Understanding the Sensory Needs of Children with Autism

Autism brings many challenges with it. One of the most important aspects of managing autism is addressing the sensory needs of the child. If sensory needs are addressed continually, they play are crucial role in the child’s comfort, learning and overall development.

Keen Observation

The first step in understanding the sensory needs of the child is to observe and see how the child’s environment is impacting the child. Keen observations help therapists devise an intervention plan that meets those needs adequately. It is also beneficial for parents to become keen observers of the child’s response to his environment to maintain a calm and regulated space for them at home.

Identifying Sensory Concerns

  • Is there a particular sound or smell that unsettles the child?
  • Is he/she happy to spend a long time on a swing?
  • Perhaps, they enjoy giving tight hugs to people?
  • Does the child cover his ears when he/she hears loud noises?
  • Are they grinding their teeth all the time?
  • Does the child seem interested in running, jumping, or climbing on things?
  • Do they avoid some textures of clothing?

Understanding the Sensory System

Our sensory system has 8 sub-systems that impact our mind and body. When these sub-systems interact with each other, they give multi-sensory feedback to our brain. The autistic brain encounters challenges in processing this multi-sensory feedback

External Sensory System:

Visual – Sensory feedback received from our eyes – Some children are bothered by bright lights and a colourful environment. While others find bright lights and colourful space very comfortable to be in. Observe which the kid prefers. A calming visual environment is more conducive to learning.

Auditory – Sensory feedback received from our ears – Have you ever noticed how some people get startled if they hear a strange sound or how coming kids coming running to the door when the doorbell rings! Observing the child’s auditory preferences help therapists and parents design learning activities based on their preferences.

Tactile – Sensory feedback received by touching – Different textures have their own look and feel. Offering a range of textures in clothing, toys, and other objects can help, as can avoiding forced contact with distressing textures.

Olfactory – Sensory feedback received from our noseAvoiding aversive smells in an automatic reaction in people but there are certain smells that are distressing to some people and comforting to others. For therapeutic interventions to work efficiently, a neutral smelling environment is preferable. For children who are more sensitive to smells, a neutral smelling home environment needs to be maintained.

Gustatory – Sensory feedback received from our tongue – Feeding problems are very common in some autistic children. They have certain oro-motor sensitivities that makes them defensive from certain food textures. This is a specialized area therapy and requires qualified experts to create a customized oral motor plan for the child.

Illustration showing the 5 external sensory systems

Internal Sensory System

Internal organs of the body also provide sensory feedback to the brain, there are 3 main internal sensory systems:

Vestibular – The vestibular system regulates our sense of balance and co-ordination. Our sense of motion, speed regulation and our sense of gravity, everything is controlled by the vestibular system. Its receptors are in our middle ear.

Proprioception – Proprioception also known as Kinesthesis, is our body’s ability to sense movement, action, and location. It is present in every muscle movement we make. Proprioception enables us to think which body part to move and in which direction and is crucial to our motor planning.

Interoception – This sense helps one understand and feel what’s going on inside the body, such as hunger, thirst, and the need to use the restroom. Teaching and using visual aids or schedules can help children recognize and respond to these internal cues.

Illustration showing the 5 interna sensory systems

Sensory Integration is crucial to the growth and development of children with physical or mental disabilities. Structured and regular occupational therapy can help children with overall body regulation which promotes a calm state of mind, focused learning and socially appropriate behavior.

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