Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often experience sensory processing difficulties affecting one or more of the 5 senses such as sound, touch, sight, and smell. Auditory, tactile, and visual stimuli can be quite challenging for some to manage. Others may struggle with certain olfactory experiences, meaning they find specific smells to be unpleasant or overwhelming. On the other hand, others may find comfort in certain sensory input, which can help regulate nervous systems, reduce stress, and aid in anxiety.
Research suggests that more than 96% of children with autism spectrum disorder experience hyper-sensitivity. This means that almost all individuals with autism are more sensitive to certain sensory input as compared to the general population. Some may also experience hypo-sensitivity, which means they might not sense certain stimuli or they might seek out more sensory input than is typical of the general population. Sensory sensitivity can be mild to severe and may impact the person’s quality of life in a profound or very minor way.
Excessive sensory input can result in stress, anxiety, or physical discomfort for some people with autism. In certain cases, it can cause individuals to withdraw, shut down communication, or exhibit challenging behavior or meltdowns.
Let’s explore some of the ways that people with autism might experience hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to specific sensory input.
People with autism might be overly sensitive to certain visual sensory input. This might be experienced by the person having difficulty with bright lights or having discomfort when there is a lot of visual chaos in the environment.
People with autism might be under-sensitive to certain visual sensory input. They might not notice details in their surroundings and, therefore, seek out visual stimulation by looking at flashing lights or spinning objects.
It’s not a bad thing for people with autism to have certain sensory preferences. However, when their sensory needs are interfering with their overall quality of life, it might be helpful to support a person with autism by making certain accommodations for them. You could do this by changing their physical environment to something they are comfortable in by adjusting the lighting, installing blackout curtains to help them fall asleep, or by decreasing clutter and creating a more organized environment.
People with autism might be overly sensitive to certain sounds. For example, they might notice sounds, such as the washing machine or the humming of the fan, in the background, whereas other people might simply overlook these sounds.
People with autism might be under-sensitive to certain sounds. For example, they might enjoy loud music or banging on pots and pans. Related but separate from this is that some people with autism might find it comforting to listen to specific types of sounds. They also might seek out and find music very comforting. They might want to put certain sounds close to their ear to have a better experience with the sound.
It is recommended that the person with autism and/or their caregivers explore what preferences and needs they have related to sound. Incorporating preferred sounds into daily life can be beneficial to the well-being of a person with autism. Reducing the sounds in the environment can really help many people with autism, especially when they are trying to accomplish a task or when they are feeling overwhelmed. Headphones or earbuds are highly recommended accommodations for people with autism. They can play the sounds or music that they resonate with the most.
People with autism might be overly sensitive to certain smells. They might find certain smells very unpleasant. They might notice smells that other people don’t really pay much attention to.
People with autism might be under-sensitive to certain smells. This might appear in people who don’t seem to have a sense of smell or when the person seeks out certain smells.
To support people with autism, consider what smells make them uncomfortable and limit these smells when possible. This isn’t always possible, though, and might interfere with the person’s relationships, so it might also be helpful to find ways of helping the individual cope with unpreferred smells. On the other hand, provide smells that they find pleasant. This could be in the form of essential oils or body sprays or any method that seems appropriate for the individual.
People with autism might be overly sensitive to certain tastes. They might not be able to eat certain foods due to the taste or the texture of the food.
People with autism might be under-sensitive to tastes in that they might seek out strong flavors, such as spicy foods, or they might chew on or consume non-edible items.
It can be helpful to assess the person’s diet to ensure they have proper nutrition. However, having limited foods is not necessarily cause for concern if they are healthy and developing appropriately.
People with autism might be overly sensitive to touch. They might not like to be physically touched by others. They might not like their hair brushed. They might not like certain clothing or textures on their skin.
People with autism might be under-sensitive to touch. They might seek out physical contact by sitting on their parent’s lap or hugging people. They might enjoy heavy weighted blankets or tight pressure. They might have a high pain threshold, as well.
To support people with autism, find appropriate ways for the person to experience touch, specifically those who are hyposensitive, such as by offering a weighted blanket. On the other hand, respect the preferences of people who don’t prefer to be physically touched, such as by not forcing them to hug others. You could also find clothing they prefer to wear instead of making them endure uncomfortable textures.