Children with Aspergers (high functioning autism) may have problems processing information from one or more of the following seven sensory systems:
1. auditory (hearing)
2. gustatory (taste)
3. olfactory (smell)
4. proprioception (movement)
5. tactile (touch)
6. vestibular (balance)
7. visual (sight)
These processes take place at an unconscious level, and they work together to help attention and learning. Each system has specific receptors that pick up information that is relayed to the brain. The sensory characteristics of children with Aspergers can be responsible for many of their negative behaviors and unpleasant emotions. Reactions to sensory stimuli for typically developing children often become stress responses for those with Aspergers.
Sensory System Impact on Children with Aspergers—
1. Auditory System – Hearing: While they have intact hearing abilities, kids with Aspergers may not efficiently or accurately interpret auditory information. They may be hyper- and/or hyposensitive to noise, responding negatively to loud or small noises and failing to respond when their name is called.
2. Gustatory and Olfactory Systems – Taste and Smell: Issues related to the taste system manifest themselves in avoiding certain foods, eating a very circumscribed diet, and/or being very picky about foods. Closely related to the sense of taste, the olfactory system in the nose is most often characterized by a hypersensitivity to many of the smells that others enjoy or fail to notice.
3. Proprioception System – Movement: The proprioceptive system makes carrying multiple objects (e.g., backpack, books, and musical instruments) down a packed hallway possible by providing information about the location and movement of a body part. For some, these movements do not come naturally. Problems in the proprioception system can result in poor posture, a lack of coordination, and chronic fatigue accompanying physical activity. Some children do not receive accurate information from their bodies about how hard or soft they are hitting or pushing something. This can result in their using too little or too much force when tagging a peer or kicking a ball.
4. Tactile System – Touch: The tactile system provides information about objects in the environment. Tactile defensiveness may involve physical discomfort when coming into contact with someone or something that others might not register. Standing in line, taking a bath, unexpected touch, touch that is either too light or too heavy, and using a glue stick present potentially stressful situations for tactilely defensive individuals. In contrast, children who are hyposensitive fail to respond to the touch of others, yet often use touch to explore the environment for the tactile input they crave.
5. Vestibular System – Balance: The vestibular system is stimulated by movement and changes in head position. Children with vestibular hypersensitivity have low tolerance for movement and exhibit difficulties with changing speed and direction. They may experience nausea from spinning and have difficulty sitting still; others may display gravitational insecurity. Some may seek out vestibular input by crashing into things or rocking, might be considered clumsy, or have difficulty “switching gears.”
6. Visual System – Sight: Compared to other sensory areas, the visual system appears to be a relative strength for children with Aspergers. The problems that do arise are often related to hypersensitivities to light, poor hand-eye coordination/depth perception, and hypo-sensitivities that make finding an object “in plain sight” very difficult. Some children may have perfect 20/20 vision yet have difficulties with visual tracking and convergence. These problems can be detected by an exam with a behavioral ophthalmologist or optometrist.
The Aspergers Comprehensive Handbook