It is very common for individuals with autism to experience sensory processing difficulties. This means that these individuals struggle with receiving information from one or more of their five senses: smell, taste, touch, sight, and sound. There are two different ways that sensory difficulties can affect someone, hypo-sensitivity and hyper-sensitivity. Hyper-sensitivity is when your body overreacts to normal levels of sensory stimulation, whereas hypo-sensitivity is when your body under-reacts to normal levels of sensory stimulation. Individuals who struggle with sensory processing will need to make adjustments and have specific accommodations in place to aid them in regulating their senses in certain scenarios.

Those with hypo-sensitivity can often feel the need to be in constant motion; crave fast, spinning and/or intense movement, and jumping on furniture and trampolines. Those who are hyper-sensitive may be fearful of activities that require good balance, including climbing on playground equipment, riding a bike, or balancing on one foot, especially with eyes closed. They may also appear clumsy.

What are sensory processing difficulties?

Sensory processing difficulties were first identified by the idea that certain people’s brains can not do what most people take for granted – process all the information coming in through seven (not the traditional five) senses to provide a clear picture of what’s happening both internally and externally.

Along with touch, hearing, taste, smell and sight, there are the “internal” senses of body awareness (proprioception) and movement (vestibular). When the brain can’t synthesize all this information coming in simultaneously, it has been described as “It’s like a traffic jam in your head, with conflicting signals quickly coming from all directions, so that you don’t know how to make sense of it all.”

The internal senses: Proprioceptive receptors are located in the joints and ligaments, allowing for motor control and posture. The proprioceptive system tells the brain where the body is in relation to other objects and how to move. Individuals who are hypo-sensitive crave input; they may love jumping, bumping and crashing activities, as well as seeking deep pressure such as that provided by tight bear hugs or squeezing into tight spaces. Individuals who identify as hyper-sensitive, often have difficulty understanding where their body is in relation to other objects and may bump into things and appear clumsy; because they have trouble sensing the amount of force they’re applying, they may rip the paper when erasing, pinch too hard or slam objects down.

Some adults with ASD have found the following adaptations can help with sensory difficulties:

  • Headphones, music players, earmuffs, noise cancelling headphones, & ear plugs.
  • Sunglasses, tinted glasses, and hats with brims.
  • Chewing gum or other chewable items.
  • Stress balls or other “fidgets”.
  • Environmental aids – work-spaces designed to remove or reduce physical barriers for individuals with autism. Such as standing desks or work-spaces, reduced lighting, and minimized visual distractions.
  • Products such as therapy ball chairs, which are designed to help people gain a better sense of, and more control over, their own balance and coordination, by providing feedback to the sensory system.
  • Smartphones, tablets, calculators, computers, managing calendars, setting reminders, and paper-based organizers like day planners or visual schedules can all help with organization and other executive functioning difficulties.