Sensory Processing Sensitivities

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Sensory processing is the way in which people process information. We all take information in through our senses – touch, movement, smell, taste, sight, hearing and balance.

Sensitivities to sensory stimuli are common in children with Autism. There are two different ways children respond to sensory based experiences.

A child may be hypersensitive which means they are over responsive and their senses are too heightened to sensory stimuli. Children who are sensory avoiders are referred to as being hypersensitive.

Hyposensitivity relates to children who are under sensitive and often seek sensory input as their senses may be barely working at all.

Sensory problems are difficult to get our head around at first because they contradict themselves at every turn.

Sensory causes and strategies

Hypersensitivity

Sight

  • Can be sensitive to bright lights so educators may need to let child wear hat or sunglasses inside. Also ensure that all lights work properly. A flickering light may not be noticeable to others but can be very distracting to a person with sensory processing disorders
  • Can be overwhelmed and uncomfortable in a room with too much stimuli, colours and clutter. Ensure the environment is calming and has uncluttered spaces with neutral colours.

 

Auditory

  • Noises from air conditioners, vacuum cleaners or a far off train can cause sensitivity and distraction. Where possible warn children in advance about unexpected sounds and be aware of how they are affecting the child
  • Unexpected noises like cries or screams can be distressing so offering children head phones or time outside is necessary (take out a small group to ensure ratios are maintained).

 

Touch

  • Can strongly dislike being touched by others so consider where the child is placed when in lines or group times
  • May avoid getting their hands dirty so encourage but don’t force
  • Can feel uncomfortable with clothing tags or in particular clothing so ensure they always have a spare change of clothes in their bags.

 

Smell & Taste

  • Has a limited diet so offer lots of praise and encouragement for trying new foods
  • May detect smells that others don’t notice or gag at the smell and taste of certain foods. Working with the child’s OT and family is essential. Look out for a change in a child’s behaviour when cooking or when new people wearing strong perfumes enter rooms.

Hyposensitivity

Sight

  • May flap hands or objects in front of eyes, or watch repetitive movements like running water or fans spinning, so use these types of sensory toys (eg fan with flashing lights) as a reward or to settle
  • Can fixate on certain images and bright colours so visual media can be a great way to engage the child. Educators can also grab their attention by wearing some novelty glasses
  • May use their peripheral vision to stare at or down objects. Will often line those objects up. Play parallel to the child, colour coding or lining objects up by size to support learning.

 

Auditory

  • Seeks out and makes repetitive sounds, so use music, song, and rhythm to teach curriculum areas like ABCs and counting
  • May not notice surrounding noises like children screaming but can be distressed by loud or sudden sounds such as a siren or a vacuum. Help the child to identify noises that make them uncomfortable by using visuals. Point to the quiet visual when sounds become too much
  • May fixate on certain songs and tunes so ensure you give children time to focus before giving directions
  • Will not always respond when being called or given instructions so vary tone and volume to maintain children’s attention.

Touch

  • Enjoys sensory play. Include lots of finger-painting, sand, salt, shaving cream
  • Constantly touches everything, including other children. Role model appropriate physical contact with peers
  • May not realise they bump into objects and are not always aware when they get hurt. Can appear insensitive to pain. Ensure close supervision so educators are aware if child injures themselves.

 

Smell & Taste

  • May explore objects by smell or taste. Bring lots of sensory materials into the room and place them near during other experiences to support child’s participation
  • Enjoys food with strong flavours or textures. May also eat different substances like glues, play dough and sand so ensure only non-toxic materials are used
  • May not easily detect odours so monitor older children’s hygiene and work closely with families.

Things we take for granted become a huge problem for a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Imagine if all the voices you heard were really loud to the point of hurting your ears. How would you feel if you jumped in fright every time a door shut because you were over sensitive to sounds?

It’s important we identify how a child processes information so that we can put clear plans in place to minimise a child having a sensory meltdown.


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