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The sensory world of autistic children

By Silinganisiwe Ndlovu

What is Autism?

Autism is a developmental condition that is often characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication and repetitive behaviours. Some children and adults with Autism are fully able to perform all activities of daily living while others require substantial support to perform basic activities.

Autism and Sensory Perceptions

Sensory input travels to the brain through our neural network, where it is interpreted and used to formulate a response.  The sensory opening usually occurs without serious thought. It operates in the background and most people never stop to ponder how their senses function. Even though there are a number of sensory systems active in our bodies the five common ones are sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.

A child with Autism experiences sights, sounds, touches, smells, tastes and gravity in a manner profoundly different from that of typically- developing children and adults. Every minute of daily life for a child on the autism spectrum can be a battle against invasive sensations that overwhelm their hyper-acute sensory systems. Or conversely, their senses may be hypo-active, requiring major effort to alert their bodies so that learning and social interaction can take place. Layered on top of that may be the inability to filter and process more than one sensory modality at a time.

Hypersensitive children

These children are oversensitive to input and are often overwhelmed thus always seek to avoid sensory input of touch, sight, hear, taste, sound and other senses as these often overwhelm them.

Hyposensitive Children

These children are under sensitive to stimulation, are sensation seeking and are always looking for more stimulation.

Some children do exhibit both hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. They may be oversensitive and avoiding to some sensations but seeking to others.

Sensory characteristics of autistic children and strategies that can be used to enhance their functioning.

Learners who are hypersensitive to light usually like bright colours and glare. This is because objects often appear dark, or lose some of their features, whilst hypersensitive children may squint or seem uncomfortable in sunlight and glare. They often have distorted vision whereby objects and bright lights appear and jump around, images appear fragmented thus making it easier and preferably to focus on detail rather than the whole object.

Such children can be assisted to function better by making changes to the environment such as reducing fluorescent lighting, providing sunglasses, using blackout curtains and or if at school by creating a workstation in the classroom with high walls or divides into both sides to block out visual distractions.

Sound Sensitivity

Some children are under-sensitive to sound thus sometimes only hear sounds in one ear, with the other only partially hearing or totally fail to acknowledge particular sounds, on the other hand, children who are hypersensitive to sound usually enjoy overcrowded noises places.

Such children can be assisted to function better through the use of visual supports to back up verbal information and ensuring that other people are aware of the under sensitivity so that they can communicate effectively. Another strategy that can be done so as to improve the person’s individual sensory need is that of including experiences they enjoy in their daily timetable.

Children who are hypersensitive to sound on the other hand often perceive magnified noises and sometimes sounds reach them in distorted and muddled forms, they are highly affected by noise as they cannot filter out unnecessary information, all the sounds are processed at the same time which may lead to information overload.

Children who are hypersensitive to sound often cover their ears when they hear certain sounds for example they easily get agitated by the noise made by the loan mower, whistle sound. Sometimes they totally avoid places where they experienced painful sounds for example refusing to go into a school where the siren went off in their presence. Sound sensitivity often causes anxiety, discomfort band physical pain for autistic children. Sounds normally not heard by others are often troublesome for autistic children and what could be considered as a normal amount of noise can be highly disturbing for autistic children.

Children who are sound sensitive can be assisted through shutting doors and windows so as to reduce external sounds, preparing them before taking them to noisy and crowded places, providing them with ear plugs and music so that they can listen. Such children can also be positioned away from doors and windows

Smell

Autistic children can be hypo sensitive to smell. This implies that they have no sense of smell and usually fail to notice extreme odours. Others exhibit licking habits whereby they may lick things to get a better sense of what they are. The sense of smell can also be highly sensitive for autistic children.  The smell of food, perfumes, aromas that are may go unnoticed by a majority of people can be unbearable and terrible for an autistic child. All the smells just get mixed up and traumatising for the child. Such smells and scents can result in nausea and headaches and it becomes terrible when the child has to bear them throughout the day or every day of their lives.

Hypersensitive children can be assisted through the creation of routines around regular washing and using strong-smelling products to distract people from inappropriate strong-smelling stimuli such as faeces. Those who are hypersensitive can be assisted by using unscented detergents or shampoos and making environments as fragrance-free as possible.

Taste

Autistic children who are hypersensitive to taste often like spicy foods, eat non-edible items such as soil, stones, dirt, faeces, grass, and metal. On the other hand, children who are hypersensitive to taste can hardly mouth certain food flavours.

Touch

Autistic children are sometimes hypo sensitive to touch. Such children often hold others tightly, can hardly sense pain, are sometimes unable to feel food in their mouths, often resort to hitting and harming themselves, often enjoy weighted objects for example being covered by very heavy blankets, sometimes smear faeces as a resulting of enjoying the texture.

They usually like chewing objects, especially inedible items. Children who are hypersensitive to touch on the other hand often experience extreme pain and discomfort when they are touched. They usually do not like being touched and this usually affects their relationship with other people. Wearing items on their feet and hands is often very uncomfortable and painful, they often have difficulties brushing and washing their hair because their heads are very sensitive. They also find certain food textures uncomfortable and can only tolerate certain types of clothing or textures.

When children are hypersensitive to touch especially those who smear faeces they can be assisted through the provision of alternative objects for them to handle such as jelly, cornflour and water. They can also be offered latex tubes to chew so as to divert them from eating inedible items. On the other hand, it is very important to warn those who are hypersensitive before touching them.

Textures can also be slowly introduced around their mouths for example flannels, toothbrushes and other varieties of material. Such children can also be allowed to complete such activities as hair brushing on their own so that they can do what is comfortable for them. Clothes can also be turned inside out so there are no seams and labels immediately removed from clothes. Such children can also be allowed to wear clothes they feel comfortable in.

Sensory activities that can be planned for autistic children

  • Chose a play activity that your child can lead, guide, or direct. This will act as a stimulus for the child to initiate play activity with anyone.
  • When you find something that works try to share it among all spheres of the child’s life. Ensure that there is consistency between school, home and other contexts so as to enhance retention and maximise the child’s success and self-confidence.
  • NB. Usually there is a gap between the child’s chronological age and their developmental age. Thus it is important that the age appropriate activities are chosen.
  • Avoid choosing activities that will overload or overwhelm the child’s sensory capacities for example mixing cookie dough in the kitchen is an ideal sensory activity but when it is done in the presence of many other family members it could be overwhelming and may lead to sensory overload.

Sensory Overload for Autistic children

Too much activity can also have detrimental effects on the Autistic child as it may lead to overstimulation and overload the already delicate senses of the child. Some indicators of overstimulation are:

  • The child loses balance or orientation
  • Verbalising of the word “stop” by the child
  • Refusal of activity by the child
  • Racing heartbeat or sudden drop in pulse
  • Hysteria
  • Stomach distress, cramps, nausea, vomiting
  • Profuse sweating
  • Agitation and anger
  • Child begins repeating echolalic phrases, or some familiar non-relevant phrase over and over again (self-calming)
  • Child lashes out, hits or bites

You can get in touch with Silinganisiwe Ndlovu on ndlovusling@gmail.com

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