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Understanding Sensory Issues in ASD

Every adult and child with ASD is unique and has their own range of amazing gifts or strengths and along with that their own range of difficulties. However what many People on the Spectrum have in common is a low threshold to Sensory Overload. In fact so common are Sensory Issues in ASD that they now form part of the DSM V diagnostic criteria for ASD. There are ways to reduce the negative
experience that some People with ASD may feel in relation to these Sensory Stimuli.

Firstly it is important for all of us “Neurotypicals” to try to appreciate the distress that certain sensory experiences may cause for somebody with Autism. A simple trip to the shopping centre, bus journey, meal out or Birthday Party may be a hugely stressful and anxiety provoking episode for all involved but to an outsider or observer may look like an individual “over reacting or misbehaving”. I
advise my Families at Clinic to ignore those individuals who stop and stare as Autism is often an invisible “condition”. In general as a Society we need to be more accepting of differences in Others and I strongly feel that it is us that need to change to accomodate the individual with Autism. If we make minor adjustments hopefully this will make these experiences less distressing for them as
often the individual with Autism cannot change due to the subtle differences in their cognition. Many of the Young People at my Clinic have very articulately described how having a haircut feels like pins are being stuck into their scalp repetitively and the loose hairs around their neck feel like fire on their skin. Even very little Children have told me that their shoes or socks feel like insects
crawling under their skin and no matter what they do they can’t get comfortable. Be understanding and be aware of possible difficult situations for the individual with ASD. Keeping a diary of difficult experiences may highlight triggers and possible relieving factors. Whenever there is a difficult behaviour or unexpected meltdown always keep sensory issues high on your checklist for
elimination particularly if occurring in school or outside of the family home. Sensory overload can cause an individual with ASD huge anxiety and the increase in adrenaline causes the Person affected to go into “fight or flight mode”. This can cause the Person affected to run off, be aggressive to those around them, avoid the activity or environment at all costs and shut down (appear withdrawn and
cut off from others). Anticipation of the problem or recognising it early on may prevent the extreme behaviours and distress for the Person with ASD.


Repetitive Behaviours might be helpful and in fact a coping mechanism for People with Autism who use them to keep sensory overload in check. “Stimming” provides Sensory feedback and provides a level of sensory information which can help the person with Autism block out other feedback which is out of their control. Stopping the Person from stimming could make the Sensory
Overload worse.

Other Strategies to help
For People with Autism who have trouble processing sound it is the messages from the ears to the brain that get distorted rather than it being a fault in the ears. Hearing should always be checked however if there is a concern with the Person’s hearing. Lots of my Young People at Clinic prefer to be around People who talk softly – unfortunately this isn’t always possible. For Young People who
find loud noises such as bells in school, hand driers, traffic and hair dryers or vacuum cleaners it may be helpful to try noise cancelling headphones. Acoustic Noise Reduction Head phones may help calm the individual in noisy situations and means they can continue to listen to their environment. Consideration of lighting, timing shopping visits to quieter periods and the use of ipod and
headphones when out can be of benefit. There are also a number of hairdresser offering Autism friendly environments and staff with an awareness of Autism related sensory difficulties.

Under sensitivity to incoming messages can also be a problem. I have lots of Parents at clinic who talk about their child with ASD needing tight hugs or squeezing others too tightly for sensory feedback. Other Young People may present as Hyperactive, restless and fidgety with linear running or pacing, climbing or jumping and rather than this being an ADHD problem it is actually a sensory integration
difficulty. Sometimes Squeeze vests can help provide sensory feedback and offer a more appropriate way for the person with ASD to get sensory feedback – more information on this at

Useful resources

  • The anger Box- Sensory turmoil and pain in Autism (Pavillion Publishers)

  • Using Intensive Interaction and Sensory Integration (Jessica Kingsley Publishers)


  • Sensory Strategies by Connie Laurie (the National Autistic Society) -

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