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Sensitive senses: coping with Autism’s altered perception

22 Feb, 2017

Sensitive senses: coping with Autism’s altered perception

Sensitive senses: coping with Autism’s altered perception

Most people can relate to the idea of a sensory preference, even if the terms are unfamiliar. Think of a nagging little thing that grabs your attention, or a simple activity. The tag on a shirt that annoys your skin, or the texture of a food you dislike. The creepy and annoying sound of nails on a chalkboard is something universally understood to be bad. On the other hand, playing with your hair, or clicking a pen over and over again can be just as intense but in a good way. The desire to avoid negative sensation or seek positive ones is the essence of a sensory preference. Individuals on the Autism spectrum process these sensations slightly differently than others, and that can be an issue.


Autistic individuals can be either over-sensitive or under-sensitive to stimuli, making the sensations radically different than we are accustomed to. In the case of the former, minute amounts of a sensation can stimulate, while normal levels can be overwhelming. As such, the person will try to avoid it if at all possible. For instance, a classroom has a certain amount of noise as others talk and mill about. For most, this is fine and ignorable. For a sensitive individual, this could be comparable to a symphony of jet turbines all going at full blast. This can extend to any sense, leading to avoidance behavior like being a picky eater, or fighting to go places. The reverse of that is how under-sensitive individuals will require louder sounds or more stimuli to get the same sensation as others. This leads to seeking behaviors like turning up the volume on a TV or wanting constant motion. Perhaps the most unique issue is that Autistic individuals are not one or the other- they can be over-sensitive in one or two senses while being under-sensitive at the same time in other senses.


Accommodating sensory needs

Often, autistic individuals have difficulty expressing themselves, so learning precisely what the situation is can be difficult. Once you learn through behavior, you can find ways to meet the unique needs of your child. Often the solutions are simple and easy to do. For instance, if a child is over-sensitive, small changes like choosing more comfortable clothing can make a big difference in those that are distracted by the feeling of their shirt. Noises like a chair rubbing on the floor can be fixed with socks placed over the feet of the chairs. Avoiding problem areas is not always easy, but can be done to reduce the over-stimulation of a child.


Under-stimulation leads to different behaviors. What he or she does depends largely on what needs are not being met. For instance a child can jump up and down on a trampoline or the couch for hours to seek that motion stimulation, or overturn toy cars to watch the wheels spin endlessly. In these cases, you have several options like finding appropriate tools or toys to satisfy those needs. Instead of the couch, companies like provide appropriate outdoor swings and similar products that can give a safer and more stable way to gain that stimulation. Alternatively, you can turn the needs into ‘people games.’ This allows parents to become more involved and give a kid what they need at the same time.


Bonding through play

Games don’t need specific tools or toys. Once you figure out what your child is seeking, you can concentrate on turning that into a game you can play with people alone. These ‘people games’ are great tools because they can be played with little-to-no setup. Some games require some music, but with the ubiquitous nature of devices like phones or music players that can happen anywhere. Others just require movement or actions such as tickles, peek-a-boo, or chasing. Often these games have a script that is said while playing, adding to the simplicity of following along. Most autistic kids learn best through structure and repetition, so playing the game over and over again to satisfy a need also allows them to learn it by rote. For instance, the idea of ‘ring around the rosie’ can satisfy movement and has the musical component of singing the little poem. The words are the instructions, and can be done quickly with only two people if needed.


Games to consider that involve simple rote instruction and sensory input include:

  • Hide and Seek
  • “Ring Around the Rosie”
  • Peek-a-boo
  • “This Little Piggy”
  • Chase
  • Piggy back/horsie rides
  • Finger games like “Round and Round the Garden” or “Where is Thumbkin?”
  • Rough-housing
  • Tickling games


Incorporating the specific needs into a game is easy, and when a child’s needs are satisfied, they do not tend to lash out or misbehave seeking to sate that need. This allows a child to be more attentive and responsive to other requests or instructions. It is not uncommon to have kids speak their first words or complete sentences while playing such games because it satisfies their needs and allows other development to occur easily. These games can encourage communication, if for no better reason than to continue playing. Talking often is a big hurdle to overcome, and people games provide a pleasurable activity that is both comforting and fun for them.

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