Autism and Sensory Processing

One in every 68 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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Autism affects the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Some common signs of ASD include difficulties with verbal and non-verbal communication, repetitive routines or rituals, and diminished social interest.

ASD affects people differently and to varying degrees. One with ASD might experience the world in a way that is intensely and uniquely different from another person without ASD. All children with ASD show signs of sensory problems, but they may be more pronounced for some than others. Problems with sensory processing–how the brain receives information, organizes it and makes sense of it–are common with ASD.

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Some children with ASD have difficulty tolerating the way things feel, smell, taste, look or sound. This can result in behaviours that are considered “typical” for autism – frequently putting their hands over their ears, closing their eyes tightly to block out visual stimuli, or rocking. Some children with ASD don’t like certain sensations and will avoid them at all costs – even when that means avoiding people.

ASD is diagnosed based on a set of criteria outlined in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-5), which states that sensory problems are either “extreme” or “not otherwise specified.”

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If a person has extreme sensory sensitivity, he may be over-responsive to the stimulation of his senses. He might get upset when it’s too noisy, blink away tears if there is too much light or cover his ears if someone comes up behind him and startles him. His nervous system might get “stuck” on certain types of stimuli and prompt a response long after it should have stopped, such as crying when the doorbell rings because he was startled by it earlier in the day.

Extreme sensitivity might include unusual responses to common things like getting dressed or bath time. For someone with ASD who is extremely sensitive, certain materials may be too scratchy against his skin; his socks may feel “funny” or even seem too tight. And he might get extremely upset if someone tries to help him put his clothes on because it just doesn’t feel right for him.

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People with under-responsiveness to sensory stimuli are less likely to show behaviours typically associated with ASD. But they often have trouble knowing how they feel, what they need, or how to communicate that. They may crave certain sensations or be very picky about the things they do – like activities and food – because every choice feels wrong.
Repetitive behaviours are sometimes related to sensory issues as well, especially under-responsiveness. Only doing certain activities might seem odd to others, but it seems “right” to the person with ASD, so he does it.

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For example, if someone is extremely sensitive to noise and finds loud restaurants overwhelming, he might only go out for ice cream because standing in line at a busy establishment is too much stimulus for him. But that means every time he wants ice cream, taking him there will be the only option.

What causes sensory problems in autism? Scientists don’t know yet, but some theories point to structural differences within the brain that make it difficult for a person with ASD to filter out certain stimuli and respond appropriately.

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There is no cure for ASD, but there are ways to manage symptoms. Occupational therapists can help by teaching people with ASD about their sensory issues and teaching them how to change their behaviour.

People with ASD can also greatly benefit from working with an animal that has been trained to help people who have challenges related to sensory processing disorder. Therapy dogs are wonderful assets for all children, but especially those on the autism spectrum. These dogs serve as calming influences both in home life and in public. They can help children remain calm and happy even when faced with sensory challenges that might cause them to react otherwise.

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