Differences in sensory processing

A significant source of anxiety for many students with autism is sensory stimulation. Students with autism may be sensitive to specific types of sensory input (e.g. the noise of the school bell, the texture of the P.E. kit, the smell of food) or they may feel overloaded in sensory busy environments (e.g. a noisy classroom, the playground, the canteen). Sensory sensitivities and overload are directly linked to increased anxiety. Furthermore, anxiety will then increase sensitivity to sensory input, which in turn further exacerbates the anxiety and so on. The student may also experience anxiety in anticipation of sensory input which has not yet occurred (e.g. waiting for the school bell to ring, fearful of someone standing too close) leading to a long-term underlying anxiety.

How do differences in sensory processing increase anxiety in the school environment?

Some examples and strategies are provided below but for more comprehensive information please visit the online resource on Sensory Processing. 

Student refuses to participate in messy play activities and hides under the desk when the teacher tries to persuade him/her to participate.


  • Use a visual timer to show the student you only expect participation in the messy play activity for 5 seconds, and then very gradually increase this time each day. Remember that even this gradual approach will slightly increase anxiety so always follow with a favourite activity to assist the student to calm down.

Student refuses to attend Home Economics classes and has stopped attending school on days when this class is timetabled


  • Allow student to wear catering gloves when touching food items, keep room well ventilated to neutralise smells and inform student that there is no expectation to eat the final product.

Student becomes very anxious in busy corridors and has been reported to push and hit other pupils.


  • Allow student to leave class 2 minutes early when corridors are quiet.

Student spends Break and Lunch standing alone in a corner of the playground and screams if classmates come too close.


  • Section off an area of the playground and limit the number allowed in this area but ensure this student is included; provide non-contact games in this area.

Student puts hands over ears and cries when teacher raises voice.


  • Ensure silence in classroom before giving instructions; indicate that class needs to be quiet using a visual signal rather than raising voice e.g. switch light on and off.