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Managing Sensory Sensitivities in Autism

Sensory sensitivities can make it difficult to process sensory information from the environment, leading to discomfort, anxiety, and even pain. In this article, we'll discuss some tips and strategies for managing sensory sensitivities in autism.

What are Sensory Sensitivities?

Sensory sensitivities are a common experience for people with autism, and can affect their daily lives in a variety of ways. Simply put, sensory sensitivities refer to an over- or under-reaction to sensory stimuli. This can manifest in a variety of ways, such as feeling overwhelmed by loud noises, being unable to tolerate certain textures, or experiencing discomfort in bright or flickering lights.

People with autism may experience sensory sensitivities in one or more of their senses, including touch, sound, sight, taste, and smell. For example, they may be hypersensitive to certain textures, such as scratchy fabrics, or they may be hyposensitive to certain sounds, such as the sound of a vacuum cleaner. These sensitivities can be distressing and can make it difficult for individuals with autism to engage in activities that others may take for granted.

It is important to note that sensory sensitivities can vary widely from person to person, and what may be overwhelming for one individual may not be an issue for another. It is also worth noting that sensory sensitivities are not unique to autism, and can be experienced by people with a variety of conditions or by individuals who do not have a specific diagnosis.

If you or someone you know is struggling with sensory sensitivities, there are many resources available to help. The Autism Society provides a comprehensive list of resources and support groups. Additionally, many occupational therapists specialize in helping individuals with sensory processing issues, and can provide tailored strategies and interventions to help manage sensory sensitivities.

baby boy wearing pair of blue socks

The Different Types of Sensory Sensitivities in Autism

It's important to understand that sensory sensitivities can vary widely from person to person with autism. Individuals with autism may experience hypersensitivity, hyposensitivity, or a combination of both.

Hypersensitivity refers to an over-reaction to sensory stimuli, where even low levels of stimulation can be overwhelming. For example, a person may find certain sounds painfully loud or certain textures unbearable.

Hyposensitivity, on the other hand, refers to an under-reaction to sensory stimuli. This means that a person may require more stimulation than average to register a sensation. For example, they may need to touch objects more firmly or taste foods with stronger flavors in order to experience them fully.

It's also important to note that individuals with autism may have different sensitivities within each sense. For example, they may be hypersensitive to some sounds but hyposensitive to others.

Understanding the specific types of sensory sensitivities that someone with autism experiences is crucial in developing effective strategies and interventions for managing these challenges. By identifying and addressing these sensitivities, we can help individuals with autism feel more comfortable and better able to participate in daily activities.

Triggers and Early Warning Signs of Sensory Overload

One effective way to manage sensory sensitivities in autism is to identify triggers and early warning signs of sensory overload. By recognizing these triggers, individuals with autism can take steps to avoid or minimize exposure to them, and by identifying early warning signs, they can take proactive measures to prevent sensory overload.

Triggers can be anything that causes a sensory reaction, such as a loud noise or a certain texture. It's important to note that triggers can be different for each individual with autism, so it's crucial to identify them on an individual basis. Some common examples of triggers include bright lights, strong smells, certain textures of clothing or food, and loud noises.

Early warning signs of sensory overload may include physical symptoms such as sweating or shaking, behavioral changes such as increased irritability or restlessness, or verbal expressions such as complaining about discomfort. By recognizing these signs early on, individuals with autism can remove themselves from the situation before it becomes overwhelming.

To identify triggers and early warning signs of sensory overload, it may be helpful to keep a journal or log of activities and reactions. This can help identify patterns over time and provide valuable information for developing effective strategies for managing sensory sensitivities. Additionally, working with a healthcare professional such as an occupational therapist who specializes in sensory processing issues can provide guidance and support in identifying triggers and developing personalized strategies for managing them.

Using Social Stories to Prepare for Sensory Experiences

Social stories are a useful tool for preparing individuals with autism for sensory experiences. A social story is a short narrative that describes social situations in a clear and concise way, using simple language and visual aids. Social stories can help individuals with autism understand what to expect from different sensory experiences, such as going to a noisy restaurant or attending a concert.

When creating a social story, it's important to tailor the content to the individual's specific needs and preferences. For example, if an individual is sensitive to loud noises, the social story should focus on how to cope with those noises and provide strategies for managing any discomfort that may arise.

Social stories can be used in conjunction with other strategies for managing sensory sensitivities, such as wearing noise-cancelling headphones or using fidget toys. By providing clear information about what to expect from sensory experiences, social stories can help reduce anxiety and improve overall comfort levels for individuals with autism.

The Benefits of Aromatherapy for Managing Sensory Sensitivities

Aromatherapy is a complementary therapy that uses essential oils to promote physical and emotional well-being. Essential oils are concentrated extracts derived from plants, and each oil has unique properties that can be used to address specific health concerns, including sensory sensitivities.

While research on the use of aromatherapy for individuals with autism is limited, some studies suggest that certain essential oils may help reduce anxiety, improve sleep quality, and enhance overall well-being. For example, lavender oil has been shown to have a calming effect on the nervous system and may help reduce feelings of anxiety and stress.

When using aromatherapy for sensory sensitivities, it's important to choose high-quality essential oils and to use them safely. Essential oils should always be diluted before use, either by mixing them with a carrier oil or by using a diffuser. It's also important to test for any allergic reactions before using an essential oil for the first time.

While aromatherapy may not be effective for everyone with sensory sensitivities, it can be a useful tool in conjunction with other strategies such as identifying triggers and early warning signs of sensory overload or using social stories to prepare for sensory experiences. As with any complementary therapy, it's important to consult with a healthcare professional before trying aromatherapy as a treatment option.

The Role of Diet and Nutrition in Reducing Sensory Sensitivities

While the exact relationship between diet and sensory sensitivities in autism is not yet fully understood, there is evidence to suggest that dietary interventions may be helpful in reducing sensory sensitivities. Some studies have found that certain diets, such as a gluten-free or casein-free diet, may lead to improvements in behavior and cognitive function for some individuals with autism.

Additionally, certain nutrients may play a role in sensory processing. For example, magnesium has been shown to have a calming effect on the nervous system and may help reduce anxiety and improve sleep quality. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oil supplements or foods such as salmon or flaxseeds, may also have a positive impact on sensory processing.

It's important to note that dietary interventions should always be approached with caution and under the guidance of a healthcare professional. Eliminating entire food groups or drastically changing one's diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies or other health issues if not done properly. Additionally, what works for one individual with autism may not work for another.

That being said, incorporating nutrient-dense foods into one's diet may provide benefits beyond just reducing sensory sensitivities. Foods such as leafy greens, fruits, nuts, and lean proteins are all important sources of vitamins and minerals that support overall health and well-being.

As with any treatment approach for managing sensory sensitivities in autism, it's important to take an individualized approach based on the specific needs and preferences of each person. Working with a healthcare professional who specializes in autism can provide valuable guidance and support when exploring dietary interventions as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

Tips for Managing Sensory Sensitivities

Create a Sensory-Friendly Environment

Creating a sensory-friendly environment can help reduce sensory overload and improve comfort. This can include simple adjustments such as dimming the lights, using noise-cancelling headphones, or providing a weighted blanket. It's also important to reduce clutter and distractions in the environment, as this can lead to sensory overload.

Use Sensory Tools

Using sensory tools such as fidget toys, chewable jewelry, or weighted lap pads can help regulate sensory input and improve focus. These tools can provide a calming effect and help reduce anxiety.

Practice Sensory Integration Therapy

Sensory integration therapy involves exposing the individual to sensory stimuli in a controlled environment to help improve their ability to process sensory information. This can include activities such as swinging, bouncing on a therapy ball, or playing with sensory bins.

Develop Coping Strategies

Developing coping strategies can help individuals with autism manage their sensory sensitivities in everyday situations. Coping strategies can include deep breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, or visualizing a calming scene. Encouraging positive self-talk can also be helpful.

Seek Professional Help

If sensory sensitivities are significantly impacting the individual's quality of life, it may be helpful to seek professional help. Occupational therapy, for example, can provide tailored strategies to help manage sensory sensitivities and improve daily functioning.

Sensory breaks can be an effective way to manage sensory sensitivities in individuals with autism. These breaks provide a chance for the individual to take a break from overwhelming stimuli and engage in activities that regulate their sensory input.

Incorporating sensory breaks into daily routines can be as simple as taking a 5-minute break every hour to engage in a calming activity such as deep breathing or stretching. It can also involve creating a specific sensory space within the home or classroom where the individual can go when they need a break.

When designing sensory spaces, it's important to consider the individual's specific needs and preferences. Some individuals may benefit from soft lighting and comfortable seating, while others may prefer more stimulating activities such as jumping on a trampoline or playing with tactile toys.

It's also important to communicate the purpose of sensory breaks to family members, caregivers, and teachers so that everyone is on board with incorporating them into daily routines. By providing regular opportunities for sensory regulation throughout the day, we can help individuals with autism better manage their sensitivities and improve overall comfort levels.

FAQs

How can I tell if my child has sensory sensitivities?

Sensory sensitivities can manifest in a variety of ways, and may be different for each individual with autism. Some common signs of sensory sensitivities include covering ears or eyes when exposed to certain stimuli, avoiding certain textures or foods, or becoming easily overwhelmed by loud noises or bright lights. If you suspect that your child may have sensory sensitivities, it's important to consult with a healthcare professional who specializes in autism.

What are some common triggers for sensory overload?

Triggers for sensory overload can vary widely from person to person with autism. Some common triggers include bright lights, loud noises, strong smells, certain textures of clothing or food, and crowded environments. It's important to identify triggers on an individual basis and develop strategies for managing them.

Can aromatherapy really help manage sensory sensitivities?

While research on the use of aromatherapy for individuals with autism is limited, some studies suggest that certain essential oils may help reduce anxiety and improve sleep quality. However, it's important to use high-quality essential oils safely and under the guidance of a healthcare professional.

Are dietary interventions effective in reducing sensory sensitivities?

There is evidence to suggest that certain diets, such as a gluten-free or casein-free diet, may lead to improvements in behavior and cognitive function for some individuals with autism. Additionally, incorporating nutrient-dense foods into one's diet may provide benefits beyond just reducing sensory sensitivities. However, dietary interventions should always be approached with caution and under the guidance of a healthcare professional.

How can I create a sensory-friendly environment at home?

Creating a sensory-friendly environment can involve simple adjustments such as dimming the lights or using noise-cancelling headphones. It's also important to reduce clutter and distractions in the environment, as this can lead to sensory overload. Working with a healthcare professional who specializes in autism can provide guidance and support in creating a sensory-friendly environment at home.

Conclusion

Sensory sensitivities can present a significant challenge for individuals with autism. However, with the right strategies and support, managing sensory sensitivities can be achievable.

Creating a sensory-friendly environment, using sensory tools, practicing sensory integration therapy, developing coping strategies, and seeking professional help can all be effective ways to manage sensory sensitivities in autism. Remember, everyone is different, so it's important to find what works best for each individual.

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