how autistic children process pain sensations. It might be that they express pain differently from other children.
Getting help for sensory sensitivities
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. Sensory sensitivities can also affect a child’s experience of school, including their attention, energy levels and emotions.
Occupational therapists can assess your child’s sensory sensitivities and develop a plan for managing them.
If you think some sensory issues are happening because your child isn’t seeing properly, you should get your child’s vision checked by an optometrist. This will help to 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 to rule out any hearing problems.
If your child’s behaviour hurts themselves or others, it’s best to get professional advice. An experienced professional can help you understand your child’s behaviour and work with you to develop strategies to support your child. A good first step is talking with your paediatrician or psychologist.
For information about a wide range of therapies and supports for autistic children and the specialists who provide them, you can visit our Parent Guide to Therapies.