Sensory 102

Earlier this week, I wrote about the two most common sensory issues that affect children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – sensitivity to clothing and to food textures.There are other sensitivities that affect children on the spectrum. Sensory issues can and do affect every sense.

I was remiss in not mentioning oversensitivity to noise in the last post as it is one of the most common sensory issues and affects more than just children on the spectrum. It isn’t just loud or unexpected issues that can cause problems. One of the kids I work with, once told me that the humming of the fluorescent lights in his classroom can make it very hard for him to concentrate. He explained that he always hears the humming and can see the tiny flickers that are almost imperceptible to his neurotypical classmates. The energy he expends trying to tune out these distractions is energy he doesn’t have to use on his schoolwork or on social interactions, and leaves him drained at the end of the day. He had gone through the first 7 years of his school career before anyone thought to ask him if there were any parts of his classroom that made it harder for him to do work. Children with ASD do not typically volunteer extra information even when it is in their best interest to do so and had this question not been asked, the problem of the “noisy lights” as he calls them, would likely have never been addressed.  Luckily, he had a very understanding teacher who has brought in some floor lamps and tries to use natural light whenever possible so the “noisy lights” can stay off.

Everyday noises that most of us take for granted and easily tune out such as the humming of the refrigerator or the whirr of the furnace fan can be unwelcome intrusions into the life of a child with sensory issues. Unexpected noises can derail an entire day.  Last week I was in a big box store and there was a little guy who was having what I recognized as a sensory overload meltdown. Note: a meltdown may look like a tantrum from the outside but whereas a tantrum usually results from a child not getting his or her way, a meltdown is a child’s uncontrollable response to overwhelming stimuli.  His mother was at the end of her rope, so I stepped in and asked if I could help (Yeah, I do this a lot – I hate seeing a child in distress). She agreed so I knelt down and asked the child if it was too loud. He said “yes it is” -we were standing about 4 aisles away from the electronics department where every TV was showing something different and someone had turned some of the volumes up it was too loud even for me. I went off in search of an employee and asked them to please turn down the overall volume  and asked if a few of the sets could be turned off and he readily agreed.  I went back to my new little friend and explained that next time, he should use his words to tell an adult if it is too noisy. He thanked me, and his mother told me that he had autism and “never talked to anyone outside of family” before talking to me.  (I hear that a lot too – I’m not sure why I can get kids to open up but it’s a gift I’m thankful for every day.)  For me the noise in the store was irritating, but it wasn’t stopping me from functioning. For a kid with ASD, who is unable to tune out the noise, it becomes all encompassing and they cannot function until the noise is reduced or eliminated.  However, it often takes someone asking directly if the situation is a problem as children with ASD don’t usually volunteer that kind of information.

Check volume levels!
Check volume levels!

Loud and unexpected noises can be a source of distress for a child with ASD.  To begin with, as a group, children with ASD do not tolerate the unexpected well.  Routine helps them make sense of their world, so unexpected noises that disrupt that routine are upsetting. Fire drills, car alarms, doorbells, and even phone calls are all noises that can interrupt and disrupt the daily routine.  Sometimes there is an easy fix – one of the children I work with was constantly upset by the doorbell.  His parents changed the standard doorbell for one of the ones with a customizable chime – and allowed him input of what the sound should be.  He chose one that was quieter but still loud enough to be heard and the problem was solved.  Sometimes it takes a lot of trial and error to discover the problem and to figure out a solution, be persistent and you will be rewarded. My friend Lisa notes that children who have sensory issues with loud noises often do not have issues being noisy themselves. This can be due in part to the fact that they don’t hear themselves at the same volume others do or are unable to successfully modulate their voices to the situation. However their own excess noise can contribute to their overall stress and usually causes siblings or classmates to raise their voices in return which can lead to a meltdown.

Smells are another sensory issue that can affect children with ASD.  For some children a scent that others find quite pleasant can be quite upsetting. One child I know has an intense reaction to the smell of vanilla.  He dislikes it greatly and will cry inconsolably if he catches the scent in a store.  He was out with his parents running errands and a bottle of vanilla had been broken in the aisle of the grocery store.  He was so distraught that he had to leave the store in order to calm down.  For a child with sensory issues, sometimes the only recourse is to remove them from the situation.  Some scents can be avoided, and others can be gradually introduced in order to desensitize the child to them.  It may be worth investigating, if a child has a negative reaction to a friend or relative, whether they have a signature scent.  Sometimes the familiar scent of a relative is not comforting to a child with ASD. Unscented laundry detergents and soaps can go a long way to making life more comfortable for a child with olfactory sensory issues. Beware of cleaning agents with strong or even unusual scents – if your child is showing signs of distress after the house has been cleaned, ask them if the smells bother them. It may be that the smells of the cleaning agents are bothering them.

An often neglected sense when discussing sensory issues is sight.  Conventional wisdom has had nurseries, bedrooms, and classrooms brightly decorated with lots of stimulation for developing minds.  Some children, however, including those on the autism spectrum, cannot process that much visual input and thus become overstimulated in such environments.  This is not to say that there cannot be decoration but make sure the child is not having to filter out unnecessary visual information to get to the important stuff.  Daily schedules should be free from extra adornments, and fonts should be simple and not overly ornate.  Even classroom bulletin boards should be free of extraneous information.  A couple of posters on a bedroom wall may be too much for one child but may be fine for another – see what works best for the individual child.

Not all sensory issues are easy to identify.  It can take a lot of trial and error to find the right combination to work for each child. The rewards can be worth all the effort though. When a child with autism is comfortable in his surroundings, and not being overstimulated, they are better able to cope with their world, and live in ours.

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