As a pediatric OT, I’m always surprised at how many parents of kids with Autism (ASD) haven’t been told about the big link to sensory processing. Read on to learn about this important connection…
You’ve probably heard the staggering statistic that 1 in every 59 children have Autism. That’s a lot of kids. As an occupational therapist, I’ve stood next to dozens of families, including my own sister, as they tried to make sense of what this diagnosis meant for their child.
Once a child is diagnosed, it often feels like a whirlwind of confusion and overwhelm as they step into a new life of ABA or DIR floor time therapy for as much as 40 hours a week. Not to mention the speech therapy, occupational therapy, and possibly physical therapy. The options to consider for special diets, cutting edge supplements, and alternative therapies.
But, even with all of the information that parents are given, or in some cases left to figure out on their own, something very important slips through the cracks: sensory processing.
What is Sensory Processing?
Sensory processing is a part of every person’s brain function. It’s job is to take the sensations in from the environment (lights, sounds, tastes, smells, textures, movement, etc.) and make sense of it, or process it. Sensory processing is like a warehouse in our brain that sorts, organizes, and responds to any sensation you experience.
Your child is using their sensory processing when they ride a swing, eat a popsicle, or play in the sandbox.
What Does Sensory Have to Do With Autism?
Some experts estimate that at least 75% of all children with a diagnosis of Autism have a significant difficulty with sensory processing. That means most children with ASD have at least some sensory processing difficulties.
That percentage rate would go up if moderate and mild difficulties were considered too.
Which is why I’m still shocked at how many times I’m the first person to tell a parent of a child with Autism that sensory can have a lot to do with the behaviors and challenges, including Autism Meltdowns, they’re dealing with every day.
A few years back, I was talking to my neighbor whose son has Autism. Her schedule was packed with every kind of therapy almost all day long, including occupational therapy. He had already been in therapy for years, so I said, “Do you use a lot of sensory activities with him?” She looked a little uncomfortable and confused.
I assumed that this was part of his regular treatment, but my sweet neighbor barely had any idea what I was talking about.
I was thunderstruck, and kind of ticked off because I knew sensory was probably an incredibly valuable way to help her son make progress.
Why Sensory Activities Can Be Almost Like Magic…
Of course, as soon as I realized that my neighbor needed filled in on the sensory – autism connection, I slowly began to give her examples of how sensory activities can improve attention, interactions, and even eye contact.
The brain needs sensations to develop well. To learn, communicate, and socialize with peers.
When sensory processing isn’t working well, your child may experience the sensations, but they don’t get processed well. It’s like the warehouse of a brain loses the package or there’s a traffic jam. The child craves more or may seem totally uninterested and zoned out because their brain isn’t getting the right amount of sensory stimulation.
Or, the brain might over-process the sensations. It over reacts to sensations.
When this happens, kids are fearful, scared, and avoid sensations because they’re too intense.
Specific sensory activities can be used with kids that experience these difficulties in their sensory processing to help their brain learn to process sensations better. What’s really amazing is when you do a sensory activity with a child that was just what they needed, like magic, you see your child with Autism make better eye contact, communicate, and connect to others.
When I worked in early intervention, a speech therapist friend of mine would always try to schedule her speech appointments right after mine because I used a lot of sensory activities in my session. As a result, the child would often have increased speech and make greater strides in their speech session.
Why, because their sensory processing was working well as a result of the specific sensory activities and they could finally focus on speaking instead of trying to mange their sensory needs.
Some of my most treasured moments as a therapist have been when a child with Autism, who only had a few words and fleetingly made eye contact, would turn to me during a sensory activity, like a switch had been flipped, look directly into my eyes and say, “hi”.
Sensory “Issues” and Autism Is NOT a 2-Way Street
It is important to clarify though that Autism and sensory issues are not a 2-way street. If you have Autism, you almost certainly have at least some sensory processing difficulties, but lots of children have sensory processing difficulties and do NOT have Autism.
Some parents have heard of sensory, even though they may not fully understand it, and think that you can only have sensory issues with a diagnosis. Not true.
As I said earlier, we all have a sensory system in our brain, and just like any other aspect of development, your child may have some difficulties with sensory processing. Some children have significant sensory processing needs and receive a diagnoses of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).
This is a stand alone diagnosis, so a lot of kids have just a diagnosis of SPD.
But, it’s also possible for kids with Autism to also have a dual diagnosis of SPD and ASD. However, Sensory Processing Disorder is not recognized in the DSM, a manual doctors and other professionals use to diagnosis children.
Right now, mostly specialized occupational therapists will give a diagnosis of SPD, but it may not be recognized by your pediatrician or your insurance company, which can affect coverage of therapy services.
Sensory Symptoms + Signs in Children With Autism
It can be tricky to sort out what behaviors and actions are because of your child’s sensory processing. Here are some of the common sensory red flags you might see, particularly in children with ASD:
- Staring at spinning or flashing objects
- Running around non-stop
- Hand flapping
- Repeated actions
- Fixated on swinging
- Sensitivity to lights/sounds/smells/textures
- Climbing furniture dangerously
- Refuses to wear certain textures of clothing
- Will only eat specific colors or textures of food
- Touches, smells, or licks everything
- Chews on or mouths their shirt, pencils, and other random objects
- Bites people or objects for no apparent reason
- Likes to crawl into tight spaces or hide
- Spins in circles
- Brings objects very close to eyes to stare at
- Accidentally or intentionally bumps into other people or objects all the time
- Overwhelmed in public places
- Covers ears and has a meltdown
Often times, these behaviors start out as sensory in nature, but can become entangled over time with habits and coping strategies. Sensory is a piece of the solution in helping your child work through any of the behaviors above.
Because when these behaviors are done regularly, they interfere with learning, communication, socializing, and more.
A child’s brain sort of gets stuck trying to avoid or fill a sensation that it needs, and until it does, it will think of nothing more.
The first step though is figuring out what types of sensory needs your child has!
Do you see any of the signs in your child above? Have questions about other behaviors your child has that you don’t understand? Leave them in the comments below and we’ll give you our OT opinion on if it’s related to sensory.
21 Sensory Red Flags Free Printable
I’d love to put this helpful free printable of 21 different sensory red flags right in your hands so that you can figure out if there’s any other sensory links that you might have missed. Grab it below!
More on Sensory Processing in Kids
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 15 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.