The percentage of children diagnosed as autistic who also have sensory processing issues is reportedly between 69% to 95%.¹ Sensory challenges can have a huge impact on a student’s functioning in their everyday lives. They may impact a range of areas and lead to avoidance or lack of opportunities impacting on their learning, social skills and skill development.
We will be exploring the sensory systems and delving into how this can impact our functioning of day-to-day life. We will share strategies and ways in which we can manage sensory needs and implement them in a variety of different environments.
We all have sensory processing and need it to function all day every day. For example, on hearing a fire alarm, our brain processes that noise and knows it means we need to leave the building. We don’t take notice of sensory processing challenges until it impacts the way we function. For example, I hate the feeling of cotton wool so I would never buy it. I will use a cloth or alternative so that I am still able to function.
We all have sensory preferences and have an element of control over the stimuli we want or don’t want to have around us. This is a lot easier to do for adults than children and young people. For example, if we don’t like the busy-ness, bright lights or noise in a supermarket we might choose to order our groceries online. Whereas if children and young people have the same sensory challenges, they may still get taken to the supermarket by their parents.
Sensory Processing Challenges
When the brain becomes unable to process the stimuli in our environment it will stop being able to produce an appropriate reaction therefore impacting everyday functioning. At this stage we need to look at the input for that individual and the support needed for their sensory challenges.
Under- and over-responsive
When we are looking at an individuals’ sensory challenges we may state that they’re over- or under-responsive in the different sensory systems. By under-responsive we mean one of two things:
- either actively seeking more of that input or,
- passively under-responsive and therefore needing support to gain more input to reach a calm and alert state ready for engagement.
When we talk about over-responsive, we mean that the brain is unable to process the input it is receiving therefore an inappropriate response is produced.
For those who are over-responsive a smaller amount of stimuli is needed to reach the threshold of the brain processing an incoming message. Whereas it takes a larger stimuli for those that are under-responsive to input.
The different sensory systems
- Tactile (touch) – this helps us to function in everyday tasks and discriminate between objects. For example, knowing the difference between our keys and our phone when both are in our pocket
- Visual (sight) – our ability to see
- Auditory (hearing) – our ability to hear
- Olfactory (smell) – our ability to smell. This sense is closely linked to memories
- Gustatory (taste) – our ability to taste
- Proprioception (where our body is in space) – located in the joints and muscles. This sense helps us to know where our body is in space without needing to look where it is. For example, tying an apron behind your back is using proprioception
- Vestibular (where our head is in space) – located in our ear therefore equilibrium and balance. It works with gravity to know where our head is in space
- Interoception (internal sensations) – our bodily functions. For example, knowing we need to go to the toilet, feeling hungry or ill
Fight, flight or freeze
The fight, flight or freeze response happens when the brain doesn’t know what to make of the stimuli in the environment and goes into survival mode. This often happens when someone is over-stimulated and has too much information to process.
An example of this is the feelings you may get when walking through a dark alley at night and you hear a rustle or footsteps behind you. Your senses will likely heighten and respond to every noise and sound you hear and see. If this was during the day or when with someone else you might not notice.
Our learners’ experience of Sensory Challenges
Sensory preferences and experiences vary for every individual. We all have sensory preferences weather we notice these or not. We may avoid certain food at home, we may prefer certain chairs to sit on at work and use techniques such as having coffee in the morning to help our alertness levels. For lots of us, we do this without even noticing it, and our sensory preferences do not present as challenging. For autistic learners this is not always the case, and the school day can present challenges for the senses. Some learners at BeyondAutism are working on verbalising how they feel (see quotes below). Other learners, who are unable to explain verbally, may show us how they are feeling through their behaviour. For example, this may present as covering ears to reduce noise input, avoiding certain activities, shouting or seeking sensory input repetitively.