Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders


Sensory Traits of Children on the Autism Spectrum

Parents and teachers who interact with kids and teens who have Asperger’s (AS) and High Functioning Autism (HFA) often observe unusual sensory responses. For instance, these young people are often hypersensitive to certain visual stimuli (e.g., fluorescent lights) and certain sounds (e.g., echoing noises in a school gym). This sensitivity can cause agitation and behavior problems.

Some children with AS and HFA have been reported to have a high tolerance for physical pain. In addition, kids on the spectrum commonly engage in self-stimulatory responses (e.g., obsessive object spinning, light filtering, etc.) and other unusual stereotyped patterns of behavior. These behaviors are most often displayed when the youngster is under stress or when he experiences fatigue, sensory overload, etc. The sensory issues of kids and teens with AS and HFA appear similar to those with autism; however, their reactions to sensory issues seem more overt than those seen in children with autism.

Hypo-sensitivities (i.e., low sensitivity) to sensory input may include:
  • A constant need to touch people or textures, even when it’s inappropriate to do so
  • An extremely high tolerance for - or indifference to - pain
  • Clumsy and uncoordinated movements
  • Doesn’t understand personal space even when same-age peers are old enough to understand it
  • Enjoys movement-based play (e.g., spinning, jumping, etc.)
  •  May be very fidgety and unable to sit still
  • Often (unintentionally) harms other children and/or pets when playing because he doesn’t understand his own strength
  • Seems to be a “thrill seeker” and can be dangerous at times

Hyper-sensitivities (i.e., high sensitivity) to sensory input may include:
  • Avoids hugs and cuddling, even with parents
  • Avoids standing in close proximity to others
  • Doesn’t enjoy a game of tag
  • Doesn’t like her feet to be off the ground
  • Extreme response to - or fear of - sudden, high-pitched, loud, or metallic noises (e.g., flushing toilets, clanking silverware, other noises that are not offensive to others)
  • Extremely fearful of climbing or falling, even when there is no real danger
  • Fearful of surprise touch
  • Has poor balance, and may fall often
  • May notice and/or be distracted by background noises that others don’t seem to hear
  • Overly fearful of swings and playground equipment
  • Seems fearful of crowds

Researchers have conducted studies on sensory issues with AS and HFA children. The vast majority of subjects who participated in the studies had impairments in the following areas:
  • emotional reactive
  • inattention/distractibility
  • low/endurance tone
  • oral sensory sensitivity
  • poor registration
  • sedentary

More than 75% of these subjects demonstrated behavioral problems when sensory issues were violated. The researchers concluded that AS and HFA children have a sensory profile distinctive from “typical” children and are apt to demonstrate disruptive behaviors when they encounter sensory problems.

Addressing sensory issues requires looking beyond the behavior to interpret its reason before designing an intervention. As in all interventions, a team approach works best (i.e., parents, teachers, and other caretakers working together). Furthermore, when dealing with sensory issues, an occupational therapist or other professional trained in sensory integration can be a valuable multidisciplinary team member.

Many of the interventions are easy to implement at home and school. Nonetheless, parents and teachers should work together as a team to pinpoint the behavior a youngster exhibits (i.e., incident), its cause (i.e., interpretation), and practical solutions (i.e., intervention).

A programmatic technique for responding to sensory issues is often beneficial to kids and teens on the spectrum. One program, the visually-based “How Does Your Engine Run: The Alert Program for Self-Regulation,” seems particularly well-suited to the needs of these “special needs” kids. This program was designed to help these children recognize their sensory needs. It helps them to recognize their level of alertness and compare it to task demands. If the two do not match, the youngster (after completing a series of lessons) is taught to adjust her arousal level to match task demands. To accomplish this, there are a variety of interventions grouped into 5 categories: aural, movement, oral, touch, and visual. The program is designed for occupational therapists to use in conjunction with parents and teachers.

As any one behavior may have many sensory causes, it is difficult to set forth a series of universally applied recommendations that can be implemented at home and school. Intervention is effective when it directly addresses the function of the behavior.

Here are some videos that look at the sensory challenges that many children and teens on the autism spectrum must face:

* For more information on sensory traits in children on the autism spectrum - and how parents can help - download your copy of The Aspergers Comprehensive Handbook.

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