Sensory Sensitivities Can Cause Meltdowns in Kids on the Spectrum?!

"Is it possible that my (high functioning) son’s sensory problems contribute to his meltdowns? What are some of the things I should be aware of that may set him off?"

Kids with ASD level 1, or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) often have to deal with extreme sensitivities to everyday sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch. They also may have problems with balance. Some experts believe that while sensory sensitivity may cause autistic kids to experience meltdowns in the first place, after a while such behaviors become learned. Nevertheless, studies indicate that between 40% and 80% of boys and girls on the autism spectrum do experience sensory sensitivities.

1. Proprioceptive and Vestibular Disorders— These are about orienting yourself in space, keeping your body in balance, and maintaining good posture and movement. In “typical” kids, a complex network of nerves works together with their senses naturally (e.g., they can sit down without looking at their chair, they know where their feet are, they know how to straighten their shirt without looking in the mirror, etc.). But HFA children have problems with such abilities that operate on the unconscious level for “typical” kids. This makes simple activities like climbing stairs skills that must be learned. Activities that involve complex movements, changes in speed, or hand-eye coordination (e.g., handwriting, playing basketball) become nightmares for many young people on the spectrum.

2. Sight— Visual problems are less common. Only about 1 in 5 children with HFA has them. However, some of these kids get upset by certain pictures, colors or bright lights. Some experience colors as sounds. They often stand too close to others or stare at them inappropriately. They can search for an object and not notice that it is right in front of them. And the majority of kids on the spectrum have problems making eye contact with other people.

==> Preventing Meltdowns and Tantrums

3. Sound— Hearing problems are the most common. Some HFA kids seem to hear sounds others don’t. They can be driven to distraction by noises everyone else filters out (e.g., the buzz of fluorescent lights, sirens off in the distance, etc.). The inability to filter out background noises makes it hard for many of these young people to follow conversations or listen to their educators' directions. Some sounds seem actually painful to these young people. For example, the youngster may scream at the sound of the vacuum cleaner, or cover his ears at the sound of a police siren. Auditory sensitivity makes it hard for moms and dads to take their special needs child to noisy places (e.g., video arcades, restaurants, movie theaters, etc.).

4. Taste and Smell— Many experts conclude that kids rely more on their senses of smell and taste than sight and hearing. They have strong memories of smells (e.g., they may be able to recognize peers by their unique body odors). Certain smells (e.g., food, cleaning fluids, perfumes, shampoos, lotions, etc.) can make them nauseous. Even everyday substances like toothpaste can make them sick to their stomachs. This makes it hard for them to handle routine places (e.g., school cafeteria, shopping mall, fast food restaurant, etc.). The child’s acute sense of smell and taste may also create eating problems. He may limit himself to certain foods, eat one food at a time, or not allow certain unwanted foods to touch on his plate.

5. Touch— Children on the spectrum may be overly or under-sensitive to touch. If overly sensitive, he may find tags on clothing very irritating, only wear certain fabrics or clothes that are old and soft from washings, refuse to work with certain textures like glue, and so on. He may scream in the shower because he can’t stand the feel of water on his skin. Hyposensitivity can cause these youngsters not to feel or report pain. They may not react to temperatures.

Treatment for sensory sensitivities...

Young people on the spectrum often have problems processing, organizing and using information received by their senses. This is called Sensory Integration Disorder. There are many therapeutic techniques to help HFA kids with sensory integration and sensitivity. And early intervention is crucial.
==> Discipline for Defiant Teens

When “typical” students sit down for the day’s lesson, they filter-out background stimuli. The vast array of sights and sounds (in the classroom, outside the window, in the hallway) don’t distract them. They zero-in on what the teaching is saying and take fairly accurate notes. But many HFA students often over-attend to some stimuli (e.g., the pattern on the teacher’s dress) and under-attend to others (e.g., the teacher’s comment that an assignment is due tomorrow). This creates problems in the classroom, but also difficulties in completing routine tasks (e.g., sitting in a chair, understanding the intentions of fellow classmates, remembering what to do for homework, etc.).

Because of Sensory Integration Disorders, kids with autism are often easily frustrated. They may shut down emotionally when they feel overwhelmed or throw tantrums. They can fail at school because little things like a student's sharpening a pencil distract them. This distractibility combined with hypersensitivity to noise, lights, touches and smells often means that they can’t process new material fast enough to produce a normal workload.

Kids with HFA will not outgrow Sensory Integration Disorder. Moms and dads can’t cure it by telling their youngsters to ignore whatever is distracting them. Therapists and educators who work with special needs kids use many techniques to help them cope with Sensory Integration Disorder. Some are as simple as playing background music or increasing the youngster's exercise time. Aromatherapy, art therapy, object manipulation and massage help some kids. Some benefit by working one-on-one with a personal coach.

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) is an important therapeutic technique used with all forms of autism spectrum disorders. Its main principle is to break tasks into tiny steps and to reward correct responses with treats, stickers or small toys (e.g., if a youngster manages to keep working despite a distraction placed near his desk, his therapist may give him a reward). ABA therapists praise the child specifically (e.g., saying, "You did a good job answering the phone" ...rather than just saying, "Good job"). ABA therapists also help kids who don’t know how to break jobs into small steps (e.g., if the child needs a book, it may never occur to him to ask his mother to take him to the library as a first step).

Another method to address Sensory Integration Disorders is called Dialectical Behavior Technique. The therapist helps the youngster learn how to tolerate higher levels of frustration and to control his emotional responses to conflict or frustration.

Another technique to address Sensory Integration Disorders involves moms and dads keeping diaries of their kid's frustrations in terms of sensory issues. There are usually three columns in the diary. The first is a record of the incident (e.g., parent writes, "Michael had a meltdown getting dressed"). The second column is the possible reason for the meltdown (e.g., "Michael says he can’t tolerate tags on clothes"). The third column is the intervention (e.g., "Cut off tags on all of Michael’s shirts).

Another therapeutic technique is occupational therapy. Many kids with HFA go through this type of therapy. They learn through "hands-on" methods how to translate visual and auditory input into motor tasks (e.g., handwriting, tying shoes, opening a milk carton, sports activities, etc.). Therapists often use specialized equipment (e.g., Thera-putty, camping pillows, T-stools, inflatable discs, etc.) to help these young people better orient themselves in space.

Lastly, many children with ASD level 1 benefit from prescription drugs that reduce their anxiety, increase their concentration, and help them fall asleep.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD


•    Anonymous said... Definitely. Sound and smells play a huge role in behaviors. And the person usually doesn't realize that is what's troubling them.
•    Anonymous said... Florescent (where's spell ck when I need it?!) Lights bother my son horribly; when in elementary school, two teachers (2 different years) brought lamps from home for the classroom & turned off the overhead lights; the other years, he wore sun glasses in the classroom.
•    Anonymous said... Noise definitely gets to my son. Sometimes it's the specific noise itself, and sometimes he just gets overwhelmed by all of the different noises that are going on at once.
•    Anonymous said... yeah i agree. my son always had a problem with supermarkets, the bright lightshe tinny music, the overload of smells. ive known other kids and adults with similar issues dom even had a problem with one teacher in particular and it was down to the guys aftershave.

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