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Understanding Sensory Processing Issues in Autism

February 11, 2024

Autism is a complex disorder that affects 1 in 59 children in the United States. Difficulty with social interaction and communication characterizes it, as well as by restricted and repetitive behaviors. For many people with autism, sensory processing issues can add a layer of complexity to their daily lives. Sensory processing issues refer to difficulty interpreting sensory information from the environment or from within the body, resulting in hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to external stimulation. This can cause a wide range of reactions that can interfere with everyday activities and routines. In this blog post, we will discuss the ins and outs of sensory processing issues in autism—from symptoms to treatments and more.

What is Autism?

Autism is a complex developmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Repetitive behaviors and restricted interests also characterized it. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the term used to describe different degrees of autism.

Most people with ASD have difficulty with social interaction and communication. They may have trouble understanding body language, facial expressions, and gestures. They may also have trouble understanding and using spoken language. People with ASD may not make eye contact or may avoid it altogether. Some people with ASD may be Sensory Processing Issues in Autism are common and can affect daily functioning significantly.

Sensory Processing Issues refer to the way the nervous system receives, responds, and organizes information from the senses. In individuals with ASD, sensory processing issues can cause over-responsiveness or under-responsiveness to touch, movement, sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and/or lights & textures. For some children, this can mean that they are constantly on alert because of over-stimulation from their environment; while others may appear “zoned out” or unresponsive because they are not receiving enough input from their surroundings.

Sensory processing issues can cause a great deal of distress for individuals with ASD and can interfere with daily activities such as eating, sleeping, school performance, and social interactions. Occupational therapy is a great resource for individuals with ASD who are having trouble with sensory processing. Occupational therapists can help create individualized sensory diets, provide sensory integration activities and exercises, and offer guidance to family members on how to best support their child’s needs.

What are Sensory Processing Issues?

Sensory processing issues are common in autism and can manifest in a variety of ways. Many people with autism have difficulty processing sensory information, which can lead to problems with both daily living activities and social interactions.

There are a few different sensory processing issues that are commonly seen in autism. One type is called hypersensitivity, so people with this issue are overly sensitive to certain stimuli. This can make everyday activities like brushing your hair or going outside very difficult. Another type of sensory processing issue is called hyposensitivity, so people with this issue are less sensitive to stimuli than average. This can make it hard for people to notice when they’re being touched or when there’s a change in their environment.

It’s not always easy to tell if someone has a sensory processing issue, as symptoms can differ from person to person. However, some common signs include avoiding certain activities or situations, being easily overwhelmed by noise or crowds, and having difficulty making friends. If you think you or someone you know might have a sensory processing issue, it’s important to talk to a doctor or therapist who can help diagnose the problem and manage it.

How do Sensory Processing Issues Affect Autism?

Sensory processing issues are a common comorbidity of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We estimate that up to 80% of individuals with ASD also have a sensory processing disorder (SPD). While the exact cause of SPD is unknown, we believe it to be related to differences in the way the brain processes and interprets information from the senses.

SPD can affect any or all of the senses, and symptoms can range from mild to severe. Individuals with SPD may be oversensitive or under-sensitive to certain stimuli, and they may have difficulty filtering out irrelevant information or become easily overwhelmed by sensory input. This can lead to behavioral problems, such as avoidance, aggression, self-injury, or meltdowns.

There is no cure for SPD, but there are treatments that can help reduce symptoms and improve functioning. We often recommend occupational therapy for individuals with SPD, as it can help them learn how to better cope with and respond to sensory stimuli. It may also prescribe medications to help control anxiety or other mental health conditions that can be associated with SPD.

Strategies for Addressing Sensory Processing Issues

There are several strategies that can address sensory processing issues in autism. Some of these include:

1. Providing a calm and structured environment: Creating a calm and structured environment can help to reduce sensory overload and anxiety. This may involve using visual supports such as schedules and countdown timers, providing simple instructions, and minimizing distractions.

2. Engaging in sensory-rich activities: Sensory-rich activities can help to provide stimulation for the senses and can be calming for individuals with autism. These activities can include things like listening to relaxing music, playing with fidgets or stress balls, engaging in deep pressure massage, or spending time in nature.

3. Reducing problem behaviors: Many problem behaviors associated with autism are actually attempts to cope with overwhelming sensations. Therefore, by addressing the underlying sensory issues, it is often possible to reduce or eliminate these behaviors altogether. This may involve using positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors, implementing a behavior management plan, or working with a professional who specializes in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

4. Addressing dietary needs: Many individuals with autism have food sensitivities or preferences that can contribute to sensory processing issues. It is important to work with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) to ensure that your child is getting the nutrients they need while also avoiding foods that trigger negative reactions.

5. Seeking professional help: If you are struggling to manage your child’s sensory processing issues, it is important to seek help from a professional. Occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, and psychologists can all advice and support on how to best address sensory processing issues.

Conclusion

Sensory processing issues in autism can cause a great deal of discomfort and difficulty for those living with the condition. Fortunately, there are many strategies that parents and caregivers can use to help manage these issues. From providing sensory-friendly items to creating spaces where children can explore their senses safely, there are many ways to make sure these children get the support they need. With an understanding of how sensory processing works, individuals on the spectrum will better navigate life’s challenges and find success in everyday activities.

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