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In addition to the ‘triad of impairments’ people with autism commonly have difficulty processing what they sense. Sensory processing difficulties vary greatly from one person to another. At any time an individual's senses can either intensified (over-sensitive or hyper sensitive) or underdeveloped (under-sensitive or hypo sensitive).
Sensory processing "gives meaning to what is experienced by sifting through all the information and selecting what to focus on (such as listening to a teacher and ignoring the noise of outside traffic)... It allows us to act or respond to the situation we are experiencing in a purposeful manner (known as an adaptive response. It forms the underlying foundation for academic learning and social behaviour." Sensory Integration Network UK & Ireland
Penny, age 14, had said that when people bumped into her, or their bag touched her legs she found it very sore and sometimes this resulted in incidents in the corridor when Penny retaliated. She found it less stressful to move to her next class 5 minutes before the end of each period.
Hypo or hyper sensitivity may cause individuals with autism to seek or avoid sensory stimulation, in the areas of tactile, visual, auditory, taste, smell, body movements and positions.
Robert found it difficult to concentrate in class on a daily basis as he was always afraid the fire alarm would go off and 'hurt his ears'.
Sensory processing difficulties will cause a great deal of stress and anxiety for pupils with autism. It is often a major factor in difficult or unusual behaviour. For many individuals who cannot communicate how they are feeling, reactions to sensory input may be interpreted as challenging behaviour.
Sara has very little verbal language. It took a long time for staff to realise that rather than being upset for 'no apparent reason', Sara could hear a dog barking every time someone walked past its garden, adjacent to the playground, and Sara was afraid of dogs
Tom was 4 yrs. Mum and staff in nursery were very concerned at Tom's limited diet as he would only eat white food - preferably smooth, and 'pale toast' had to be warmed in toaster but no colour!
Children who have difficulties with sensory processing may have issues with motor co-ordination. They may have problems with fine motor skills which are required for activities such as writing, playing instruments, crafts and self care skills such as tying shoelaces, doing zips and buttons. Difficulties with gross motor skills for sitting, running and skipping will influence abilities in activities such as dressing, dancing, riding a bike, P.E. and other sports.
Sensory systems include:
The auditory system is responsible for the ability to locate sounds, discriminate between different sounds, and contributes to attention, understanding and communication skills.
A young person may become very stressed in a noisy environment, or cover ears to block out certain noises
The visual system is responsible for navigating and judging speed and distance of objects.
A young person might like bright colours, or cover their eyes in sunlight
The sense of smell is important in development of food preferences. Due to the way smell is processed this it is also responsible for creating memories and activating emotions which may directly influence our choices and preferences.
A young person might sniff everything, or complain about smells.
The gustatory system provides information about tastes such as sweet, sour, salty and bitter. This is essential to ensure harmful subtances are not ingested, and in the development of eating and drinking.
A young person might eat only food of certain textures or colours or taste
The tactile system is the largest sensory system, and the skin has many different receptors for receiving information about touch, pressure, texture, temperature and pain
A young person might like to feel different textures, or may not like labels on the inside of clothes; might want to wear warm clothes in summer heat, or not feel the cold and wear shorts in winter; might ignore or have delayed response to pain, but over-react to gentle nudge
Receptors in the inner ear provide information about body position in relation to gravity. This is important for the development of balance, coordination and physical acivities such as running and climbing.
A young person might seem clumsy or uncoordinated.
The proprioceptive system refers to information received from receptors in the joints about body awareness, motor planning and carryimg out everyday tasks involving motor skills
A young person might have difficulty staying in own space, or have fine motor difficulties.