Sense and sensitivity


How we can understand and support sensory perception difficulties in children with autism

Many of us who live and work with children who have autism are well aware that they perceive the world very differently to those of us who do not have autism. Yet we may give this very little thought as we strive to support the social communication, interaction and imagination needs we most commonly associate with the condition. However, these perceptual differences can have a significant effect on a child’s behaviour and concentration levels, and can severely impact on his/her capacity to learn.

While the sensory systems may be functioning normally, the brain can misinterpret the signals it receives

We all perceive through our senses; our brains receive and interpret signals from our sensory organs, such as eyes and ears, so that we can make sense of the world. For children with autism, though, while the sensory systems may be functioning normally, the brain can misinterpret the signals it receives from them, causing the world to be perceived very differently. Accounts from people who have autism suggest that, most commonly, children are either hypersensitive and perceive the world at a very high level of intensity (sitting down can feel like falling and a tickle may feel like a punch), or they are hyposensitive and perceive the world at a very low level of intensity (food can have very little taste and hot and cold may feel the same).

Children with these sensory perception difficulties learn how to self-regulate the sensory input they receive. Self-regulation is something we all do, perhaps by chewing a pen or playing with our hair. But children with sensory perception difficulties can have much more intense levels of sensory input, so their methods of self regulation can also seem much more intense. Those who are hypersensitive become “avoiders” and spend the majority of their time trying to avoid the sensory input that, for them, is painful or distressing. Those who are hyposensitive become “seekers” and generally search for the sensory input they are craving. Either way, the results often include unusual, extreme or unpredictable behaviour and a lack of focus on the task in hand.

In order to get a better understanding of what these children might be experiencing, think about how you would feel and act if, as someone who hates spiders, you were told that you had to sit in a room full of them, or if, as a caffeine addict, you were not allowed to have a cup of coffee. In the first scenario, you might cover your eyes, refuse to enter the room, or decide to kill all the spiders. In the second scenario, you might pace up and down, leave the room in search of a coffee machine or find yourself constantly thinking about coffee. These behaviours (withdrawal, refusal, aggression, repetitive actions, absconding and distraction) are exactly the same types of behaviour that children with sensory perception difficulties routinely display. While we may see their behaviour as challenging, for some people the sound of a vacuum cleaner or a certain type of fabric touching their skin is their equivalent to a room full of spiders, or, perhaps, the taste of salt or jumping on a trampoline is their equivalent to having a cup of coffee. They are not being deliberately naughty or defiant; they are simply self-regulating their sensory input, and if they are unable to do so, it will become the centre of their focus to the detriment of everything else.

When children have sensory perception difficulties, it can be obvious from their behaviour what the difficulty is. For example, if they constantly have their fingers in their ears, it is likely that they are perceiving sounds at a hypersensitive level. Yet sometimes, the cause may be less obvious. It may even be that they are trying to self-regulate sensory input that we haven’t perceived ourselves. Children who are hypersensitive might have toileting difficulties, for example, because they have issues with the smell of the toilet. They might find assemblies difficult because of the feel of the wooden floor on their bottom, or they might appear to dislike someone because of the pattern on their shirt. Children who are hyposensitive, on the other hand, might bite, hit, flick, run, climb or spin in order to gain sensory input.

There are, though, lots of things we can do to support children with sensory perception difficulties. If you are unsure what the areas of difficulty are, you should refer to a qualified professional, such as an occupational therapist, who is trained in identifying and supporting sensory perception difficulties. Depending on the child’s level of ability, you can also ask him/her questions about what sensory experiences they find difficult.

It is important to accept that the child has a genuine need and, if necessary, make allowances

It is important to accept that the child has a genuine need and, if necessary, make allowances. Don’t insist that they sit through the whole of assembly; allow them to go for a walk or a run around the playground during a lesson and then return to their work. Surely it is better to have a child work for ten minutes, run around for five minutes and then work for a further ten minutes, rather than having a child who is unable to work at all for 25 minutes because they need to self-regulate.

You can incorporate sensory sessions into the day to enable input through a number of different sensory systems, for example, by playing with sensory toys, water or sand. You need to ensure that children have ready access to any equipment they might need to help them self-regulate in a more socially acceptable manner. So things like ear defenders and wobble cushions need to be out and readily available.

You should never try to completely stop a child from carrying out self regulatory behaviour. If such behaviour is quite disruptive, you will need to set clear boundaries about when, where and for how long it can be carried out. In school, you might agree that a child is not allowed to throw his/her koosh ball during lessons, but that s/he can do so for five minutes in the playground between lessons. At home, a child may only be allowed to spin around for five minutes at any one time, and only in their own bedroom. The child will need to be supported in understanding these boundaries, and visual supports, such as symbols, visual schedules and a kitchen timer can be very useful. Setting boundaries in this way will reduce the child’s level of anxiety about when they will be able to self-regulate and ameliorate the need for them to constantly avoid or seek out sensory input.

As we have seen, the impact of sensory perception difficulties on children with autism can be immense. However, by supporting children with this area of difficulty, in the same way that we support them with the other areas of difficulties that we more commonly associate with autism, we can reduce their anxiety and significantly increase their capacity to learn.

Further information

Janis Rogers worked as special needs teacher and head teacher for many years. She now provides training, consultancy and support on SEN and autism:

Janis Rogers
Author: Janis Rogers

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