Sensory Challenges: What They Are and How to Help Your Kid Cope
People with autism spectrum disorders see and process their world through their senses in a very different way. Their brains have difficulty filtering everyday sensory information through their five senses – touch, sound, sight, smell, and taste.
Struggles with sensory integration, which is the process your central nervous system goes through when it gathers information from your body’s senses, come from a mix of difficulties with receiving, sifting out, organizing, and making use of sensory information.
Over-Responsiveness and Under-Responsiveness
What may appear as “normal” sensory information for parents or children who are not on the spectrum, can trigger hyper-sensitivities (over-responsiveness) and hypo-sensitivities (under-responsiveness) in an autistic child.
The effects of your child’s sensory sensitivities, whether under-sensitive or over-sensitive, depends upon the environment or the trigger point, with behaviors that may include (but are not limited to) stimming, refusing to eat or drink, speaking loudly or making loud sounds, or more challenging behaviors, such as not responding or shutting down, or having a meltdown.
How You Can Help Your Kid Cope
Here are some strategies to help you with your child’s sensory challenges:
- Reduce your child’s sensory response to your touch by telling them what you are going to do and then approach them from the front. For example, tell your child, “I am going to wipe the crumbs off of your chin with this paper towel.” Consider giving your child the first choice to take care of their own needs (which removes the necessity of unwanted touch and promotes independence).
- Try different clothing fabrics. Your child may be uncomfortable with wool or synthetic fabrics. They may prefer pullup or pullover clothing without zippers or embellishment. Remove tags from clothing. Wash new clothes several times before your child wears them. Allow your child to wear what is comfortable for them.
- Provide blankets and pillows which may help your child with their need to squeeze or touch particular types of objects. Soft weighted blankets may help them sleep better at night.
- Hugs may be painful for your child. Find ways to show affection sans deep embraces. Consider thumbs-up or other gestures that denote “Good job” or “I love you.”
- If your child likes to chew on various things (clothing and other inedible items), offer chewy tubes, straws, or toys designed for children with sensory needs.
- Use electric toothbrushes for children that seek additional stimuli, and very soft bristle brushes for children who are over-sensitive. Encourage your child to practice their own hygiene, which takes you out of the “touch equation.”
- Your child may not like the texture of a particular food, but they may enjoy the taste. Consider cooking the food in a manner that changes the texture, and this may include pureeing it.
- Encourage your child to use noise-canceling headphones, earbuds, or earplugs to muffle external sounds. This is especially useful when you are in a crowded or busy environment away from home. Your children can also buffer distracting noise by listening to their favorite music.
- Shut doors and windows to eliminate external sounds to help your child remain calm and reduce distractions. Warn your child when any form of loud external noise is about to begin (a day filled with persistent noisy tree-trimming, for example, may trigger your over-sensitive child to a meltdown).
- To promote sleep, use a white noise machine in your child’s bedroom at night.
- Encourage your child to play games or watch videos that are less stimulating to their sound sensitivities. Consider teaching your child how to discern and express their choice, for example, “I don’t like that game, the noise bothers me. Let’s do this instead.”
- Your child may be sensitive to bright lighting (or sunlight). Glare may be painful for your child. If your child is oversensitive to bright lighting, ensure your child has sunglasses for outdoor wear, and provide play and study areas that are shaded or away from bright fluorescent lighting.
- Clutter and bright colors may overwhelm your child. Keep clutter to a minimum and to promote calm and sleep, keep knick-knacks and wall-hangings to a minimum in the child’s bedroom.
- Some kids find it difficult to make eye contact. Telling your child to look at you may be distracting to them. Place importance on your child’s ability to show you that they are listening without demanding that they make eye contact. Consider asking them to look in your direction versus asking them to look into your eyes.
- Apply picture labels to containers to ensure your child has a “visual” of what is stored in the container. Use picture guides to help your child see where things belong (in the bedroom, closet, on a counter, etc.).
- Some kids have trouble with blurred central vision, peripheral vision, or poor depth perception. A child can also have magnified vision in one area, and blurred vision in another. Your home environment can make sight sensory challenges even more difficult if it contains busy patterns on the walls or the floors. Consider decorating in simple and contrasting colors. Students with sight sensory challenges may cope by sitting with their back to the teacher. Your child’s optometrist may also recommend visual supports or tinted lenses.
- Eliminate or use minimal amounts of colognes, perfumes, and fragrances. Fragrances that trigger your child’s sensitive sense of smell often emit from personal hygiene (shampoo, soap, etc.) and laundry products. Consider unscented laundry detergents, fabric softeners, and cleaning supplies.
- Your child may be over-sensitive or under-sensitive to foul odors, including body odor. Your teenage kid may not recognize that they have underarm odor. On the opposite end of the spectrum, your child may be over-sensitive to body odors. In this situation, create a routine around regular hygiene to reduce odor.
- The smell of a kid’s own feces may also lead to toileting problems such as avoidance of “going poop.” Quiet bathroom exhaust fans and pleasant-smelling essential oil diffusers are two solutions you can try. Bathrooms by themselves are particularly challenging for a child with sensory issues, due to sound (echoing walls, loud and hollow doors, and the sound of water), smells (human body odors, fabric softeners, and odors from cleaners), lighting (too dim, too bright, or fluorescent).
- Essential oil lamps or diffusers can be soothing for sensory sensitivities. Do some investigating, allow your child to identify the scents that they like.
Smell and Taste
- Smell and taste have a close association. Experiment with different foods. It may be the smell of a food and not the taste that your child finds offensive. Try serving food at a lower temperature. Heat is a factor in how the brain perceives taste.
- Some flavors in foods may be too strong or overpowering to your child, while others may not be tasteful enough. Introduce new foods to your child gradually and encourage them to try the food out before they eat it, meaning, they smell, touch, and lick the food before they bite into it. Consider using images of food to introduce your child to new foods. This gives your child time to visually feel more comfortable with the food, and it also provides them the opportunity to communicate their own choice.
- Consult a nutritionist for healthy dietary options that work with your child’s sensory challenges.
What Are Your Next Steps?
You aren’t alone on this journey with your child’s sensory challenges.
At RDI®, we have created an Online Autism Parent Training Video Series to help parents get real help on topics that matter the most. Get answers to your biggest questions and concerns about autism and learn how to best support your child’s growth and progress with our outstanding series of webinars. Find out more and access the video series here.