Image by Ilya Shishikhin

SENSORY SENSITIVITIES

 

It is worth spending time developing a sensory profile with the autistic person in your life. Whilst I believe all autistic people have hypersensitivity the way they will have adapted to that difference will vary from individual to individual. Some may continue to be hypersensitive in certain senses and others may have developed hyposensitivity (lack of sensitivity) in some senses as a coping strategy. Others may switch between hyper and hypo sensitivity depending on the circumstances, for example when we are tired, unwell, stressed or overwhelmed we may all find strong sensory input difficult to cope with. Here is a link to a video to help you understand what is feels like to experience sensory overload: Can you make it to the end? - YouTube.

Below is a table indicating some signs of hyper or hypo sensitivity followed by some strategies to alleviate difficulties associated with these experiences.

 

Signs of Hypo and Hyper Sensitivity

Hyposensitivity: Vision

  • Stares at objects or people

  • Flicks or spins objects in front of eyes

  • Easily startled by things in the environment

  • Difficulties with hand to eye coordination, reading and writing

  • Likes shiny objects

  • Enjoys flashing lights, light toys, coloured lights etc

  • May be drawn to certain colours, movements or patterns

  • Difficultly moving around cluttered environments and may bump into things more frequently

  • Dislike/fear of the dark

Hypersensitivity: Vision

  • Dislikes bright or flashing lights

  • Dislikes florescent lights

  • Dislikes certain colors

  • Avoids eye contact

  • Dislikes cluttered space

  • Dislikes certain patterns or clashing colors

  • Squints or covers eyes more frequently than others

  • Prefers the dark or low lighting

  • Easily distracted by visual stimuli in the environment and finds it hard to focus on ‘busy’ worksheets

  • Finds shiny objects distracting

Hyposensitivity: Sound

  • Does not always respond to name when called

  • Has difficulty distinguishing between different sounds and locating the source of sounds

  • May be drawn to sounds e.g. holding a ticking clock to the ear

  • Enjoys repetitive sounds e.g. listening to the same section of a song or flushing the toilet repeatedly

  • Makes noises for own interest or amusement

  • May speak too loudly

Hypersensitivity: Sound

  • Dislikes loud sounds

  • Finds it hard to tune out background sounds such as a ticking clock, buzzing lights etc

  • Unable to eat in noisy environments

  • Holds hands over ears

  • May hum or make noises to block out external noises

  • Gets distressed in noisy environments, may become fearful of objects or experiences that they relate to loud noises e.g. the fire alarm

  • May speak too quietly

  • Doesn’t like unexpected sounds, may find it easier to handle sounds when they are in control

Hyposensitivity: Smell

  • Smells everything including people

  • May not notice when foods have gone ‘bad’ or enjoy eating smelly foods

  • Seeks out strong smells such as perfume, markers, herbs etc

Hypersensitivity: Smell

  • Avoids environments with strong smells such as kitchens or environments that smell of bleach or fresh paint

  • Avoids strong smelling foods

  • May prefer well ventilated environments or being outdoors

Hyposensitivity: Taste

  • Adds lots of relish or sauces to foods

  • Eats inedible objects such as glue, paint, grass etc

  • Enjoys flavourful foods such as lemons and herbs

  • Holds foods in mouth or cheeks.

  • May seek out taste experiences, such as taking food from others, eating a lot of candy or mints or eating a specific nonedible substance such as grass

Hypersensitivity: Taste

  • Prefers bland or ‘fast foods’

  • Prefers food with a predictable taste such as bread and avoids less predictably tasting foods such as some fruits

  • Likely to be picky eaters

  • Dislikes

  • foods that have been mixed together

  • Dislikes trying new foods

  • Dislikes the taste of toothpaste

Hyposensitivity: Touch

  • Seeks out tactile stimulation and may use too much pressure in contact e.g. pressing too hard with a pencil, squeezing objects or others too hard

  • Not aware of light touch

  • Lack of sensitivity to temperature, pain etc

  • Lack of awareness when clothes are on incorrectly e.g if shoes are on the wrong feet or t-shirt is on the wrong way round

  • Enjoys messy play, water play, fingerpainting etc

  • May not notice when their hands or face are dirty or if they have a runny nose

  • Tends to put objects in mouth

Hypersensitivity: Touch

  • Dislikes being touched including positive touch such as hugs

  • Dislike of clothing made of certain materials, tags, seams etc

  • Dislike of messy play, fingerpainting or getting dirty

  • Sensitivity to temperatures

  • Dislike of texture of certain foods

  • Avoidance of different surfaces e.g. sand, grass, mud, carpet etc

  • Avoidance of water e.g. washing hands, showering etc

  • Sensitive to having hair or nails cut

  • Doesn’t like hair being brushed, braided etc

  • Doesn’t like brushing their teeth

  • Dislike of plasters/band aids

Hyposensitivity: Proprioception (awareness of our body parts)

  • Stomps feet when walking or walks on tip toes

  • Clumsy

  • Likes to jump and enjoys more boisterous play

  • Difficulties with balance

  • Difficulties staying still

  • May grind teeth or crack knuckles

  • May be physically aggressive towards others

  • Spills drinks and is a messy eater

Hypersensitivity: Proprioception

  • Poor posture

  • Clumsy

  • Difficulties with balance

  • Becomes tired quickly

  • Prefers sedentary play

  • Holds things weakly and may drop objects

Hyposensitivity: Vestibular (or sense of movement and our bodies position in space)

  • Enjoys movement activities such as swings, jumping, spinning and running

  • Make rock back on chair and find it difficult to sit still

  • Does not appear to get dizzy

  • Enjoys watching spinning objects​

Hypersensivitiy: Vestibular

  • Avoids activities involving fast or unpredictable movement such as swings, roundabouts, seesaws, jumping or spinning

  • Dislikes heights

  • Difficulties with balance

  • Dislike of elevators and escalators

  • Dislikes head leaning back or being upside down

  • Dislikes feet being off the ground

  • Suffers from motion sickness

  • Difficulty moving between levels (e.g. stairs) and with uneven surfaces

 

Sensory Supports

Hyposensitivity: Vision

  • Move slowly and try not to surprise by approaching from behind or without warning

  • Decorate with pale colours and avoid patterns

  • Avoid clutter

  • Provide clear pathways to travel around the space

  • Markings on floor might help as guidance for where to stand for certain activities or where to put resources

  • Reduce distracting information on worksheets

Hypersensitivity: Vision

  • Avoid florescent lights

  • Use matt surfaces that don’t reflect

  • Sun visors or sunhats

  • Tinted glasses or sunglasses

  • Decorate with pale colours and avoid patterns

  • Avoid direct eye contact and placing objects in direct line of vision, peripheral vision may be preferable (looking through the corner of the eye)

  • Turn off computer screens when not in use

  • Use partitions to limit distractions

  • Use black and white worksheets

  • Reduce distracting information on worksheets

  • Seat away from doors and windows

Hyposensitivity: Sound

  • Use visual cues and supports

  • Use short sentences

  • Allow time to process verbal instructions

  • Listen to music without singing such as classical music (through headphones if needed) while completing activities

Hypersensitivity: Sound

  • Reduce background noise such as ticking clocks, fans or dripping taps

  • Noise defenders (head phones)

  • Avoid seating next to windows and doors

  • Use visual cues (may be difficult to filter voices form background noises)

  • Give advance warning of unavoidable loud noises such as the school bell

  • Provide information about sources of loud noises

Hyposensitivity: Smell

  • Provide essential oils, these could be rubbed on wrists

  • Provide access to smelling activities such as cooking or a sensory garden (an area with strong smelling plants)

Hypersensitivity: Smell

  • Avoid strong smells such as foods or perfumes

  • Be aware and reduce other background smells such as cleaning products or fresh paint

  • Keep rooms well ventilated

Hyposensitivity: Taste

  • Provide access to strongly tasting foods such as citrus fruits and herbs to avoid eating inedible objects

  • Provide sauces or herbs to add more flavour to foods

  • Chewing gum or mouth spray

Hypersensitivity: Taste

  • Consider the texture of foods, a dried banana slice might be more tolerable then fresh banana

  • Avoid other strong smells such as cleaning product or perfumes in food eating areas

  • If preferred provide foods separately rather than mixed

Hyposensitivity: Touch

  • Weighted clothing

  • Weighted bedding

  • Clothes that provide sensory stimulation e.g. pockets, buttons etc

  • Deep pressure

  • Chew toys or jewellery to provide oral stimulation

  • Fidget objects that can be held in the hand

  • TheraBand’s around chair legs to provide stimulation whilst sitting

Hypersensitivity: Touch

  • Soft clothing

  • Cut labels out of clothing

  • Avoid light or unexpected touch

  • Deep pressure

  • Gloves to wear during messy activities

  • Seat with back to wall to avoid unnecessary touch

  • Introduce new foods in child’s preferred texture

Hyposensitivity: Proprioception (awareness of our body parts)

  • Adapted equipment e.g scissors, pencil grips cutlery

  • Practice life skills such as dressing in front of a mirror

  • Chew toys or chew jewellery

  • Weighted clothing and bedding

  • Deep pressure

Hypersensitivity: Proprioception

  • Seat with back to wall to avoid unnecessary touch

  • Adapted equipment e.g scissors, pencil grips cutlery

  • Avoid unnecessary movements e.g. moving from area to area

  • Allow time to complete activities involving the body such as dressing

Hyposensitivity: Vestibular (where our body is in space)

  • Avoid clutter

  • Provide clear pathways to travel around the space

  • Markings on floor might help as guidance for where to stand for certain activities or where to put resources

  • Provide movement opportunities whilst sitting such as sitting on an exercise ball or inflatable seat cushions

  • Provide opportunities for movement breaks

Hypersensitivity: Vestibular

  • Reduce requirement for participation in activities requiring sudden movement

  • Weighted clothing

  • Weighted bedding

  • Ensure seating is correct height and feet can reach the ground

  • Avoid long journeys or provide support to cope with motion sickness