Sensory Processing and Autism: Part 2

Autism, Behavior, Sensory

Last week I talked about the basics of our sensory system and how our brain needs to take in all of that information, process it, assign it some meaning, and then respond appropriately for the situation.


For a quick recap, remember:


  • There are 5 basic senses (hearing, vision, touch, taste, and smell).
  • Three additional senses are also giving our brain information and impacting our ability to function.
  • The vestibular system works by providing our brain information that comes in from receptors in our inner ear.  It gives us important information about movement (our own and things moving around us), balance, and where we are in space.
  • The proprioceptive system works by providing our brain information primarily from our muscles and joints.  It is responsible for helping us with motor planning, how to apply the correct amount of force for an activity (picking up a fork, coloring with a crayon, hugging someone, etc), making adjustments to changes in weight (child jumping on your back), etc.


When our brain is aware of this information coming in, interprets it correctly, and we respond appropriately for that situation, we can do all of the things we need to do to function in our day.


However, there can be issues along the way, especially for our youngest kids with autism, limited language, and a limited number of appropriate responses.


Today I’ll tell you the MOST IMPORTANT THING to do BEFORE we assume our child has sensory differences.


In addition, I’ll cover how to know whether you need to address a particular sensory issue or not.


My Personal Disclaimer


I have been a special education teacher for 15 years and a Board Certified Behavior Analyst for 2 years and a mother of a child with ADHD for 13 years.


I’ve learned a lot about the sensory system and how it impacts learning and attention, however, I am not an expert.


If you are concerned about your child’s sensory issues or needs or how to build in activities to meet their needs, please consult a pediatric occupational therapist.  She or he can complete an evaluation on your child and give you recommendations based on their specific needs.


There is a lot of information on Google, Pinterest, Instagram, etc.


Therefore, it is very important that an expert is overseeing the needs of your child is experiencing sensory difficulties.


Rule Out Medical First


If you are noticing changes in your child’s behaviors and ability to tolerate activities and experiences, make sure to rule out any medical issues first.


If your child is covering their ears or pushing on their head a lot, make sure to rule out teething, headaches, ear infections, sinus infections, etc. before thinking it might be a sensory sensitivity to noises.


I push on my ears if I have a cold and my ears are driving me crazy or feel like they won’t pop.


I push on my temples or forehead when I have a headache.


In these two situations, I needed cold medicine or ibuprofen.  Not a consult with an occupational therapist.


If your child refuses all foods that aren’t pureed, make sure to rule out medical issues such as teething (and other dental issues), difficulties with swallowing/choking, reflux, food allergies, constipation/diarrhea, etc.


If your teeth hurt, you don’t want to eat.


If there is a history of choking, your child may refuse certain foods because they can’t safely chew and swallow them.


My youngest had pretty bad reflux when she was tiny.  She would cry and fuss and wouldn’t sleep.


She didn’t have a sensory issue — her insides hurt after she ate.  That went away when we fixed my diet, her positioning after eating, and some meds.


Make sure to discuss your concerns with your child’s pediatrician.  You’ll need to rule out potential medical issues before you can move forward with determining if your child has some sensory difficulties.


“Will My Child Always _______?”


I am asked this question a lot.


“Will my child always cover their ears?”


“Will my daughter always eat only five foods?”


“Will my son always need so much movement during the day?”


It’s very difficult to know and I don’t pretend to have a crystal ball.


What’s important to keep in mind are these two things —


  1. Almost all of us have some type of sensory issue or sensitivity.
  2. It is typical for our sensory systems and our responses to fluctuate!  We aren’t robots!


Next, ask yourself, “How much does this impact our day and my child’s ability to learn/function?”


Probably Doesn’t Matter


My son is very particular about his shirts.  He has been since he was 3.


He refuses to wear shirts that have a collar, pocket, buttons, zipper, anything.


He also refuses to wear shirts with sleeves.  T-shirts only for this kid.  No matter how cold it is outside.


This makes finding nice shirts for pictures difficult, but it doesn’t impact his ability to get through the day or to learn.


Could I have made him wear a bigger variety of shirts?  Sure!


But I didn’t care.  It wasn’t something that I needed to tackle.  He wears short-sleeved shirts year round.


Definitely Matters


As a student teacher, I worked with a family who had a little girl that had a lot of tantrums.


Mom couldn’t take her anywhere without having to leave early because the screaming and crying and hitting was too much.


I worked with this family privately during the summer to see if we could tackle some of these behaviors.


It turned out this little girl was extremely sensitive to sounds — and one sound in particular.


We saw the worst behaviors in the grocery store and couldn’t figure out why.  Mom and I walked around the store with her, playing a sensory system version of “hot and cold.”


Where was the behavior getting worse?  Were there places in the store the behaviors decreased?


Turns out, the tantrums got WAY worse towards the FRONT of the store.


She could not handle the beeping of the checkout registers.


Most of us can filter out those noises, but she could not and it impacted her mom’s ability to take her daughter to the grocery store and anywhere else that was noisy.


That had to be addressed and luckily, she was ok wearing headphones that blocked out a lot of the noise.


If your day is hugely impacted by your child’s sensory needs and sensitivities, it needs to be addressed.


If you are canceling vacation plans (or not making them at all), we want to address it!


If your child cannot go to the store with you, eat meals with the family, tolerate grooming activities, go to community activities, attend preschool or play groups, etc., we want to figure out how we can minimize the impact of the sensory difficulties and teach new skills!


Sensory Responsiveness


As we go throughout our day, our sensory system tries to stay as regulated as possible.  It wants to stay balanced — not responding too much or too little.  Filter out information we don’t need and respond to important information appropriately.


However, this can be very challenging for our youngest kiddos with autism and developmental delays.


Often our kids are either hypo-sensitive (under-responsive) or hyper-sensitive (over-responsive).  Sometimes it’s a mixture of both.


Twenty-One Senses has an excellent page that describes each of the senses and how it may look if your child is seeking out a lot of input through that sense or how it may look if they are more sensitive and tend to avoid input.


Looking Ahead…


Now that we have discussed the sensory system and where there can be issues, we are ready to move onto solutions!


Read my post on simple strategies to help with common sensory issues.


And remember, before assuming certain behaviors are related to sensory difficulties or differences, please consult with medical professionals that are familiar with your child and their medical history.  We need to rule out medical issues first!


If you need some more resources on the sensory system and sensory processing, you can find them here!


See you next week!



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