This post is part of my april autism series for autism acceptance month. Visit the first post here for links to the rest of the series!
In autism – and a myriad of other neurological conditions – the brain struggles to interpret input accurately, either over- or under-responding to it. That then naturally leads to reactive behaviors that can cause difficulties in social interaction and everyday functioning. As this is a topic that a person could spend their whole life studying, I’m going to settle here for briefly describing each sense, a few potential symptoms of dysfunction, and one or two corresponding coping tools. Where possible, I’ll share from my own experience, both personally and with family and friends. Conveniently, there are seven senses – so I’m linking up with Kelly for seven quick takes today!
- Auditory: The auditory system is responsible for the recognition and interpretation of sounds. Auditory processing dysfunction is distinct from hearing loss itself, and can present as a difficulty in discrimination between similar sounds, extreme sensitivity to noise, or conversely the desire for more noise in the environment. I personally am fairly sensitive to sound – loud noises (like a crowd or a concert or a loud restaurant) make me physically tense, a day with the kids will leave my ears literally throbbing, and I struggle to focus at work without some way to eliminate the irrelevant sounds around me. For a while I was jealous of Rondel’s over-ear headphones from the church special needs ministry, but a few months ago I started using Vibes ear plugs and have found it makes a significant difference. Reducing the amount of incoming sound reduces my brain’s automatic overreaction, and thus reduces my anxiety and tension from the music at church, increases my emotional margin as a parent, and helps me work with more efficiency and focus. I can’t eat with them in, but I can have conversations without significant loss of clarity, and for the help they give me it’s definitely worth it; I highly recommend them.
- Visual: As with the auditory system, visual processing is different than vision itself. For example, I have always had poor eyesight, but do not struggle with visual processing at all. People who do have visual processing dysfunction may find it difficult to keep their place while reading, distinguish between similar shapes/letters/numbers (as in dyslexia), find a specific object out of a group (like searching for Legos or puzzle pieces). Rondel has some difficulties with the visual aspects of reading, writing, and math – he reads backwards, flips or inverts letters and numbers, has trouble figuring out what word or problem comes next, and quickly shows signs of fatigue (slowing down, rubbing his eyes, etc.). After his preschool evaluation raised a red flag, we went to a optometry and vision therapy office and were prescribed a pair of magnifying glasses that help him a lot, so I’d recommend going to a professional if you suspect processing difficulties here. There are exercises that can help, but they typically require more knowledgeable guidance.
- Touch: The body has five different types of touch receptors: light touch, deep touch/pressure, heat, cold, and pain. Someone with tactile processing dysfunction could therefore be sensitive with regards to some of these receptors and not with others – or even by over-sensitive to some and under-responsive to others! This can manifest as very particular requirements for clothing (tight, loose, cotton, no tags, certain textures, etc.); dislike of being touched by other people; desire to stroke objects that feel certain ways; avoidance of messy play as a child; dislike of hair cuts, hair washing, and tooth brushing; engaging in potentially self-injurious behavior like scratching and head-banging; and so on. Personally, I am fairly normal with regards to heat, cold, and pain, but am very over-reactive to both light and deep touch. Something trivial that rubs me the wrong way (literally!) can bother me for hours – whether it is a hand on my shoulder at church, the grate of cutting a frozen strawberry or the pilling on an old shirt. And I am always slightly uncomfortably aware of everything I’m wearing, even my favorite and most accommodating clothes. What helps here? As far as I can tell, wearing clothes I can tolerate and choosing the most comfortable outfit possible for the situation – even when that means changing multiple times a day – helps a lot to minimize the strain. Having a fidget cube, clips, sticky tape, or some other texture to occupy my hands is also helpful – it distracts from other sensations and helps my system regulate emotionally and physically.
- Smell: People who are over-sensitive to smell will notice and be bothered by (or enjoy, it’s not all bad) smells that most people acclimate to or don’t notice in the first place. I have to leave the room and sometimes the house because of my husband’s personal care products – and he doesn’t even use cologne so nothing is supposed to be that scented (he doesn’t even smell his deodorant, and while he can smell the chapstick he isn’t bothered by it). There are certain people and places I struggle to enjoy being near simply because of the way they smell, because my body doesn’t adjust to it. Similarly, Rondel is very bothered by the smell of certain foods, even foods he likes to eat, and we’ve found that at those times it is helpful to light a candle (unscented or with a light scent we all enjoy) at the table to neutralize the aromas of the food.
- Taste: The stereotype of autistic individuals being extremely picky eaters comes from the frequency of sensory processing difficulties involving both taste and touch (the texture of food can be even more problematic than its taste for many people). Rondel and I can taste the differences between brands of the same food, sometimes disliking one while loving the other, and sometimes just needing time to incorporate the new brand into our mental repertoire. Some people, whose brains over-react to taste, might prefer bland or soft food; others might crave very hot, cold, spicy, or salty foods. For people with extreme reactions, it can be very difficult to even try new foods, since the potential physical response can be so unsettling. It doesn’t mean they are being difficult or resistant to change – they just have a very good reason to expect a new food to be an unpleasant experience. I do try to have Rondel taste new foods – but only at dinner, and only if I have reasonable cause to believe his sensory system won’t overreact to it (I’m never going to try to make him eat mashed squash at Thanksgiving, for instance). I also try to keep as many healthy and sensorily-acceptable options available as possible, so he doesn’t fall back on things like chips 🙂
- Proprioception: This is the body’s sense of itself and where it is in space. An individual who struggles with proprioception may run into things, hold things too tightly (potentially breaking them), kick and stomp, constantly climb on or hang from things, or play too roughly. What’s helpful here is to provide the deep touch and heavy activity that helps the brain identify the body clearly: to jump on a trampoline, to wrestle, to give bear hugs, and to lift, push, or pull heavy objects. Regulating the proprioceptive system that way can help calm someone who is anxious or upset, or can help prepare the body and brain for quiet focused activities that don’t stimulate the body enough for the dysfunctional proprioception to fully engage. In a way this is a lot like what all young children need – this is a system that takes time to develop, like the visual system, and dysfunction may not be apparent until a child is older.
- Vestibular: This system handles the brain’s perception and understanding of the body’s movements. So an under-responsive vestibular system will lead to cravings for wild, constant movement: spinning, swinging, fast and crazy amusement park rides, flipping upside down, and generally never holding still. Conversely, an over-responsive vestibular system may present as over-caution, a fear of heights, dislike of swings or rope ladders at the park, or a preference for sedentary activities (which can then lead to social struggles, unfortunately, as children can be mean to other children they perceive as “wimpy” or scared). Letting someone hold onto you when they are anxious about an activity that taxes their vestibular system can provide both physical and emotional support and give them a chance to experience something that would be challenging or impossible without that support (I’ve gotten to be that support several times and it is definitely a privilege) – but from what I’ve read there isn’t an easy solution here. Some things will improve with age and others may benefit from occupational therapy.
Links for additional reading:
- SPD Australia: Seven Senses: very detailed description of each sense and how dysfunction can manifest
- Understood: Understanding Visual Processing Issues: a great overview of visual processing difficulties
- Middletown Centre for Autism: Proprioceptive: a description of the proprioceptive system with a LOT of ideas for activities designed for a variety of situations and environments
- NSPT: Sensory Processing Disorder and the Olfactory System: the part about validating sensitivities, acknowledging emotions, and coming up with socially appropriate solutions is gold
Do you struggle with any aspects of sensory processing? What tools or techniques have been most helpful for you?