By Emily Ansell
Guest Post by Autism Parenting Magazine
Can you imagine living in a world that always seems to feel too bright, too loud, too smelly, and too hazardous? For many people with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), this is how life feels every day.
This is because most people on the autism spectrum have some element of sensory processing disorder (SPD). In fact, sensory sensitivities were added to the required symptoms for autism diagnosis in 2013. Sensory challenges vary from person to person, with some experiencing hyper-sensitivities (over-sensitive to stimuli) and others experiencing hypo-sensitivities (under-sensitive to stimuli).
Senses help us interpret and organise our environments. So, when someone on the spectrum has sensory challenges, the world can feel like a very scary place.
Here are five ways autism impacts sensory processing, with some ideas for those seeking to support those on the spectrum.
Noisy environments can be difficult for those with autism. Places where lots of different noises can be heard all at once, such as a busy shopping centre or a busy restaurant, might cause sensory overload or even bring on a meltdown. Sounds which might be uncomfortable for those without autism, can be truly overwhelming for those that are having difficulty processing this sense.
One way of helping might be to use ear plugs so sounds become muffled and potentially less overwhelming. It might also be worth considering hearing aids and other technology to help better process the sounds.
While many of us can deal with strongly scented products such as perfumes, soaps and air fresheners, it can be difficult for some people on the spectrum to process such scents. This can be challenging when in environments such as food establishments or unusual-smelling venues with a mix of new odors.
One way to help is by avoiding certain places that trigger sensory overload. Smell is a sense that’s hard to control within an environment, especially if an odour seems to come out of nowhere. However, avoiding certain venues can mean missing out on events and experiences. Another approach could be to visit a venue before an upcoming event as a “trial run” to get some familiarity with it.
Visual elements of sensory processing can also be impacted for those with an ASD diagnosis. From overly bright lights to certain colours and patterns, some visuals can be a lot to handle.
There are accommodations that can help make some sights and colour mixes less overwhelming. These include soft/dim lighting or not using overly fluorescent or bright lighting. Having closed doors or high-walled work areas can also be good for helping to avoid any visual distractions.
Many people on the spectrum prefer not to look at strong contrasting colours, so they might dim their computer screens or choose to read or work on projects with a softer pallet.
We all have different taste preferences: while one person might love the taste of cheese, another may have a complete aversion to it. For those with autism, this experience of taste is somewhat similar, but it’s often elevated. It might be that certain textures or spices are far too much to handle. There may also be sensory processing challenges in regards to how hot or cold something is, like coffee or ice cream.
It’s good to provide food options that avoid personal aversions, and to cater to preferences around textures and temperatures. It’s best to be patient and understanding if someone on the spectrum is reluctant to try a new food or isn’t keen on your cooking!
While hyper-sensitive individuals might be very picky about their food, those who are hypo-sensitive also might not enjoy their meals due to experiencing very little flavor. Children on the spectrum are also more likely to develop pica (eating non-edible objects) due to enjoying certain textures in their mouths.
Difficulty with balance is a sensory processing issue that’s somewhat challenging to accommodate. Supporting people with their balance and coordination is important though as it helps prevent them from causing themselves harm.
Those with hypo-sensitivities are particularly at risk of danger from poor balance as their high pain threshold means they might not realise how badly they’re hurt if they crash into a dangerous object or fall.
It’s good for people on the spectrum to take part in physical activities to work on their balance and spatial awareness. Many autism parents also arrange their furniture in a specific way and remove hard or sharp objects as their children might bump into things.
There are many ways autism impacts sensory processing. Awareness and accommodation are the best routes for helping those on the spectrum with their sensory needs.
With the right therapeutic interventions, exercises, toys, and modifications, a child with sensory processing challenges can be supported and encouraged to develop and thrive.
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