by Marie L. Mancini of Advanced Therapy Solutions
Have you ever wondered why some people prefer to have the tags clipped out of their clothing? Or why a person’s meal preferences are generally based on the texture, temperature, or appearance of the food? Or why parents find that gentle, rhythmical rocking seems to be the best method for soothing their newborn child? Or maybe why a child can’t stand to watch fireworks [covering their ears or having a meltdown] or even be in a busy room for 2 minutes? Well… we all have sensory preferences. It is what helps shape who we are and the many choices we make in life. Some of us think sounds are too loud, while others love to listen to blaring music. Some of us need to wear snug clothing, while others cannot stand the feeling of the elastics that line their socks, underwear and pants. These are just a few examples of the many sensory preferences that mold us as human beings.
Individuals on the Autism Spectrum have a very different perspective on what sensory experiences mean for them. In fact, there is frequently a vast difference in the sensory sensations experienced by these individuals and their perception of the world they encounter. This gap in sensation and perception has been scientifically studied and therapeutically treated as a specialty condition since the 1960’s.
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is the name for the condition that affects at least one in twenty children. Dr. Lucy Jane Miller, author of Sensational Kids, conducted one study in which 40 children with high-functioning Autism or Aspergers were tested for SPD. Results showed 78% of the children with Autism or Aspergers also had significant signs of SPD, while just 22% did not. * In Sensational Kids, Dr. Miller explains that individuals with SPD experience touch, taste, sound, smell, movement, and other sensations differently from typical individuals. Some feel sensations more intensely, while others feel them less intensely. Still others just don’t get sensory information “right”—up feels the same as down, or a penny feels the same as a button. The most challenging aspect of having a child with SPD is the disorder’s misrepresentation that it is a behavior issue. In public, others just assume that your child is having a tantrum and give the parent a look of ‘can’t you control your child!’
An individual with an Autism Spectrum disorder experiences many of these sensory discrepancies to an extreme degree. As experienced clinicians at Advanced Therapy Solutions, let us provide you with real-life testimonials from our clients who are experiencing the world in an exaggerated fashion. Keep in mind, however, that at least half of the clients that we see for SPD and Autism are non-verbal. Therefore, we will paint the picture of their sensory experiences through a detailed description of their body language, vocal utterances, and parent report of their child’s behavior. Those with a voice are often very descriptive and forthcoming regarding their sensory preferences.
A ten year-old boy with Aspergers disorder, who was overly sensitive to movement, once described how he felt when he was asked to sit on a swing, go down a slide, or ride the twist-n-twirl at the Big E: it felt as if he “were falling into a black hole.” The slightest bit of movement made him feel sick to his stomach. After his 10-minute car ride each morning, he would be white as a ghost, lethargic, and irritable upon entering school.
Jane, a 22 year-old college student diagnosed with high-functioning Aspergers disorder and a heightened sensory processing ability, described the touch of her clothing to feel like “sticky spiders crawling all over my body.” The only comfort in getting dressed each morning was knowing she was wearing familiar, old clothing that was soft and predictable, as well as knowing that she could “rip her clothes off as soon as she returned to her single dorm room.” Her single dorm room was acquired intentionally for this purpose.
During his first year of high school, a young boy on the Autism Spectrum described pep rallies and auditorium assemblies as events that “made me feel like someone was stabbing me in the ears.” He has a heightened sense of sound that makes public places and social events unbearable and debilitating.
A 7 year-old girl, diagnosed with moderate Autism, walks into an empty classroom illuminated with fluorescent lights. After approximately 3 minutes, she begins to cover her ears, hum loudly to herself, and inadvertently stares at the ceiling. Others have described the low-level humming of fluorescent lighting as “loud and never ending.” We can only allude to the notion that she too is overwhelmed by this low-level noise that seems to never go away.
A 4 year old boy, diagnosed with dyspraxia, clings to me as we attempt to go down a slide together. His reaction is as if I was placing him on the edge of a cliff. Our first attempt to slowly slide into the ball pit was meet with vocal utterances and a facial expression that screamed pain and discomfort.
A 24 year old male with a diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder eats only two foods (bread, French fries), and is unable to go out to public places for fear of loud noises and someone accidentally touching him. He has developed a social anxiety that negatively impacts his ability to create and maintain lasting relationships with his college peers. He has a voice with clear and expressive terms to describe how he is feeling. He has a choice to avoid the sensory experiences that make him “feel sick to death.”
Many of individuals with an Autism Spectrum disorder do not have a voice or a choice. Hence we see a cocktail of self-stimulatory sensory behaviors (hand flapping, rocking their body in place, humming to themselves, making high pitch noises, etc.) to help to soothe their body and minds from the confusing traffic jam of sensory information that they are constantly bombarded with on a daily basis. In many cases, self-injurious behaviors follow shortly thereafter if the self-stimulatory behaviors don’t do an adequate job of helping their bodies feel more organized. As parents, educators, and therapists, we must be their voice. Only we can advocate for the unique sensory needs of children on the Autism Spectrum.
In Connecticut, current housing for people with autism does not address these unique sensory needs. All Seasons is talking to families and residents of group homes in Connecticut to determine if they could benefit from a sensory home makeover. We are working in conjunction with experienced occupational therapists to create an environment that will help balance the sensory system of the individual with ASD. One group home, one apartment, one house at a time- we hope to improve the lives of people with autism in Connecticut.