sensory-problems-in-autism

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects behavior, emotions, and sensory processing in various ways. Many children and individuals with Autism have issues with sensory problems, such as aversion to things that overstimulate their senses, namely loud environments, bright lights, or intense smells. These sensory problems are, in fact, now listed as some of the criteria for diagnosing Autism.

Understanding Autism

Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a range of neurodevelopmental disorders that impact social, behavioral, and communicative abilities. Usually defined by a certain set of behaviors that affects people differently and to varying degrees, children with Autism often have trouble communicating with others owing to neurological disturbances. This makes it hard for them to form relationships too. 

Characteristic behaviors

Autism typically appears during early childhood and can impact a person’s self-regulation and interpersonal skills. Many children show a sudden increase in a particular movement when they are experiencing a sensory difficulty, so they might jump, spin, or even crash into things. Similar behaviors like hand flapping, making repetitive noises or rocking back and forth, or even talking faster and louder (or not talking at all) can be seen.

In a nutshell, here are some of the characteristic behaviors observed:

  • Persistent differences in communication and social interaction across different environments
  • Having trouble understanding nonverbal communication
  • Difficulty making and keeping friends
  • Difficulty maintaining a typical back-and-forth conversational style
  • Restricted and repetitive behavior, patterns, and activities, such as repeating sounds or phrases, difficulty with transition or routine, intense interests, extreme sensitivity to various sensory stimuli

According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, these features of Autism could be present in early childhood but may not entirely manifest until social demands exceed the person’s capacity to cope with them.

Autism and sensory issues

The term ‘sensory processing issues’ refers to a collection of challenges related to our senses, and was first identified by occupational therapist A. Jean Ayres in the 1970s. These challenges occur when the senses fail to respond properly to the sensory information that the individual perceives, i.e. things that one can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. This difficulty to integrate information from the senses may cause the individual to be overwhelmed or confused. 

Sensory difficulties and related disorders include Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Schizophrenia, sleep disorders, developmental delay, and traumatic brain injury. Of these, a significant number of children with altered sensory processing fall on the Autism spectrum. They tend to have modified neural pathways in their brain, responsible for processing sensory information, although the exact cause of sensory issues in children is not entirely clear. 

Researchers believe that this cause could be linked to the way the sensory pathways in the brain process and organize information. Sensory processing difficulties are common in autistic people, but less is known about whether sensory issues occur entirely on their own, or whether they are caused by some other disorder. Some doctors and healthcare professionals believe that sensory processing issues might be a symptom of another issue, rather than a diagnosis in itself.

Sensory Processing Disorder

While we’ve established that a change in environment can easily trigger a child’s sensory difficulties, children with sensory issues could be hyposensitive or hypersensitive. Some kids need more sensory stimulation, while other kids avoid strong sensory stimulation since they get overwhelmed easily. 

That said, having sensory processing issues isn’t the same thing as having Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, sensory challenges are a key symptom of Autism in many cases. Another neurological disorder where individuals give abnormal responses to sensory information as perceived by them, is the Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). This condition affects how your brain processes stimuli and can affect all your senses, or even just one. Having SPD indicates that you’re overly sensitive to stimuli that other people are not. 

Symptoms and characteristics

The symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder might affect everyone differently. Responses can also range from over- to under-responsive towards certain sensory information. Some children with SPD could react to the sound of cars excessively, causing them to vomit, while some others might react to being touched and might even scream. On the other hand, it’s also possible to have extreme reactions to certain textures or foods.

There is also a possibility that some children may not be responsive to any of the stimuli around them. They might not respond to extreme stimuli, like extreme heat, cold, or even pain. Here are some sensory overload symptoms:

  • Being easily overwhelmed by places and people
  • Being easily startled by sudden noises
  • Being bothered by bright light
  • Refusing to try new foods
  • Insistence on eating only certain foods and sticking to a limited diet 

It’s crucial to note that Sensory Processing Disorder isn’t officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). There is a lack of research-based evidence to support a diagnosis of this disorder on its own since many doctors and experts believe that sensory issues are actually a component of a different condition or disorder.

Sensory integration and Autism

Sensory integration is a term used to describe the processes in our brain that allow us to take in the information that we receive from our five senses, and how it is organized and responded to. Simply put, this means how we experience, interpret and react to (or ignore) information coming from our senses. Sensory integration is important in all the things that we need to do on a daily basis, such as getting dressed, eating, moving around, socializing, learning, and working. Babies smelling their food as they bring it to their mouth and then tasting it, is also another great example of sensory integration.

Sensory integration activities for Autism can prompt the brain to process sensory information more effectively, thereby helping the child respond more appropriately to the environment. Sensory play involves games and activities that stimulate the five senses: sound, sight, smell, taste, and touch.  Here are some sensory play activities recommended for Autism:

  1. Creating a safe space that can help the child deal with sensory processing issues. You can do this by blocking off a corner of a room and using soft furnishings with a variety of textures, or just using a big comfy bean bag! This is an important step in assisting the child to recognize strategies that work for his/her specific needs.
  2. Put a sensory box in the sensory corner for your child to explore or fiddle with, and fill it with objects with different textures and weights. Playing with or touching these objects could be soothing for an overstimulated child, or may calm a child who is wound up and sensory-seeking.
  3. Heavy work activities or proprioceptive activities like pushing a trolley, sweeping the yard, or digging in the garden, help your child to really “feel” their muscles and joints working when involved in such an activity. Weighted vests, weighted blankets, and lap blankets are also effective ways to give passive proprioceptive input.
  4. Finger painting with food and edible items, can help a child’s sensory development and makes for a great training exercise before they start writing.
  5. Making your own slime or playing with scented playdough lets your child explore sensory play, while also developing their fine motor skills.
  6. Making your own musical instruments can stimulate the brain to make new connections and strengthen the existing ones; this can lead to improved mental health and increased cognitive ability.

FAQs

  • What are examples of sensory issues?

  • Being easily overwhelmed by new places and people
  • Being overwhelmed in noisy places
  • Seeking quiet spots in crowded environments
  • Being easily startled by sudden noises
  • Refusing to wear clothes that tend to feel itchy
  • Do sensory issues indicate Autism?

Given that sensory issues affect how your brain processes stimuli, sensory issues are surely known to be a key symptom of Autism. Many people on the Autism spectrum experience similar difficulties, however, it is best that a medical practitioner studies the child’s developmental history and behavior in order to make a diagnosis. 

  • How do I know if my child has sensory issues?

If your child has a hard time gathering and interpreting sensory inputs such as participating in conversation, connecting with others’ thoughts or feelings, and facing difficulty with reading others’ body language and facial expressions well, these are possible indicators of sensory issues. Moreover, difficulty with balance and coordination, screaming, being aggressive when wanting attention, or jumping up and down frequently, can be indicators as well.

  • What is a sensory meltdown?

A sensory meltdown is a fight, flight, or freeze response to a sensory overload, which could be in the form of physical flailing, withdrawing from spaces and events where their peers are present, yelling, crying, kicking, and more. Often mistaken for a tantrum or misbehavior, sensory overload can occur just about anywhere. It can especially play out in newer environments where your child is most sensitive to the sensory information they’re receiving.

  • How do you fix sensory issues?

Treatment for sensory issues is usually done through therapy. Research shows that starting therapy early is key for treating SPD, and can help children learn how to manage their challenges. Therapy sessions need to be led by a trained therapist.

  • Is sensory overload Autism?

Sensory overload is when a person’s senses are overstimulated by outside stimuli. While this can happen to virtually anyone, this sensation is most commonly seen in people who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Sensory Processing Disorder, or other neurodevelopmental disorders, and is even included in the diagnostic criteria for Autism spectrum disorder. The two concepts are not synonymous.

Our senses tell us a great deal about the world around us — through smells, sights, and sounds, and most importantly, how we can be safe. If your child has a hard time gathering and interpreting those sensory inputs, they may show signs of sensory issues. This may include difficulty with balance and coordination, screaming, being aggressive when wanting attention, or jumping up and down frequently. A wide spectrum of treatments is available for children with Autism, such as Occupational Therapy, Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Stem Cell Therapy that can help the child to pick up the skills they need in order to function optimally. 

To conclude, such treatments will help children as well as adults who have sensory issues, to learn to cope with the world around them. The goal of the treatment is and should be to reduce overreactions and to find better outlets for their sensory experiences for a healthier, more positive attitude to life.

Dr Na'eem Sadiq is a respected stem cell specialist at Plexus, and a prominent neurologist in Bangalore. He studied neurology and clinical neurophysiology in London, and worked with some of the most prestigious medical institutions in England, and the Middle East. He completed his MBBS at Bellary Government Medical College, and a postgraduate degree in psychiatry from NIMHANS in Bangalore.

Dr Na'eem has perfected his knowledge and expertise in Continuing medical education (CME), and training in tissue culture, Stem Cell Therapy, and neurology. Dr Na'eem Sadiq possesses an undying passion to improve people’s lives. This led to the creation of Plexus, a neuro and Stem Cell Research centre in Bangalore in neurosurgery, and neurorehabilitation.