The sensory perceptual differences autistic people may experience
This week’s article continues on discussing sensory perceptual differences autistic people may experience.
As World Autism Acceptance Week fast approaches on March 28, we hope this helps to offer an insight in how to create a more accepting environment for autistic people within our community.
• likes very spicy foods
• eats or mouths non-edible items such as stones, dirt, soil, grass, metal, faeces.
This is known as pica.
• finds some flavours and foods too strong and overpowering because of very sensitive taste buds. Has a restricted diet. Certain textures cause discomfort – may only eat smooth foods like mashed potatoes or ice-cream.
Some autistic people may limit themselves to bland foods or crave very strong-tasting food. As long as someone has some dietary variety, this isn’t necessarily a problem. Find out more about over-eating and restricted diets.
• holds others tightly – needs to do so before there is a sensation of having applied any pressure
• has a high pain threshold
• may be unable to feel food in the mouth
• may hurt themselves
• enjoys heavy objects (eg weighted blankets) on top of them
• chews on everything, including clothing and inedible objects.
You could help by:
• offering alternatives to handle with similar textures, such as jelly, or cornflour and water for chewing, offering latex-free tubes, straws or hard sweets (chill in the fridge).
• touch can be painful and uncomfortable – people may not like to be touched and this can affect their relationships with others
• dislikes having anything on hands or feet
• difficulties brushing and washing hair because head is sensitive
• may find many food textures uncomfortable
• only tolerates certain types of clothing or textures.
You could help by:
• warning the person if you are about to touch them – always approach them from the front
• remembering that a hug may be painful rather than comforting
• changing the texture of food (eg purée it)
• slowly introducing different textures around the person’s mouth, such as a flannel, a toothbrush and some different foods; gradually introducing different textures to touch, eg have a box of materials available; turning clothing inside out so the seams don’t rub, remove tags/labels if the person wants you to/ some autistic people like to rub the labels instead
• allowing a person to complete activities themselves (eg hair brushing and washing) so that they can do what is comfortable for them
• turning clothes inside out so there is no seam, removing any tags or labels allowing the person to wear clothes they’re comfortable in.
• a need to rock, swing or spin to get some sensory input.
You could encourage activities that help to develop the vestibular system.
These could include using rocking horses, swings, roundabouts, seesaws, catching a ball or practising walking smoothly up steps or curbs.
• difficulties with activities like sport, where we need to control our movements; difficulties stopping quickly or during an activity
• car sickness
• difficulties with activities where the head is not upright or feet are off the ground.
You could help by breaking down activities into small, more easily manageable steps and using visual cues such as a finish line.
Body awareness (proprioception)
Our body awareness system tells us where our bodies are in space, and how different body parts are moving.
• stands too close to others, because they cannot measure their proximity to other people and judge personal space
• finds it hard to navigate rooms and avoid obstructions
• may bump into people.
You could help by:
• positioning furniture around the edge of a room to make navigation easier using weighted blankets to provide deep pressure
• putting coloured tape on the floor to indicate boundaries
• use a floor mat/ carpet square to sit on.
• difficulties with fine motor skills, eg manipulating small objects like buttons or shoelaces
• moves whole body to look at something.
You could help by offering fine motor activities like lacing boards.
Synaesthesia is a rare condition experienced by some autistic people.
An experience goes in through one sensory system and out through another.
So a person might hear a sound but experience it as a colour. In other words, they will hear the colour blue.
Therapies and equipment
We can’t make recommendations as to the effectiveness of individual therapies and interventions or equipment. However –
• Music therapists use instruments and sounds to develop people’s sensory systems, usually their auditory (hearing) systems. Sound baths/gongs can also be therapeutic for some individuals.
• Occupational therapists design programmes and often make changes to the environment so that people with sensory differences can live as independently as possible.
• Speech and language therapists often use sensory stimuli to encourage and support the development of language and interaction.
• Some people say they find coloured filters helpful, although there is only very limited research evidence. Find out more from UK Irlen Centres.
• Sensory integrative therapy and Sensory Integration Network.