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Dealing with Sensory Problems in Kids on the Autism Spectrum

"Our 6 year old daughter is very very selective, for example, will only wear certain clothes, only eat certain foods, doesn't tolerate loud noises, doesn't like to be touched sometimes, and on and on. This causes a lot of conflict in our home. I've been reading where this is a sign of autism (high functioning). Is this truly a telltale sign - and should I have her assessed by a professional?"

An assessment would be warranted here. The occurrence of sensory issues and intolerance is very typical for kids on the autism spectrum. Parents of these children often recognize early that there are some "odd" problems with their youngster.

For example, they may have a hyperactive startled response to various kinds of noises, and some may walk around acting deaf because they have had to tune out the excessive noise around them. Some kids on the spectrum report auditory problems and find themselves unable to listen to someone speak or carry on a conversation in noisy or busy places.

Young people with ASD or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) also have difficulty with tactile stimulation. They may exhibit a startle response when touched or feel uncomfortable when held. They may be overwhelmed when dealing with the wearing of new clothing that their body hasn’t become accustomed to. The youngster may prefer certain textures of clothing, such as soft, loose cotton.

There can be difficulty tolerating certain textures or tastes of food. Moms and dads need to be aware of this when trying new foods or when the child enters a new eating environment (e.g., school lunches, eating at the homes of others, etc.).

Coping with some of these sensory difficulties often means having an understanding of the common problems and trial-and-error regarding the specific problems your daughter has (e.g., new clothing may need to be washed a few times until they are softer and easier to wear). Some girls with HFA can't tolerate the rubbing of their legs together, and so need to wear pants and not dresses.

The proper middle ground between sensory deprivation and a noisy, chaotic environment needs to be found and maintained whenever possible. Exposing the child to dozens of screaming kids at daycare may not always be the best option for the child on the autism spectrum.

Parents also need to find the most effective way to give affection to their child without creating more anxiety. Cuddling with your daughter may be less of an option than just verbally showing approval. Parents can show their affection in ways that are less stressful to the child, yet still give the same comfortable message.

As your daughter ages, she may have greater insight into what kinds of things she can tolerate and which things she can't. Until then, you will need to have some patience and creativity in finding the right middle ground that leaves her as comfortable as possible.

As one mother of an autistic child stated:
“I allow my daughter (8yo) to pick her clothes out. She has since she was about 2 years old, she sometimes wears dresses with cowboy boots or sweaters with shorts and cleats. Does she look unique? YES - but she is comfortable, she is in charge of something meaningful to her. I know what she will and will not wear so I am in charge of purchases, but her recommendations are spot on. My non-AS girls pick out their clothes too, we have NO fights about getting dressed. I have found that giving her options is the best way to cut down on conflict, the difference is that I make up the options, so a choice of two things, but both are easy for me and then she is happy as she gets to choose.”

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