Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory processing disorder is a common challenge faced by individuals with autism, impacting the way they perceive and respond to sensory stimuli in their environment. It is important to comprehend the effects of sensory processing disorder on individuals with autism in order to provide effective support and intervention strategies.

Impact on Individuals with Autism

Individuals with autism often experience sensory processing disorder, which can significantly affect their daily lives. Sensory sensitivities are a common feature of autism, with over 96% of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) exhibiting unusual sensitivities to touch, sound, and sights [1]. These sensitivities can manifest as hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity.

  • Hypersensitivity: Some individuals with autism may experience hypersensitivity, where even mild sensory input can be overwhelming. This heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli can lead to discomfort, anxiety, and meltdowns. For example, ordinary sounds may feel excessively loud, bright lights may be overwhelming, or certain textures may cause discomfort.
  • Hyposensitivity: On the other hand, individuals with autism may also exhibit hyposensitivity, which involves decreased responsiveness to sensory input. They may seek out intense sensory experiences or engage in repetitive behaviors to meet their sensory needs. Hyposensitivity can result in difficulty focusing and a need for additional sensory stimulation to feel engaged and alert [2].

Sensory Sensitivities in Autism

Understanding sensory sensitivities in autism is crucial for parents and caregivers of children and teens diagnosed with autism. Sensory sensitivities can impact various aspects of daily life, from daily routines to social interactions.

By recognizing and addressing sensory sensitivities, parents can help create a more supportive environment for their children. This may involve making adjustments to sensory stimuli that can trigger sensitivities, such as reducing noise levels, using soft lighting, or providing sensory-friendly materials.

It is important to remember that sensory sensitivities can vary greatly among individuals with autism. Each person may have different triggers and responses to sensory stimuli. By observing and understanding the specific sensitivities of their child, parents can tailor interventions and strategies to best support their unique sensory needs.

Sensory Seeking Behaviors in Autism

Individuals with autism often exhibit sensory seeking behaviors as a way to navigate and engage with their environment. These behaviors can manifest in various ways and may be linked to both hyposensitivity and overstimulation.

Hyposensitivity and Seeking Intense Sensory Input

Hyposensitivity refers to a reduced sensitivity or responsiveness to sensory stimuli. In individuals with autism, hyposensitivity can lead to a need for intense sensory input as a way to compensate for the reduced sensory responsiveness. These individuals may actively seek out activities or objects that provide a high level of sensory stimulation.

Some common examples of sensory seeking behaviors related to hyposensitivity include:

  • Craving deep pressure, such as seeking tight hugs or wrapping oneself tightly in blankets.
  • Seeking out loud sounds or repetitive noises to stimulate the auditory system.
  • Engaging in activities that involve intense movement, such as spinning or jumping.

By seeking intense sensory input, individuals with hyposensitivity attempt to regulate their sensory systems and increase their overall sensory awareness.

Overstimulation and Emotional Distress

Overstimulation refers to an excessive response to sensory input, leading to heightened sensitivity to various stimuli. This can result in emotional distress, anxiety, and meltdowns in individuals with autism. Overstimulation often occurs when sensory inputs overwhelm an individual's ability to cope, and it can be triggered by factors such as noise, bright lights, or certain textures.

Some common signs of overstimulation and sensory seeking behaviors related to overstimulation include:

  • Covering ears or avoiding noisy environments to reduce auditory input.
  • Seeking out quiet and dimly lit spaces to minimize sensory input.
  • Engaging in repetitive behaviors, such as rocking or hand-flapping, as a self-soothing mechanism.

By engaging in sensory seeking behaviors, individuals with overstimulation attempt to regulate their sensory systems and find comfort in environments that are less overwhelming.

Understanding the sensory seeking behaviors associated with hyposensitivity and overstimulation is crucial for parents and caregivers to effectively address and support individuals with autism. By implementing appropriate strategies and intervention techniques, it is possible to help individuals with autism navigate their sensory experiences and promote their overall well-being.

Addressing Sensory Sensitivities

When it comes to addressing sensory sensitivities in individuals with autism, collaborating with professional therapists and implementing intervention strategies can play a crucial role in managing sensory processing disorder and promoting positive behaviors.

Collaborating with Professional Therapists

Collaborating with professionals such as occupational therapists, behavior therapists, and speech and language therapists can significantly enhance the management of sensory processing disorder in individuals with autism. These professionals offer a comprehensive approach to address sensory sensitivities, develop self-regulation skills, and optimize communication and daily functioning.

Occupational therapists, in particular, are skilled in assessing and addressing sensory needs. They can assist individuals with autism in managing their environments, coping with sensory sensitivities, learning continence training, staying on task, and developing motor coordination and balance. Additionally, other professionals like dietitians and speech therapists can provide support for taste, textural, and smell sensitivities that may affect eating or swallowing.

By collaborating with these professionals, parents can gain valuable insights, guidance, and tailored strategies to support their child's sensory needs and overall development.

Intervention Strategies for Sensory Processing Disorder

Intervention strategies for sensory processing disorder aim to improve individuals' abilities to interact with their environments, target aversions, meet sensory needs, and address perceived processing deficits. These strategies often involve incorporating sensory experiences to affect outcomes such as adaptive behavior and language [4].

One effective approach is the implementation of a sensory diet, which is a personalized plan designed to meet a child's specific sensory needs. Seeking the help of a professional, such as an occupational therapist, is recommended to create a sensory diet plan tailored to the child's sensory preferences and sensitivities. By combining the caregiver's input, the child's perspective, and the therapist's expertise, the sensory diet plan can be optimized to effectively address sensory sensitivities and promote self-regulation.

In addition to sensory diets, other sensory-focused interventions may include the use of weighted clothing, auditory sensations, or other sensory modalities to impact outcomes related to adaptive behavior and language. These interventions can involve a variety of licensed professionals, teachers, parents, and other providers working collaboratively to meet the individual's sensory needs and promote positive behaviors.

By implementing these intervention strategies and working closely with professional therapists, parents can help their child with autism better navigate and manage sensory sensitivities, fostering a more comfortable and supportive environment.

Supporting Sensory Needs in Autism

Addressing sensory needs is an important aspect of supporting individuals with autism. Sensory sensitivities, such as tactile sensitivity, can be challenging for individuals with autism, leading to discomfort and distress. Additionally, communication difficulties can further hinder their ability to express their needs and thoughts. In this section, we will explore two strategies to support sensory needs in autism: addressing tactile sensitivity and utilizing communication strategies like the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS).

Tactile Sensitivity and Comfort

Tactile sensitivity, characterized by an increased sensitivity to touch, is common in individuals with autism. To help reduce discomfort, it is important to provide comfortable clothing and be mindful of touch. Choosing clothing made from soft, non-irritating fabrics can minimize sensory triggers and promote comfort. Additionally, individuals with tactile sensitivity may benefit from using sensory-friendly materials, such as weighted blankets or compression clothing, which can provide a calming effect and a sense of security.

Creating a sensory-friendly environment by minimizing harsh or irritating textures can also contribute to a more comfortable experience for individuals with tactile sensitivity. This can involve using soft furnishings, avoiding scratchy materials, and providing options for individuals to regulate their own sensory input, such as offering fidget toys or sensory tools.

Communication Strategies and PECS

Communication challenges are prevalent among individuals with autism, making it vital to employ effective strategies to support their communication needs. One valuable tool is the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), which uses pictures to help individuals with autism express their thoughts and needs. PECS provides a structured approach to communication, allowing individuals to exchange pictures to convey their desires, thoughts, and requests. Research shows that implementing PECS can improve communication and social interactions for individuals with autism.

PECS involves creating a system of visual supports, such as picture cards or symbols, that represent objects, actions, or concepts. These visual aids assist individuals with autism in communicating their needs, wants, and ideas effectively. The use of PECS helps individuals develop their communication skills, improve social interactions, and enhance overall expressive abilities.

By implementing PECS, individuals with autism can overcome some of the communication barriers they may face. It is important to provide consistent support, offer clear visual cues, and reinforce the use of PECS to maximize its effectiveness. This structured communication system can empower individuals with autism to express themselves more effectively and interact with the world around them.

Supporting sensory needs and addressing communication challenges are crucial steps in providing effective care for individuals with autism. By understanding and accommodating tactile sensitivities and utilizing communication strategies like PECS, we can create an environment that supports their unique needs and enhances their overall well-being.

Behavioral Therapy for Autism

When addressing sensory seeking behaviors in autism, behavioral therapy plays a crucial role in helping individuals develop appropriate responses and behaviors. One widely recognized approach is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, which focuses on reinforcing positive behaviors and understanding the link between actions and consequences.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

ABA therapy is a structured and evidence-based approach that aims to improve social, communication, and behavioral skills in individuals with autism. It involves breaking down complex behaviors into smaller, manageable steps and using positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors. According to ABT Behavioral Analysis & Therapy, long-term, intensive ABA therapy can have a positive impact on life skills, intellectual abilities, and social skills in people with autism.

ABA therapy begins with a comprehensive assessment to identify the specific behavioral challenges and sensory seeking behaviors that need to be addressed. Based on this assessment, individualized treatment plans are developed, targeting specific goals and objectives. A qualified behavior analyst or therapist will work closely with the individual to implement the therapy plan and monitor progress over time.

By utilizing ABA techniques, individuals can learn alternative behaviors to replace sensory seeking behaviors that may be disruptive or challenging. The therapy focuses on teaching and reinforcing socially appropriate behaviors, self-regulation skills, and coping strategies to manage sensory needs effectively.

Reinforcing Positive Behaviors

Reinforcing positive behaviors is a fundamental aspect of ABA therapy. By providing positive reinforcement, such as praise, rewards, or tokens, individuals are motivated to engage in desired behaviors. This approach helps individuals understand the consequences of their actions and encourages them to repeat behaviors that are socially acceptable.

It is essential to identify and reinforce specific positive behaviors that are incompatible with sensory seeking behaviors. For example, if an individual tends to seek intense sensory input by banging objects, the therapist may reinforce the behavior of engaging in a calming activity instead, such as squeezing a stress ball or deep breathing exercises.

Consistency and repetition are key when reinforcing positive behaviors. By consistently rewarding and acknowledging desired behaviors, individuals with autism can develop new habits and responses over time. This process promotes self-regulation and empowers individuals to make choices that align with their goals and well-being.

In addition to ABA therapy, it is important to create a supportive environment that understands and accommodates sensory needs. This includes providing sensory-friendly spaces, implementing visual schedules, and using communication strategies like PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) to enhance understanding and reduce anxiety.

By combining behavioral therapy techniques, reinforcing positive behaviors, and creating a sensory-friendly environment, individuals with autism can gain valuable skills and strategies to address sensory seeking behaviors effectively. With time, patience, and the support of professionals and caregivers, individuals with autism can thrive and navigate the world with greater comfort and confidence.

Implementing a Sensory Diet

To address sensory seeking behaviors in children with autism, implementing a sensory diet can be a helpful approach. A sensory diet involves incorporating specific sensory activities throughout the day to regulate sensory systems and provide the necessary input for the child's sensory needs. This can lead to reduced meltdowns and improved engagement in activities.

Regulating Sensory Systems

Children with sensory processing difficulties may have overstimulated or understimulated sensory systems, leading to sensory-seeking behaviors or sensory-avoiding behaviors. A sensory diet aims to bring order to these sensory systems and help the child regulate their response to sensory stimuli. By providing the appropriate sensory input, you can support the child in maintaining focus and engagement in activities.

The activities included in a sensory diet can vary depending on the child's specific sensory needs. Some common examples of sensory activities for regulating sensory systems include:

  • Deep pressure activities, such as using a weighted blanket, squeezing stress balls, or engaging in deep pressure massages.
  • Proprioceptive activities, such as jumping on a trampoline, engaging in heavy work activities (carrying or pushing heavy objects), or using resistance bands.
  • Vestibular activities, such as swinging, spinning, or engaging in balance exercises.
  • Tactile activities, such as playing with sensory bins, engaging in finger painting, or exploring different textures.

By incorporating these activities into the child's daily routine, you can provide the sensory input necessary for regulation and help address sensory-seeking behaviors.

Tailoring Sensory Activities

When implementing a sensory diet, it is important to tailor the sensory activities to the specific needs of the child. Every child with autism is unique, and their sensory needs may vary. Seeking the help of a professional, such as an Occupational Therapist, can be beneficial in creating a sensory diet plan that is customized to the child's specific sensory needs. This collaboration between caregivers, the child, and the therapist can optimize the effectiveness of the sensory diet plan.

Sensory diet activities should be scheduled in advance and sprinkled throughout the day. The activities can take place in various settings depending on the specific sensory activity being used. For example, deep pressure activities can be incorporated into the child's bedtime routine, while vestibular activities can be included during playtime at the park. By integrating sensory activities into different contexts, you can provide the child with opportunities for sensory input throughout their daily activities.

Remember, it is important to observe and monitor the child's response to the sensory activities. Adjustments may be needed based on their individual preferences and sensitivities. The sensory diet should be a flexible and evolving plan that addresses the changing needs of the child over time.

By implementing a sensory diet tailored to the child's sensory needs, you can help regulate their sensory systems and address sensory seeking behaviors. Consulting with a professional can provide valuable guidance in developing an effective plan. Through consistent implementation of sensory activities, you can support the child's sensory needs and promote their overall well-being.


[1]: https://www.abtaba.com/blog/how-to-deal-with-autism-behavior-problems

[2]: https://www.crossrivertherapy.com/autism/managing-sensory-sensitivities-in-autism

[3]: https://thespectrum.org.au/autism-strategy/autism-strategy-sensory

[4]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448042/

[5]: https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/sensory-diet-for-autism/

[6]: https://www.autismconnect.com/blogs/sensory-seeking-behaviours-in-autism-signs-and-symptoms/