Individuals on the Autism Spectrum often experience differences in the way they process sensory experiences. They typically experience sensory input more intensely than others. There can be a need for extra sensory input, or a need to reduce the sensory input that is being experienced intensely. This is for all types of senses. The pattern of sensory needs varies from person to person and the same stimulus that can be calming for some on the spectrum can cause distress for others.
This is a very common and difficult sense for those on the spectrum. Types of noises that are experienced as distressing can be loud noises, sudden noises, or chaotic noise. It could be a very specific noise, such as the noise a texta makes when writing on paper, or the noise of an egg being cracked. Wearing headphones in noisy environments can go a long way to reducing the distress caused by noises experienced as overwhelming. Those on the spectrum will often make noises of their own that are comforting to them such as rhythmic groaning or talking a lot about their area interest.
Those on the spectrum can be very sensitive to light, finding it unbearable to be exposed to too much. Other sights that may be upsetting include a lot of varied visual stimulus in the one place, such as the set-out of fruit and vegetables at the fruit shop, or all the sights at a fun fair or market. On the flip side, watching something in particular can be very comforting, such as a favourite movie or cartoon, or watching wheels on a toy car spin around.
There may be textures that are very uncomfortable for the individual to touch with their hands or any other skin. There may be aspects of clothing they find unbearable to wear, for example the scratchiness of wool, the feeling of a clothing label on the back of the neck, or the feeling of the seam in a sock against the skin of the toes. On the flip side, an individual on the spectrum may find stroking a particular texture very comforting, such as their mother’s arm, a pillow case, or a favourite soft toy.
Another aspect of touch is pressure. Often those on the spectrum will be calmed by the feeling of pressure, such as that experienced under a weighted blanket or a tight squeeze from a trusted person. Again, on the flip side, sometimes the individual requires the absolute absence of pressure, such as always wanting to wear shorts so as not to have any fabric on the legs, or wanting to wear loose clothing.
Individuals on the spectrum can be very fussy eaters. This can be due to needing routine and familiarity, but it is also commonly associated with the foods themselves. There may be some tastes the individual finds distressing or nauseating, and others they find comforting. There may also be textural issues, such as not enjoying some textures in the mouth (e.g. soft foods such as mash potato) or finding it distressing to mix textures of different foods in the mouth.
Those on the spectrum are often very sensitive to smell and can detect subtle smells that others can’t, such as rubbish in the bin or dampness in the walls of a house. Some people on the spectrum also enjoy smelling objects and foods as part of their perception of those objects.
Another feature of autism is difficulty with communication; it can be difficult for the person to explain what is wrong when they are experiencing sensory overload, or to explain their need for sensory input that may look unusual. If someone you know on the spectrum seems distressed and there is no obvious trigger, try to tune into sounds, sights and smells of which you are not immediately aware.
These sensory sensitivities are real and experienced intensely. The distress that can be caused by these experiences needs to be taken seriously, and accommodations made to allow the individual to escape the sensory input when it becomes overwhelming.
This blog was written by Dr Naomi Castelan, Clinical Psychologist at Your Mind Matters. Naomi is passionate about working with children and their families and provides early intervention support.
To learn more about Naomi, click here.