About sensory sensitivities and autism spectrum disorder
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be oversensitive or undersensitive to noise, light, clothing or temperature. Their senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste – take in either too much or too little information from the environment around them.
Typically developing children have sensory sensitivities too, but they often outgrow them. These sensitivities tend to last longer in children with ASD, although they do decrease over time.
Not all children with ASD have sensory sensitivities, but some children might have several.
When children with ASD are oversensitive or overreactive to sensory experiences, it’s called hypersensitivity. These children might cover their ears when they hear loud noises, or eat only foods with a certain texture.
When children are undersensitive or underreactive to their environment, it’s known as hyposensitivity. These children might wear thick clothes on a hot day, or repeatedly rub their arms and legs against things.
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.
Sensory problems can also 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
The outward signs of sensory sensitivities vary depending on whether children are oversensitive or undersensitive. Here are some examples of different sensory sensitivities:
- Sight: children might like bright colours, or squint when out in sunlight.
- Touch: children might like to feel different textures, or rub their arms and legs against things, or not like labels on the inside of clothes.
- Taste: children might be picky or fussy about food, and eat only food of certain textures or colours, or they might enjoy eating strongly flavoured food like onions and olives.
- Smell: children might sniff everything, or complain about smells.
- Sound: children might not be able to stand being in noisy environments, or cover their ears to block out loud noises, or constantly need music on.
- Sense of position: children might seem to ‘throw’ themselves across people, or stand on people’s toes.
- Sense of balance: children might have unstable balance, or be very agile.
- Sense of movement: children might move in poorly planned and uncoordinated ways.
- Temperature: children might want to wear warm clothes in summer heat, or not feel the cold and wear shorts in winter.
- Pain: children might ignore injuries or have delayed responses to injuries, or they might overreact to little hurts.
Helping children with sensory sensitivities
What you do to help your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and sensory sensitivities depends on how your child reacts to the environment.
If your child is easily overwhelmed by surroundings, 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 parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who are undersensitive say that their children sometimes seem to be unaware 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 children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) process pain sensations. But children with ASD don’t seem to experience pain differently from other children. 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 help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) deal with their environments, including coping with sensory sensitivities, staying on task and developing motor coordination and balance. 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. Just like other children, your child with ASD could have a visual problem.
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. A Board Certified Behaviour Analyst® or another experienced professional can help you understand and manage your child’s behaviour. A good first step is talking with your paediatrician or psychologist.