Children with Autism and Sensory Related BehaviorBy
That’s because every child on the Autism spectrum IS different. Each one experiences the world distinctively, even when compared to their own ASD counterparts. Every autistic brain is wired as one of a kind. This determines the owner’s unique sensory experience and will affect his or her behavior. As a result, each child on the Autism spectrum displays sensory related behavior that is almost as individual as his or her fingerprint.
About one in 20 children, on and off the spectrum, are diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) according to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation. Individuals who earn the label of SPD find it difficult to accurately filter the sensory information that is coming in – their brain either reads the sensory input as way too much or way too little.
Even though a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder does not have a sensory impairment severe enough to warrant the SPD label, he or she can still have sensory issues. So even if your child has been evaluated for a Sensory Processing Disorder and you were told your child does not qualify, DO NOT dismiss the possibility of sensory issues triggering your child’s challenging behaviors.
Your child may be particular about her clothing and the way it feels against her skin. She may refuse to wear certain items or she may take her clothing off when it becomes too unbearable, even in public situations. I have had clients whose children gag at the smell or texture of a certain food and refuse to eat it. And there are children who have resisted potty training due to the cold, hard toilet seat they have to sit on.
Sensory sensitivities such as these and more can trigger a wide range of behaviors that are difficult to manage. But, in many cases, simply altering the environment and making it sensory friendly to your child can eliminate behaviors such as these. That’s right, soft clothing without tags, adjusting your cuisine and buying a new toilet seat or potty chair can prevent such behaviors from occurring.
Children with sensory sensitivities can be hyper or hypo sensitive to different types of visual input or certain touches, tastes, textures, smells and noises. In order to help regulate their senses and modify how they experience the world around them children on the Autism spectrum typically need to maintain a balanced sensory diet.
When senses are not regulated they can cause interference, dissonance, discomfort and even pain for your child. So if you want to change some of your child’s behaviors you first need to ask,
“Does my child experience any sensory chaos?”
In order to find the answer, you need to look at more than the five basic senses of taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight. You need to acquaint yourself with the senses that are often overlooked.
- Proprioceptive (how body parts move/where they are in space),
- Vestibular (balance, where head and body is in relation to earth)
- Interoceptive (awareness of internal organs)
I have had more than one client who had a child with very poor interoceptive awareness. This sense operates without conscious thought and cannot be observed. A poor interoceptive sense indicates a feeble connection to stimuli coming from inside the body.
As an example, if your child literally cannot feel sensations from his bowel and/or bladder (whether it is full or empty), potty training will be riddled with difficulty. His body may not be giving him the proper input or signals necessary for effective potty training and you may be reading all of this as stubborn behavior or outright resistance.
Behaviors such as these are typically not willful, planned or premeditated – they are often occurring because of a clash between the sensory input your child receives from her environment and the way the neural pathways in her brain/ nervous system are wired. Fortunately, it is possible to remove some of the obstacles that your child’s nervous system is putting in the way of behaving appropriately.
Creating a sensory friendly environment and a good sensory diet for your child takes time but it has the amazing potential for modulating behaviors. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Eliminate/reduce over-whelming sensory input – If your child is over-reacting to sensory input, there are many ways to change the situation. If your child’s sense of hearing is hypersensitive, the first option is to simply avoid overwhelming sensory settings such as parades, amusement parks and the like. When that’s not an option, consider earplugs or noise cancelling headphones.
- Add sensory input where needed – If your child likes to spin in circles indefinitely and crashes into things, breaking them as a result, chances are she’s craving vestibular input. You can provide that in a number of more appropriate ways by encouraging swinging, trampoline jumping or use of a hippity-hop ball.
Seeing beyond the behavior and looking at your environment with your child’s complete sensory profile in mind will help you shift your mindset from “My child is being a problem.” To “My child is having a problem.” This will make it possible for you to create a more sensory friendly living space that can eliminate previously annoying and challenging behaviors.
Unfortunately, altering the environment does not always produce ‘instant’ results – this can take time depending on the situation. If you have a child that screams every time he or she has to put shoes and socks on, finding a pair of shoes and socks that are comfortable could be a relatively easy and quick solution. On the other hand, if you have a child that tantrums when it is time to get ready for bed, that could take longer to figure out. The key to quick success is to first identify what the trigger to the behavior is and then trying to eliminate the trigger by making a shift in your child’s environment.