Understanding Sensory Sensitivities

When it comes to autism, sensory sensitivities are a common experience for many individuals. Autism Speaks explains that sensory issues are included in the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder, and each autistic person has their unique set of sensory sensitivities. Sensory sensitivities can manifest as both hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness) and hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness) to various stimuli. It's important to note that most individuals with autism have a combination of both hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity [1].

Sensory Sensitivities in Autism

Autistic individuals can have heightened responses to sensory input, making certain stimuli overwhelming. Many autistic people experience hypersensitivity to bright lights or specific light wavelengths, such as LED or fluorescent lights. Additionally, certain sounds, smells, textures, and tastes can also trigger sensory sensitivities [1]. These sensitivities may lead to avoidance behaviors, such as pulling away from physical touch, covering the ears to avoid loud sounds, or avoiding certain clothing types.

Impact on Daily Life

Sensory sensitivities can have a significant impact on the daily lives of individuals with autism and their families. These sensitivities can affect various aspects of a child's life, including their school experience, attention, energy levels, and emotions. Sensory problems can also impact the entire family, as they may need to make accommodations and modifications to create a sensory-friendly environment [2].

Understanding and managing sensory sensitivities is essential to help autistic individuals navigate their surroundings effectively. By recognizing and addressing these sensitivities, it becomes possible to create a supportive and inclusive environment that allows individuals with autism to thrive. In the following sections, we will explore strategies for managing sensory overload, sensory-based interventions, and accommodating sensory needs to provide practical guidance for supporting autistic individuals in their sensory experiences.

Types of Sensory Sensitivities

Sensory sensitivities are a common characteristic of autism, with individuals experiencing either hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to sensory input. These sensitivities can greatly impact daily life and require understanding and management to support individuals with autism.


Hypersensitivity, also known as over-reactivity, occurs when an individual with autism has an exaggerated response to sensory stimuli. They may be more sensitive to sounds, sights, smells, tastes, textures, or touch than neurotypical individuals. This heightened sensitivity can cause fragmented or distorted perceptions, leading to discomfort and stress [3].

Hypersensitive individuals may find certain environments overwhelming and struggle to filter out background noises or visual stimuli. For example, a loud noise that may be bearable for others could be distressing for someone with hypersensitivity. These sensory challenges can result in behaviors such as avoidance, rigidity, self-injury, aggression, high anxiety, and even panic attacks.


Hyposensitivity, or under-reactivity, refers to a decreased sensitivity to sensory input in individuals with autism. They may have a higher threshold for sensory stimulation and require more intense or prolonged sensory input to register the same response as neurotypical individuals. This can make it challenging for them to notice or respond appropriately to certain sensory cues.

Hyposensitive individuals may seek out sensory stimulation to compensate for their reduced sensitivity. They may engage in repetitive behaviors, seek deep pressure, or actively seek out certain textures, tastes, or sounds. It's important to note that sensory sensitivities can vary from one day to the next, and individuals with autism may demonstrate a combination of hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity across different sensory domains [3].

Understanding the specific sensory sensitivities of an individual with autism is crucial for creating a supportive environment and implementing effective strategies to manage sensory challenges. By recognizing the unique sensory profile of each individual, it becomes possible to provide accommodations and tailor interventions to best meet their needs.

Managing Sensory Overload

For individuals with autism, sensory overload can occur when intense stimuli overwhelm their coping abilities. This overload can be triggered by a single event or build up over time due to the effort required to cope with daily sensory sensitivities, resulting in feelings of intense anxiety, the need to escape, or difficulty communicating. Recognizing the signs of sensory overload and implementing strategies for coping are essential in managing this aspect of autism.

Recognizing Signs of Overload

Sensory overload is a common experience for individuals with autism, impacting their ability to process and interpret sensory information from the environment. It occurs when the brain receives more sensory input than it can effectively process, leading to distress and anxiety. Recognizing the signs of sensory overload is crucial in providing timely support and intervention. Common signs include:

It's important to note that the signs of sensory overload can vary from person to person. Understanding an individual's unique sensory profile and observing their reactions to different stimuli can help identify signs of overload specific to them.

Strategies for Coping

When an individual with autism experiences sensory overload, implementing strategies for coping can help alleviate distress and restore a sense of calm. Here are some strategies that can be effective:

Remember, each individual with autism is unique, and the strategies that work for one person may not work for another. It's important to observe, listen, and collaborate with autistic individuals and their support network to identify effective coping strategies that meet their specific needs. By recognizing the signs of sensory overload and implementing appropriate strategies, it is possible to support individuals with autism in managing sensory sensitivities and promoting their overall well-being.

Sensory-Based Interventions

When it comes to managing sensory sensitivities in autism, sensory-based interventions play a crucial role in helping individuals cope with sensory overload and improve their overall well-being. Two commonly used interventions are sensory integration therapy and the creation of sensory-friendly environments.

Sensory Integration Therapy

Sensory integration therapy is a technique developed to help individuals with autism and other sensory processing difficulties. It aims to lower reactivity and enhance participation in various activities by addressing sensory processing dysfunction [7]. This therapy is typically provided by specially trained occupational therapists.

The therapy involves specific sensory activities designed to help individuals adjust to various sensory inputs. These activities can include swinging, brushing, playing in a ball pit, and other sensory-rich experiences. By engaging in these activities, individuals can gradually become more comfortable with sensory stimuli and develop better sensory integration skills.

Research has shown that sensory integration therapy, particularly Ayres Sensory Integration (ASI) therapy, is effective for individuals on the autism spectrum, especially children between the ages of 4 and 12. It has become one of the most requested and utilized interventions for autism, leading to improvements in focus, behavior, and reduced anxiety.

Sensory-Friendly Environments

Creating sensory-friendly environments is another important aspect of managing sensory sensitivities in autism. These environments are designed to minimize overwhelming sensory experiences and provide a more comfortable and accommodating space for individuals with sensory sensitivities.

Sensory-friendly environments often involve modifications to lighting, sound levels, and visual stimuli. For example, using soft and diffused lighting, reducing background noise, and minimizing clutter can help create a calming atmosphere. Providing sensory-friendly seating options, such as bean bags or rocking chairs, can also contribute to a more comfortable environment.

In addition, incorporating sensory elements such as sensory toys, weighted blankets, or fidget tools can provide individuals with sensory input that helps them regulate their sensory experiences. These elements can be strategically placed in the environment to support individuals in managing their sensory sensitivities.

Sensory-friendly environments can be implemented in various settings, including homes, schools, and community spaces. By creating these supportive environments, individuals with autism can have greater control over their sensory experiences, leading to reduced anxiety and improved overall well-being.

When implementing sensory-based interventions, it's important to involve qualified practitioners who have appropriate qualifications and deliver interventions within their scope of practice. These interventions should be tailored to the individual's specific sensory needs and delivered in a safe and supportive manner.

By utilizing sensory integration therapy and creating sensory-friendly environments, individuals with autism can better manage their sensory sensitivities and enhance their daily lives. These interventions provide valuable tools and strategies to promote sensory well-being and improve overall quality of life.

Accommodating Sensory Needs

When it comes to managing sensory sensitivities in individuals with autism, accommodating their sensory needs is crucial. Making appropriate environmental modifications and creating sensory profiles can greatly contribute to a more comfortable and supportive environment for autistic individuals.

Environmental Modifications

One of the most accessible and effective interventions for sensory processing difficulties in autism is environmental modifications. These modifications aim to counteract hypersensitivities and create a sensory-friendly space. For example, wearing a hoodie and listening to music can help moderate visual and auditory stimulation in overwhelming situations.

Here are some environmental modifications that can be helpful:

Sensory SensitivityEnvironmental ModificationVisual Sensitivity- Reduce or dim fluorescent lighting
- Provide sunglasses or hats to reduce glare
- Use blackout curtains to minimize external visual stimuliAuditory Sensitivity- Create a quiet and calm environment
- Use noise-canceling headphones or ear defenders
- Reduce background noiseTactile Sensitivity- Offer alternatives for handling textures
- Use latex-free items to avoid sensory discomfort
- Provide sensory-friendly materials such as fidget toys or weighted blanketsSmell Sensitivity- Minimize strong odors or use unscented products
- Provide a designated scent-free areaTaste Sensitivity- Offer a variety of food textures and flavors
- Respect individual food preferences and sensitivities
- Allow for food-related accommodations, such as special utensils or modified diets

These modifications can significantly reduce sensory overload and create a more comfortable environment for individuals with autism.

Creating Sensory Profiles

Creating sensory profiles can help identify an individual's sensory preferences and sensitivities, assisting in the development of personalized strategies to support their sensory needs. A sensory profile provides valuable information about an individual's sensory processing patterns, including their sensory-seeking behaviors and sensory aversions.

A sensory profile typically includes:

By creating and regularly updating sensory profiles, parents, caregivers, and educators can better understand an individual's sensory sensitivities and implement appropriate supports and accommodations.

Accommodating sensory needs through environmental modifications and creating sensory profiles are essential steps in managing sensory sensitivities in individuals with autism. These approaches can foster a more inclusive and supportive environment, allowing individuals with autism to thrive and reach their full potential.

Supporting Autistic Individuals

When it comes to managing sensory sensitivities in autism, it is crucial to provide support and accommodations that address the unique needs of autistic individuals. Two important aspects to consider are touch sensitivities and balancing vestibular sensitivities.

Addressing Touch Sensitivities

Autistic individuals with sensory sensitivities related to touch may experience discomfort or even pain when exposed to certain textures or sensations. It is essential to understand and respect their boundaries to create a comfortable environment for them.

Some strategies that can help address touch sensitivities include:

It is important to note that each individual's touch sensitivities may vary, so it is crucial to communicate and listen to their preferences and needs.

Balancing Vestibular Sensitivities

Vestibular sensitivities in autism can manifest as a need for sensory input related to balance and movement. Autistic individuals may seek sensory stimulation by engaging in activities such as rocking, swinging, or spinning to regulate their sensory experiences.

To support individuals with vestibular sensitivities, consider incorporating activities that stimulate the vestibular system, such as:

By incorporating these types of activities, you can provide opportunities for individuals to engage in sensory experiences that help them achieve a better balance and regulation of their sensory systems.

Understanding and supporting the sensory needs of autistic individuals is crucial in promoting their well-being and reducing distressing behaviors. By addressing touch sensitivities and balancing vestibular sensitivities, you can create a supportive environment that enables individuals with autism to navigate the world more comfortably and engage in learning and social interactions effectively.