One of the main characteristics of autism spectrum disorder is having uncommon reactions to various sensory inputs related to any of the five senses including sound, smell, taste, look, or feel. These reactions may be overreactions to these sensory inputs or having little reactions to sensory experiences that would typically cause someone to become uncomfortable. Individuals with ADHD, sensory processing disorder, and other disabilities may also experience sensory difficulties at some point in their lives. Some common sensory difficulties result from loud sounds, bright lights, strong odors, and different textured food items to name a few. Sensory difficulties may also appear more so at certain times of the year, such as during holidays, or during certain occasions, such as during parades, at theme parks, or special events. The increase in lights, scents, decorations, sounds, and even being around more people may be too much for these individuals to process all at once. Having all of these sensory experiences occurring simultaneously like they typically do during these occasions may be too overwhelming for people with sensory difficulties to handle. Children with autism or those who have other sensory difficulties may become very uncomfortable and irritable in high sensory situations but may not have the ability to let you know how they feel or to communicate their wants and needs in an appropriate way. Sensory difficulties could lead to sensory overload if proper precautions are not taken. Sensory overload occurs when one or more of an individual’s senses become overwhelmed by the environment which makes it difficult for their brain to process and cope with what is happening around them, which may block their ability to communicate even if they typically have the ability to do so in other situations if their senses are too overwhelmed. Sensory processing issues of some sort have been reported in one in six children, which makes information on how to help with sensory difficulties all the more valuable.
Children with sensory difficulties may engage in certain behaviors that may suggest that they are dealing with a sensory issue but that they may not know how to cope with it. A child may become overly sensitive to sensory stimulation around them by having a greater reaction to sensory stimulation that is tolerable to most others. A child may also display a lack of sensitivity to sensory stimulation around them by not responding to others around them as they typically would, such as responding to their name being called. The following are some possible signs indicators that sensory difficulties may be occurring:
- Have difficulty focusing or listening in environments where sensory inputs are higher or lower than normal.
- May run away from specific situations or environments without regard for their own safety.
- May cover their ears or eyes or close their eyes when in certain environments.
- May touch items around them or grab items more so than normal.
- May show an increase in putting items in their mouth.
- May be highly distracted which may lead to crashing into other people and things or not paying attention to their surroundings.
- May become highly irritable or highly excitable.
- Showing signs of discomfort in environments that have more sensory stimulations than others.
- Sensitivity to certain clothing types or certain textures.
- Avoidance of specific places or situations
- Crying when entering or while in specific situations or environments that is otherwise unexplainable.
- Does not respond to sensory experiences that others in the environment are responding to (such as alarms, strong smells, etc) or have an over response to these stimuli.
Being able to Identify what sensory difficulties look like for your child or that they may be occurring is crucial in helping figure out how to prevent or help with these sensory difficulties in the future. Keeping track of situations, environments, activities, and other stimuli in the environment that evoke the signs of sensory difficulties as stated above is an essential step in helping with these sensory difficulties. This can also help with preparing for an upcoming event that you know has sensory input that typically leads to sensory difficulties. There are several ways that you can attempt to prevent sensory difficulties or sensory overload from occurring or to help limit its overall impacts to make your child more comfortable in different environments. Being proactive when it comes to your child’s sensory issues by knowing their sensory triggers will keep your child from experiencing the discomfort of their sensory difficulties or at least help minimize their overall discomfort. The following are some ways that sensory difficulties can be prevented and or minimized:
For individuals who are hyper-sensitive to sensory input:
- Offer your child noise canceling headphones or ear plugs before going into an environment that may be loud or have the headphones available for them if an environment becomes too overwhelmingly loud for them.
- If light sensitivity is an issue, offer your child sunglasses before going into an environment that may have an abundance of lights or flashing lights. Have sunglasses on hand if an environment becomes too overwhelming or you notice your child becoming uncomfortable with the lights.
- Dim the lights if possible or switch the type of light bulbs used to be less fluorescent.
- Turn down loud music or close the door to minimize loud sounds if possible.
- Provide food options that are not aversive to their senses.
- Minimize use of products with strong scents.
- Try to avoid going places that are known to cause sensory overload and opt for places and activities that are more sensitive to children with sensory issues.
- Give your child choices of activities and places to go.
- Prepare them beforehand by talking with your child about places they are going or read them a story about what is going to happen when they go somewhere.
- Talk to your child in a calm and quiet voice to prevent any further sensory overstimulation.
- Have a place in mind that you can take your child for a break from sensory stimulation if they are becoming to overwhelmed by high sensory environments.
For individuals who are hypo-sensitive to sensory input:
- Utilize sensory toys.
- Use visuals to help with interactions with the environment and what to do.
- Incorporate sensory activities and physical activities into their day to expose them to different types of sensory input
- Use weighted blankets and squeezes.
- Arrange the environment in order to decrease opportunities for injuries to occur, such as eliminating items to climb on.
Sensory difficulties impact many children and families year-round. Many cities and businesses have sensory friendly activities or events that occur year-round as well as during the holidays which may be a good option for individuals with autism and individuals with other sensory issues. Looking into these events and activities in your city can help broaden your child’s ability to experience new activities and events that they may not typically get to experience in a way that is safe and comfortable for them.
Many businesses have a sensory-friendly day each week or once a month where individuals with sensory issues can experience the fun without being triggered by loud noises, harsh smells, or bright lights that may typically cause sensory difficulties or sensory overload. Here are some links for some sensory-friendly places to take your children year-round that are in the Tampa Bay area:
**BCOTB has been Tampa’s leading provider of pediatric ABA therapy since 2003. With four clinic locations throughout the Tampa Bay area, we know that our clinic is the right spot for your early learner! BCOTB focuses on in-clinic early intervention for children from birth to ten years old. BCOTB accepts most major insurances, including, but not limited to: Aetna, Anthem, Baycare, Beacon, BCBS, Cigna, CMS, Florida Blue, Humana, MHNet, Meritain Health, Magella Health, UnitedHealthcare, and TRICARE.**