The community setting offers many opportunities for learning, but it is also a potential bomb of sensory overload for the person with autism. Understanding these challenges can help parents and therapists deal with negative behaviors that may occur.
Consider a trip to a large retail store. Most people can block out the ambient noise, smells, and visual stimuli. For someone with sensory issues, this is a serious challenge. Finding the ability to sort through a plethora of voices and beeps and rattles which may wreak havoc on his nerves. Constant bombardment with images, products, unfamiliar faces, and bright lighting. The brain of a person with autism is not wired to determine which sensory stimuli should be ignored. Waiting in line may also be a painful experience, because it seems to serve no purpose leaving the feeling restrained and uncomfortable. The frustration may be magnified by an inability to communicate or release these feelings. Left with not knowing what to expect and nor what is expected of him.
The easiest solution to this problem is not necessarily the best, though. To never expose the child with autism to a public setting is denying him an opportunity to interact with the community. However, taking steps prior to the errand can ensure smooth sailing. This is an ideal opportunity to write a social story tailor made to the situation. Using pictures and words, provide a step-by-step list of what the errand will entail. For example, where you are going, how you will get there, and what to expect when there. Also include behavior expectations for the person. In addition, alerting the individual of potential sensory issues in advance can help eliminate the fear of the unknown and put them more at ease. It is also useful to bring objects, such as fidget toys, which can occupy their interest while on the errand, in addition to providing a controlled sensory input. If noise is a major issue, ear plugs or headphones with music may be helpful.
Although it may seem daunting to a parent or caregiver to take these steps everytime they go out in public with their child, prevention is the best cure. As the individual with autism becomes familiar with these expeditions, he will not need to be prepped as thoroughly every time.
Sensory Integration Disorder And Autism
Sensory Integration Disorder (SID) is a a neurological condition in and of itself, most often associated with other neurological conditions, including Autism Spectrum Disorders, Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder, and Tourette’s Syndrome. Unlike blindness or deafness, where a person is unable to sense or receive input from sight or sound, a person with SID is able to perceive sensory stimuli. The deficit lies in the brain’s inability to process the stimuli. If the person with SID is hyposensitive to sensory input such as touch, he or she may be more likely to be injured walking into objects or not realizing an object was too hot. A SID patient who is hypersensitive to input such as noise, will often respond loudly and negatively to surprise noises. They may also be able to hear soft noises, such as the buzz from fluorescent lights which is imperceptible to a typical person. Sensory Integration Therapy is a proven treatment for SID and is typically implemented by occupational therapists who also treat patients with autism.
To Hug Or Not To Hug
It is often believed people with autism hate to be touched. Flashback to the movie “Rainman” where Dustin Hoffman’s character, autistic savant Raymond Babbit, has a come-apart, because someone put a hand on his shoulder. While it is important to respect the sensory issues and personal space of a person with autism, physical contact does not necessarily need to be avoided. Many children with autism seek out certain kinds of physical contact, but what they prefer is as unique as the child themselves. Some may prefer hand holding or big bear hugs but have a strong aversion to light touch, such as a gentle hand on the back or arm. For individuals with tactile sensory issues, a light brush on the arm is highly irritating. Others may find it very relaxing to have their arm or back scratched. Often, a negative reaction to being touched is more a response to fear. If they weren’t expecting it, they may become upset. Likewise, if they are already upset, trying to calm them with a hug might only add fuel to the fire. As you develop a relationship with this person, you will learn what kind of physical contact he or she prefers.
Sensory Integration Activities
Sensory integration activities are very valuable in that they can be used as a motivational tool. They can encourage communication and they help the individual calm and organize his behavior. Sensory integration activities can also be used to increase attention and time on task. Choosing which activities to implement depends on the specific needs of the individual. These needs can be identified through self stimulatory behaviors that are exhibited. Rocking is a common stereotyped repetitive movement that serves to address visual and vestibular sensory systems. This behavior can be replaced with activities like swinging on a swing or alternating sit-ups with a partner while holding hands. Tactile sensory integration activities include tickles, materials and sensory bins. Sensory bins are containers filled with beans, pasta, smooth stones or anything that has an interesting and textures. The auditory system can be addressed as the individual moves his hands through the bin making interesting sounds. Deep pressure is a valuable approach to dealing with common proprioceptive needs. Deep pressure involves burrowing into pillows or hugging a large stuffed animal. The individual can roll on the floor or be wrapped in a blanket. These activities are helpful in calming behavior in many cases.
Everyone has some sensory issues. Some people dislike a certain fabric or the well-known sound of fingernails running down a chalkboard. People with autism have sensitive sensory systems in many cases. No two individuals are exactly alike. Some individuals with autism may love the feeling of water while others can’t stand to even listen to the sound of water filtering into a bathtub. The sensory issues pose a challenge for everyday activities like grooming and meal time. Many people with autism have sensory issues that make some food textures intolerable and brushing teeth unthinkable.
There are seven sensory systems in the human body. Each system is a complex interaction of perception and experience that can be dysfunctional in some cases of autism. Specific behaviors can help us identify which system is lacking or over stimulated. The five senses are taste, touch, sight, hearing and smell. The sixth sensory system is the vestibular system, and the seventh is the proprioceptive system. The vestibular system involves how our bodies process movement. Sight is closely tied to this system. The proprioceptive system involves the body’s natural way of adjusting to its environment. This system involves fine motor activities like buttoning a shirt and coordinated activities like walking down steps.