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Sensory Issues And Autism

Chocolate seeping into a cavity or the pungent odor of a dead skunk - they both send our senses reeling.  But what about the sound of flourescent lights, the feel of socks donned hours ago, or annoying carpet patterns?  Typically, the brain filters out bothersome stimuli. But for autists, the brain may not organize stimuli as well nor filter  out stimuli that would drive most of us crazy. Easy tasks, like wearing a shirt, making eye contact, or writing, can become a violent showdown.

Whether hyposensitive (needing extra stimuli) or hypersensitive (needing less stimuli), autists battle their senses everyday.  The hyposensitive kids can appear rough, clumsy or loud.  The hypersensitive kids prefer low volumes, darker areas, and may dislike clothing. 

While the five senses get bombarded, the other senses, such as the vestibular system, can be more dysfunctional. If you get carsick, you are well aware of your vestibular system.  It detects changes in balance and is closely related to vision. An autist may trip easily or fall out of his chair at school.

Another affected sense, the proprioceptive system, tells our bodies to compensate for changes in our balance and our environment. This system is closely related to fine motor skills and coordination and tells us how far to reach for an object, how hard to squeeze a glass while drinking, and the correct pressure for stroking a pet.  Autists may write too hard; grip, squeeze or twist her toys agressively, or talk too loud. She may be unable to make her fingers use scissors, buttons, zippers, or eating utensils. She may know  how to ride a bike, but can't get her legs to do the work.

Also on the battlefield is the oral sense, which helps us to blow, suck, whistle, speak, chew, eat and drink.

Sensory Integration Activities should be a part of your plan of attack.  They are as varied as autistic children themselves, but here are some tips to take, tweak, or toss:

For head banging, try deep pressure activities on the body or face; crawling over large stuffed animals, jumping/ landing on soft cushions; climbing into small spaces, wrapping up in weighted blankets or vests; rolling on a theraputic ball and getting 'squished' by the ball too! Running, jumping, and rolling downhill strengthen the vestibular senses. Walking while carrying objects can improve balance.

A child who rocks herself may enjoy swinging, jumping, roller coasters, merry-go-rounds; activities inwhich she is in motion.  Hand flappers might enjoy music and drumming objects or shaking small instruments and/or stuffed animals to a beat. You might even try a metronome.

Sensory integrations worthy of your arsenal combine both touch and sound such as: running fingers through containers filled with beads, beans, small plastic shapes, packing peanuts, smooth stones, foam cut outs, sand, or even gravel.  Water provides excellent opportunities for integration. Dunking objects into the kitchen sink provides smooth and wet surfaces; the child can control the sound and splash as items are dropped into the sink. Bathing or swimming is a fabulous full body sensory integration. Your child may also enjoy arts, crafts, constructing, using a mouse, or digging with sticks in the dirt.

Oral senses can be strenthened by blowing pinwheels, bubbles, a pencil across a table, cotton balls, using a straw, imitating facial expressions and mouth noises. There are a number of different types of therapeutical eating supplies.

If your child struggles terribly getting her muscles to do what her mind wants them to, break each activity into baby steps. Your first step might just strengthen the muscles needed for the activity.  For example, building hand and finger strength with play dough long before learning to write, can help ensure success. With time, a big dose of patience and practice, you can help your autist build a peace treaty with her senses! 

Annie Eskeldson writes for families of very young autists and has 2 published children's books: 
Ashi's Gift and the sequel Ashi: In a Class all by Myself.  Visit  for more details.

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Comment by Annie Eskeldson on April 3, 2011 at 4:07am
Hi Pavarti! Thanks for reading my blog. So glad to have encouragement from an expert!!

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