Autism Files: sensory processing

It has been a while since I wrote on Autism. It was not intentional.

I’m going to write today about one of my keenest areas of interest when it comes to Autism Spectrum Conditions. Sensory processing.

What does that mean to you I wonder? It certainly isn’t something that I had come across before I started working in this field, and to my knowledge it isn’t really something that comes up regularly in every day conversations.

We all know that people have 5 senses: touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing. I’m going to refer to them as tactile, gustatory, visual, olfactory and auditory respectively as those are the words we use when we talk about processing through the senses. There are two other areas of sensory processing known as proprioception and vestibular, but I’ll come back to those later.

People process through their senses differently. Have you ever had that argument with someone that goes ‘it’s burgundy’, ‘no it isn’t it’s brick red’, ‘no, definitely burgundy, there’s something wrong with your eyes’ ‘my eyes? I’m telling you, it’s brick red!’… etc. For the majority of people the differences are subtle, but in particular with visual, olfactory and gustatory senses there seem to be differences between the way people process and interpret the information through their senses.

For people with Autism these differences are usually much bigger and sometimes the information coming in through the senses seems somehow distorted or magnified out of proportion. This distortion is usually referred to as hyper or hypo sensitivity, or in other words, more than or less than what it should be. For example hyper-sensitivity auditory processing could mean that the individual will hear sounds that others can’t hear, e.g. people walking down the next street, emergency vehicles across the other side of town or air conditioning units. Auditory hypersensitivity can also mean that certain frequencies are painful for the individual to hear. This could be particular pitches in music, the tones of someone’s voice or specific sounds such as the typing of a keyboard or the hum of electric lights.

Auditory sensitivity is probably the most prevalent sensory processing difficulty that I’ve come across. For some individuals it causes unending distress and anxiety and sometimes even fear. Can you imagine what it would be like to sit in an office and hear (louder than usual) every pen scratching, the typing of every keyboard, the sound of the computers whirring, the heating unit, the lights, the cars going past, people walking in clicking high heals, voices, coughs, humming, doors closing… Even just describing it makes me feel weary and yet this is the kind of world that some people have to live in every single day.

On top of all that, and the same kinds of sensitivities exist for all the five senses, some people experience extreme hypersensitivity where there seems to be almost a kind of blurring or distortion of their senses. I once heard a girl speak about how she can hear movement. She said that when someone walks past her she can hear a whooshing sound. She said that when she wiggled her fingers in front of her face she could hear them moving through the air. I am not a scientist so I don’t know how that works, but what I do know is how completely exhausting it would be to live in a world where everything made a noise. Have you ever seen people with Autism covering their ears, or wearing headphones? Well, now you know why.

A lot of what working with people with Autism looks like is managing sensory processing. This is two-fold. Firstly putting strategies in place to structure the environment and secondly working with the individual to give them strategies that they can use to manage their difficulties. So, for example, if someone experiences tactile hypersensitivity, firstly people around them would refrain from making accidental physical contact as much as possible, the individual wouldn’t be asked to do things that were known to upset them such as getting their hands messy or dirty and things like the types of clothing they wore would be carefully managed to ensure that their sensitivities were not pushed as much as possible. Secondly it would be possible to look at a number of different strategies to help reduce the sensitivity that the individual felt, such as using weighted blankets for the pressure, introducing tactile experiences into sessions or classes such as playing with different textured objects and fabrics and using massage, foot spas and holding weights.

I will return to this topic again because there is so much to say. So watch out for posts of using coloured lenses to reduce hyper-sensitivities and information on vestibular and proprioceptive processing.

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2 thoughts on “Autism Files: sensory processing

  1. Well explained. In times of illness we can all get heightened sensitivities – things can hurt our skin, and for me noise is magnified. It is a small glimpse of what it must be like to live in such a world for those with autism

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