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The Best Therapy for Sensory Sensitivities in Kids on the Spectrum

"What would be the best therapy for high functioning autistic children who are overly sensitive to bright lights, loud noises, strong odors, certain fabrics, and certain foods?"

Children with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger's (AS) often have a secondary diagnosis of sensory dysfunction. This may be found in the youngster who can't get enough sensory input, and needs to touch everything, jump on things, and simply craves input - or it may be the youngster that can't stand touch, doesn't like certain clothing because it irritates him or her, and can't handle sounds.

Most of us unconsciously learn to combine our senses (i.e., sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, balance, body in space) in order to make sense of our environment. Kids on the autism spectrum have trouble learning to do this.

Sensory integration therapy (SIT) is a type of Occupational Therapy (OT) that places a youngster in a room specifically designed to stimulate and challenge all of the senses. During the session, the therapist works closely with the youngster to encourage movement within the room.

SIT is driven by four key principles:
  1. the youngster's preferences are used to initiate therapeutic experiences within the session
  2. the youngster will want to participate because the activities are fun
  3. the youngster must be able to successfully meet the challenges that are presented through playful activities
  4. the youngster adapts his behavior with new and useful strategies in response to the challenges presented

SIT is based on the assumption that the youngster is either over-stimulated or under-stimulated by the environment. Therefore, the aim of SIT is to improve the ability of the brain to process sensory information so that the youngster will function better in his daily activities.

A sensory integration room is designed to make the youngster want to run into it and play. During SIT, the youngster interacts one-on-one with the occupational therapist and performs an activity that combines sensory input with motion. Examples of such activities include:
  • balancing on a beam
  • crawling through tunnels
  • dancing to music
  • hitting swinging balls
  • playing in boxes filled with beans
  • spinning on a chair
  • swinging in a hammock

The youngster is guided through all of these activities in a way that is stimulating and challenging. The focus of SIT is helping kids with HFA and AS combine appropriate movements with input they get from the different senses.

The child's mother or father can integrate sensory integration into the home by providing many opportunities for the youngster to move in different ways and feel different things (e.g., a swing set can be a form of SIT, as can a ball pit or a lambskin rug).

Ever day, people experience events that simultaneously stimulate more than one sense. They use their multiple senses to take in this varied information, and combine this information to give them a clear understanding of the world around them. People learn during childhood how to do this. Thus, through childhood experiences, people gain the ability to use all of their senses together to plan a response to anything they notice in the environment. However, kids on the spectrum are less capable of this kind of synthesis, and therefore they may have trouble responding appropriately to differently stimuli.

Kids with HFA and AS may also have a difficult time listening when they are preoccupied with looking at something else. This is an example of their difficulty in receiving information via more than one sense simultaneously. Doctors who treat kids on the spectrum believe that these difficulties are the result of differences between the brains of autistic kids and other "typical" kids.

The underlying concepts of SIT are based on research in the areas of neuroscience, developmental psychology, occupational therapy, and education. Research suggests that sensory information received from the environment is critical. Interactions between the youngster and the environment shape the brain and influence learning. Furthermore, research suggests that the brain can change in response to environmental input, and rich sensory experiences can stimulate change in the brain.

Sensory integration equipment is relatively low-tech, but can be moderately expensive. These include anything from large bins of rice that a youngster can climb into, to an indoor swing set.

Another sensory-related therapy is called Sensory Stories. Sensory Stories are similar to social stories in that they use individualized stories about sensory situations that an individual autistic boy or girl may encounter, and then provides instructions on appropriate behaviors for the youngster to use in response.

Resources for parents of children and teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism:

Selective Mutism in Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Selective mutism (SM) is strongly associated with anxiety disorders, particularly social anxiety disorder. Some kids on the autism spectrum have SM, which is their way of avoiding anxious feelings elicited by expectations and social encounters.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism 

The Importance of Visual Schedules for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

"My 4-year-old (high functioning) son has trouble moving from task to task. How can I help him finish a particular activity (like putting his legos back in the boxes), and then get him to move on to the next thing (like getting ready for bed) without creating anxiety and the resultant meltdowns?"

Children with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger's thrive on routine and structure. As your son begins to recognize structure in his life, this may be the time to make a visual schedule to help him recognize when certain events are happening in his day.

A visual schedule works better than a written schedule for obvious reasons, as your child may not be able to read and thus may not get the benefit of the visual cue.

To make such a visual schedule, you can use a white board on which you put the hours of the day and a space at the top for the day of the week. Purchase strips of Velcro that have a sticky back and place a small square of Velcro in each time slot.

Using thick card, draw the different aspects of the day in visual form (e.g.,  draw pictures of food for the times of the day that you eat; draw a picture of a bed for the times your child sleeps).

Each day, pin up the pictorial representation of your day and put the day of the week at the top. When your child wakes up, bring him to the board and talk about when different things will happen. When it comes time for the various events in the day, have the child tear off the pictorial representation and talk about what it is you’re going to be doing. Put the pictorial representation in a nearby box for the next day.

This technique will help your son appreciate structure in his day. It leaves no question as to what will happen and it involves, in a way, the completion of tasks (something HFA children like to do).

By using Velcro squares, you can alter the schedule every day for things like shopping and doctor’s visits. Each day can look the way it’s supposed to on the board and will give your son a lesser degree of confusion about the things that he will be doing that day.


•    Anonymous said... Visuals with rewards for automated clearing up. Comments like I see Lego on the floor honey,,, rather than nagging works too
•    Anonymous said... Visual timers work well, telling him how long he has to do an activity and giving a 5 min warning before time is up. Sue Larkey has a clock that you have a red screen that goes over the minutes so very easy to see and these have worked well with both my boys from everyday tasks of eating breakfast, to computer time to they were using it at school so my eldest could see how long he had to complete a task.
•    Anonymous said... Visual schedules work great for our son
•    Anonymous said... Picture charts of what you are doing today, let him cross off the ones he's completed and go on to the next. They worked for me
•    Anonymous said... my son (5 yr old) & I went through PCIT (parent child interactive therapy) AND; it taught us both a great deal on matters such as this! Two things have worked well for us: 1) before he starts an activity, I tell him he has 10 min. for this activity, then we'll begin the next one (tell him what the next activity is, that's called "labled activity"). Also, before he begins, tell him before time is up, you'll start the countdown from 3 min.: 3 min., 2 min., then 1 min. (you will have to verbally call out "2 more min.", etc.) This lets him know that time is depleting & he will mentally prepare himself for the end of 1 task, and the beginning of another!! 2) Make sure you reassure him that he can participate in that task again (tomorrow, or whenever) so he doesn't get overwhelmed thinking he'll never get to do that activity again. Most Aspie's take things literally (as a matter of fact). If you tell him he can't play with that toy, he'll believe it's "never play with it, instead of can't play with it right now". Lastly, before beginning an activity, explain to him that "we have to put our activity away when we're finished". The explanation I give is "if we don't put our things/toys in their box/cubby, then the pieces willl get lost & we have to keep all the pieces together because they're a family unit!" This usually helps him understand! I hope this helps with your son!! Good luck.
•    Anonymous said... My son used check lists. Or popsicle sticks work really well... Color/picture coded for each task so when completed they are matched up with the 'to-do' list .
•    Anonymous said... Keep him on a strict schedule and reward him with praise when he completes his assigned task. At bedtime, have him pick out a favorite book and read it to him til he drifts off to sleep or have him listen to books read on CDs. Dramatic actors read volunteer to read these books through the reading for the blind. You can join for free and disabilities count. You only have to show some impairment. That's what I did with my son and it worked most of the time. Although he also slept with a security blankie :)
•    Anonymous said... I tell him at the beginning of the task what his reward will be. I come and sit there redirecting if its a challenge for him. If its a big mess or a lot of homework I split it up into 3 things. ex: First clean up legos, then books, then clothes. Then icecream!!!
•    Anonymous said... Repetition is key with anything in my experience ,I find out what works and don't change it until it doesn't work anymore :)
•    Anonymous said... AS kids love the same routine, get them into the habit and keep it going no matter what, and offer rewards for doing a good job. Consistency and praise... And who doesn't react well to that?! ;)
•    Anonymous said... At 8 we still have this problem.We use a schedule/check list at home and in school.
•    Anonymous said... My son is 11 and I still have a problem with transitions. I give him a count down warning. My son doesn't like to be overly praised so I don't make a big deal but I let him know I'm proud of him. My son also has OCD so when he does clean up they have to perfect or he has a melt down.

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Meltdowns are not a pretty sight. They are somewhat like overblown temper tantrums, but unlike tantrums, meltdowns can last anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour. When it starts, the Asperger's or HFA child is totally out-of-control. When it ends, both you and your child are totally exhausted. But... don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. At the least provocation, for the remainder of that day -- and sometimes into the next - the meltdown can return in full force.

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Parenting Defiant Teens on the Spectrum

Although Aspergers [high-functioning autism] is at the milder end of the autism spectrum, the challenges parents face when disciplining a teenager on the spectrum are more difficult than they would be with an average teen. Complicated by defiant behavior, the teen is at risk for even greater difficulties on multiple levels – unless the parents’ disciplinary techniques are tailored to their child's special needs.

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Older Teens and Young Adult Children with ASD Still Living At Home

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Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism

Two traits often found in kids with High-Functioning Autism are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the youngster’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by adults and other children as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

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