Each of us is continually taking in and processing sensory information (touch, smell, taste, visual and auditory information, and movement) from both the environment and our bodies. The nervous system must scan this information and quickly determine which sensations are important for self-organization and for acting on the environment. At the same time, the nervous system must filter out and ignore unnecessary input. Children on the Autism Spectrum frequently have difficulties with this filtering process, resulting in extreme sensitivity to sensory information. The child may respond by demonstrating fear, avoidance, or by striking out at the bothersome input. Repetitive stereotypic movements, often seen in children on the Autism Spectrum, may be means of shutting out irritating sensations or of providing organizing input. Sensory accommodations can assist in regulation and organization and can help to decrease negative reactions to sensory input.
Deep touch pressure and heavy work activities or strong information to the muscles and joints (proprioception), is generally calming and organizing. Many behaviors, common in children on the Autism Spectrum, such as jumping, repetitive running, head banging, chewing on non-food objects, biting or hitting self or others, or hand flapping may be the result of a need for this kind of input. The following are ways to productively provide organizing input:
Firm hugs and snuggling, pressure to the top of the head, shoulders or feet, and massage may be helpful. Follow your child’s lead and let their response tell you what works best.
Wrapping your child in a blanket or a piece of Lycra spandex provides deep pressure to most of the body. Wrapping arms in ace bandages may help – decrease self biting or scratching.
Vibration provides strong proprioceptive input. Children often enjoy holding a massager, using a squiggle pen, or sitting on a vibrating cushion. Using an electric toothbrush provides this input to the mouth on a daily basis.
Oral input can also be provided using crunchy or chewy foods such as bagels, carrots, pretzels, crackers, dried fruit, chewing gum, or fruit rolls. Whistles, kazoos, party blowers, and making “raspberries” also provide good input to the mouth.
Squeezing objects such as hand exercise balls, theraputty, a kneaded artists’ eraser or a balloon filled with flour provide input to the hands and can facilitate attention. For children who like to manipulate small objects, there is a large selection of “fidget toys” at most toy stores.
Your child can wear a backpack, hat, fanny pack, or place heavy things in his/her pocket. A fanny pack filled with putty provides deep pressure and a readily available object to squeeze.
Help your child to engage in heavy work such as pushing, pulling or carrying heavy objects. Jumping on a firm pillow or trampoline, riding bicycles or other riding toys, hanging from monkey bars, swimming or horseback riding are all great “heavy work” activities.
An older child may benefit from a supervised exercise program which could include weight lifting, running or use of aerobic exercise equipment
For the child who seeks a great deal of movement, try providing movement experiences through out the day. It may help to wake your child 15 minutes earlier before school and allow them to jump on the bed or to swing.
Use of a “Sit and Move Cushion”, a wedge-shaped, air filled cushion that allows subtle movement, may decrease fidgeting while seated.
The following suggestions may be helpful in reducing potentially bothersome sensations:
Keep visual and auditory distractions to a minimum. It may be helpful to have a quiet space in your home with a reduced number of toys. A small tent, a table covered with a blanket or a large empty box works well as a quiet “fort.” Carpet can decrease noise and a bean bag chair or pillows can provide comforting deep pressure.
Be aware that bright lights or the flicker and hum of florescent lighting may be disturbing. Use lamps and other lighting alternatives. Children who are highly sensitive to light may prefer to wear sunglasses.
For the child who seeks out repetitive visual stimulation (i.e., spinning objects, finger flicking), try redirecting to activities that are interactive while combining vision and movement such as blowing bubbles and chasing them, water play and ball games.
Prepare your child for sudden noises. Vacuum and use other noisy appliances while he/she is out.
Unexpected touch can be difficult for children who are sensory defensive. Approach your child from the front and provide a warning before touching.
Be watchful during stimulating group activities such as birthday parties, family gatherings, recess or lunch time at school, trips to malls or playgrounds. Your child may be bothered by the large amounts of multiple sensory input inherent in these situations. Allow your child to sit or stand on the outskirts of the group and move in as he/she feels comfortable. It may be helpful to initially spend a short time in these settings, increasing the time as your child’s comfort level increases.
To help a child who is over-sensitive to smells, use unscented detergent and shampoo. Do not wear perfume or use car or stick-up air fresheners. Use unscented markers.