- Atypical sensory processing is associated with behavioral, emotional, and learning challenges.
- Supporting autistic children’s sensory needs improves their well-being and learning outcomes.
- Best practice recommendations for coping with atypical sensory processing include family and therapeutic input and individualized support.
Kanner, in his ground-breaking “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact” (1943), described numerous examples of atypical sensory processing in his case studies of autistic children, as well as how these transformed over time:
…Food is accepted without difficulty. Noises and motions are tolerated more than previously. The panic tantrums subside. The repetitiousness assumes the form of obsessive preoccupations (Kanner, 1943).
Sensory processing refers to how the brain receives information from the senses and decides how to respond to them with behavior.
Up to 96 percent of children on the autism spectrum experience atypical patterns of sensory sensitivity. (Schaff & Lane, 2015).
Atypical sensory processing has been associated with behavioral and emotional challenges (Baker et al., 2008), concentration challenges (Wodka et al., 2016), anxiety (Pfeiffer, 2003), or engaging in rituals as a way of controlling the environment and sensory input (e.g., disengaging from social activity and focusing on an object) (Courchesne et al., 1994).
In general, young persons on the autism spectrum may be slower to shift attention between visual stimuli in different locations (Belmonte & Yurgelun-Todd, 2003) and between visual and auditory stimuli (Courchesne et al., 1994). They may also be slower at recognizing auditory cues against background noise, such as in a classroom environment (Alcántara et al., 2004).
They may prefer neurologically more straightforward sensory stimulus that is predictable, repetitive, and static (Ashburner et al., 2014).
To date, there is limited evidence for therapies that enhance sensory stimulus with the aim of mediating sensory hypersensitivities, such as sensory-based interventions or sensory integration therapy (Ashburner et al., 2014).
Research shows greater support for working with individualized goals identified by families and supporting young persons on the autism spectrum to adapt and cope with specific environments (Dunn et al., 2012).
Interventions that support young persons on the autism spectrum in coping with sensory stimuli include ones that moderate their levels of arousal, so they are neither under-aroused (which is associated with inattentiveness) or over-aroused (which is associated with distractibility and hyperactivity) (Ashburner et al., 2014).
Exercise and movement breaks are evidence-based interventions found to be effective in regulating arousal. They have been associated with improvements in on-task behaviors and reductions in off-task and problematic behaviors (Lang et al., 2010).
Other interventions, such as using slow, linear, vestibular movements or using weighted objects, show mixed evidence and are suggested to be trailed with caution (Ashburner et al., 2014).
What I found most supportive in helping my child cope with sensory processing is being aware of his particular sensory needs and allocating for them. My son loves olfactory stimuli (e.g., roll-on essential oils, scented soaps, or fragrant putty) and craves movement (a vestibular need). Hence we find the use of fragrant stimuli and timeout on the hoverboard very calming.
Effective interventions for managing sensory processing reduce complex auditory and visual stimuli. They can range from making use of noise-canceling headphones, altering the child’s seating arrangement within the classroom to where verbal instructions are most audible, as well as making use of visuals to supplement verbal instructions, the transition between activities, and work through multiple-step activities (Milley & Machalicek, 2012).
Other evidence-based interventions for coping with the behavioral consequences of atypical sensory processing, such as avoidance, include gradual exposure, modeling, and positive reinforcement (Ashburner et al., 2014).
Every child on the autism spectrum has a unique combination of sensory needs, and for many young persons, atypical sensory processing is associated with poorer learning outcomes. Like best practice recommendations for any autism intervention, the biggest therapeutic impact is associated with an accepting environment, therapeutic and family input, and person-centered support for their individual needs.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Alcántara, Weisblatt, E. J. L., Moore, B. C. J., & Bolton, P. F. (2004). Speech-in-noise perception in high-functioning individuals with autism or Asperger’s syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45(6), 1107–1114. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2004.t01-1-00303.x
Ashburner, Rodger, S. A., Ziviani, J. M., & Hinder, E. A. (2014). Optimizing participation of children with autism spectrum disorder experiencing sensory challenges: a clinical reasoning framework. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy (1939), 81(1), 29–38.
Baker, Lane, A., Angley, M. T., & Young, R. L. (2007). The Relationship Between Sensory Processing Patterns and Behavioural Responsiveness in Autistic Disorder: A Pilot Study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(5), 867–875. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-007-0459-0
Belmonte, & Yurgelun-Todd, D. A. (2003). Functional anatomy of impaired selective attention and compensatory processing in autism. Brain Research. Cognitive Brain Research, 17(3), 651–664. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0926-6410(03)00189-7
Courchesne, Townsend, J., Akshoomoff, N. A., Saitoh, O., Yeung-Courchesne, R., Lincoln, A. J., James, H. E., Haas, R. H., Schreibman, L., & Lau, L. (1994). Impairment in Shifting Attention in Autistic and Cerebellar Patients. Behavioral Neuroscience, 108(5), 848–865. https://doi.org/10.1037/0735-7044.108.5.848
Dunn, Cox, J., Foster, L., Mische-Lawson, L., & Tanquary, J. (2012). Impact of a contextual intervention on child participation and parent competence among children with autism spectrum disorders: a pretest-posttest repeated-measures design. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 66(5), 520–528. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2012.004119
Kanner, Leo. “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact.” Nervous Child: Journal of Psychopathology, Psychotherapy, Mental Hygiene, and Guidance of the Child 2 (1943): 217–50.
Milley, & Machalicek, W. (2012). Decreasing Students’ Reliance on Adults: A Strategic Guide for Teachers of Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Intervention in School and Clinic, 48(2), 67–75. https://doi.org/10.1177/1053451212449739
Lang, Koegel, L. K., Ashbaugh, K., Regester, A., Ence, W., & Smith, W. (2010). Physical exercise and individuals with autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 4(4), 565–576. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2010.01.006
Pfeiffer. (2003). Sensory modulation and affective disorders in children and adolescents with Asperger syndrome. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Schaaf, & Miller, L. J. (2005). Occupational therapy using a sensory integrative approach for children with developmental disabilities. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 11(2), 143–148. https://doi.org/10.1002/mrdd.20067
Wodka, Puts, N. A. J., Mahone, E. M., Edden, R. A. E., Tommerdahl, M., & Mostofsky, S. H. (2016). The Role of Attention in Somatosensory Processing: A Multi-trait, Multi-method Analysis. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(10), 3232–3241. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-016-2866-6