This section provides a very brief overview of the sensory processing differences in autism and strategies to meet sensory needs. Middletown Centre for Autism has comprehensive online resource for sensory processing.
Autistic students may have differences in how they process sensory input from the environment and from their own bodies. This affects their perception of the world and can lead to difficulties in learning, play and interaction.
Students may over-respond or under-respond to sensory input, or fluctuate between these two extremes:
- Sensory over-responsiveness: Student has high sensitivity to sensory stimuli and has difficulty in filtering out unwanted input. This means the student may dislike specific types of input (e.g. the noise of the school bell, the smell of food, the feeling of clothing labels) or may become overwhelmed in sensory busy environments (e.g. the playground, corridors, dining hall). Typical difficulties associated with sensory over-responsiveness include:
- Emotional outbursts
- Socially withdrawn
- Sensory under-responsiveness: Student seems unaware of sensory stimuli or responds to it more slowly than expected. Typical difficulties associated with sensory under-responsiveness include:
- Appears to ignore instructions
- Responds to instructions more slowly than others
- Difficult to engage in activities
- Difficulty initiating activities
- Appears to be withdrawn
- Low muscle tone
- Seems to tire easily
However, when increased sensory input is given (e.g. movement, tactile input) the under-responsive student becomes more alert and engaged.
Students can be over-responsive to some types of sensory input and under-responsive to other types of input. A student, for example, can be over-responsive to touch and smells but under-responsive to noise and movement. Students may also fluctuate in their responses to input depending on the time of day and their physical or emotional state.
In addition to sensory over-responsiveness and sensory under-responsiveness, there is a third recognised response category called sensory seeking. Many students with autism seek out increased sensory input, and this can be for two separate reasons:
- Sensory seeking to increase alertness: Some students who are under-responsive to sensory input attempt to improve their alertness and engagement by seeking out increased sensory input. Examples of this include:
- Leaving chair frequently to move around room
- Swinging in chair
- Chatting or humming at quiet times
- Sensory seeking to calm self: Some autistic students who are experiencing anxiety or who are feeling overwhelmed may seek sensory input as they find it calming. Different students will find different types of input calming but some examples include:
- Repetitive behaviours e.g. echolalia, pacing, flicking fingers close to eyes
- Deep pressure input e.g. jumping, biting/chewing objects, hugging others tightly or asking for a ‘tight squeeze’
- Fixating on visual input e.g. spinning objects, light-up toys, visual patterns
- Tactile input e.g. familiar fidget object
Many autistic students also seek some types of sensory input because they simply enjoy the sensation it provides.
Sensory Processing Strategies
General strategies for sensory over-responsiveness
- Remove the sensory input causing distress
- Reduce sensory stimulation in the environment
- Provide calm breaks as part of the student’s daily routine
- Provide calming resources
- Ensure student can communicate when feeling distressed by sensory input
- Limit distractions in the classroom
General strategies for sensory under-responsiveness
- Use multisensory supports to engage attention i.e. visual/auditory/tactile
- Incorporate the student’s learning style e.g. tactile, movement, auditory, visual
- Allow student additional time to respond to input
- Provide sensory breaks to increase alertness
- Provide resources to increase sensory input e.g. fidget objects, specialised seating
General strategies for sensory seeking
- Movement seekers: provide Movin’ Sit cushion or ball chair; include movement breaks into the daily routine
- Tactile seekers: provide fidget objects; incorporate tactile materials into tasks
- Deep pressure seekers: weight bearing exercises; weighted items
- Visual seekers: use visual learning aids; allow access to visual toys/objects during the day
- Auditory seekers: provide breaks when student can listen to music e.g. on headphones
If the student is seeking sensory input as a calming method, it will also be important to assess what is causing anxiety and determine if this can be reduced or removed.
For further information on sensory based strategies to address specific sensory processing difficulties in the classroom, please visit MCA’s online resource on sensory processing.