Sensory sensitivity is extremely common in individuals on the spectrum – this can include crowd noise, temperature, taste, texture and even
When autistic individuals are oversensitive to sensory information, it’s called hypersensitivity. These individuals try to avoid sensory experiences – for example, they might cover their ears when they hear loud noises (such as hoovers, air dryers and raised voices), eat only foods with a certain texture or taste, wear only certain types of loose-fitting clothing, or resist having hair cuts or brushing teeth.
When autistic individuals are under sensitive to sensory information, it’s called hyposensitivity. These individuals may seek out sensory experiences – for example, they might wear tight-fitting clothing, look for things to touch like heat, hear or taste, or rub their arms and legs against things.
Oversensitive and under sensitive to sensory information
Some individuals can have both over sensitivities and under sensitivities in different senses.
Typically developing children have sensory sensitivities too, but it is possible to outgrow them. Sensory sensitivities tend to last longer in autistic children, although children often learn to manage sensitivities as they get older.
Sensory sensitivities can sometimes seem worse when children are stressed or anxious. Sensitivities can also make children feel stressed and anxious.
Sensory problems can affect a child’s whole family. For example, if a child is oversensitive to noise, it can limit where the child’s family goes or the kinds of activities the family does, or even home life – when they are able to hoover their home or use the hair dryer to dry their hair (speaking from personal experience).
Signs to look out for:
- Sight - Individuals with under sensitivities might like bright colours. Oversensitive individuals might squint or seem uncomfortable in sunlight or glare, or even certain indoor lighting.
- Touch - Under sensitive individuals might seek out different textures or rub their arms and legs against things. Oversensitive individuals might not like the sensation of labels on the inside of clothes or try to take their clothes off.
- Taste - Under sensitive individuals might enjoy eating strongly flavoured food like onions and olives. Oversensitive children might eat only certain textured food.
- Smell - Under sensitive individuals might sniff everything – Grace does this with her snuggly, and prefers it to be one that hasn’t been washed in a while. Oversensitive individuals might complain about smells like deodorants or perfumes or smell things that no-one else does.
- Sound - Under sensitive individuals might turn up music or speak loudly without realising. Oversensitive individuals might cover their ears to block out loud noises and may benefit from ear defenders or something similar.
- Sense of position, balance and movement - Under sensitive individuals might have unstable balance. Oversensitive individuals might have excellent balance. I never knew that balance etc had any connection to Autism at all, and always wondered why Grace had difficulty climbing steps and why she was so clumsy.
- Temperature - Under sensitive individuals might want to wear warm clothes in summer heat as a form of comfort. Oversensitive individuals might not feel the cold and want to wear shorts in winter.
- Pain - Under sensitive individuals might ignore injuries that should have them concerned or upset or have delayed responses to injuries. Oversensitive individuals might overreact to little injuries like simply falling over.
Getting help for sensory sensitivities
Occupational therapists can assess someone’s sensory sensitivities and develop a plan for managing them. They can also help you come up with appropriate strategies if someone self-stimulates or ‘stims’ and it may be a risk to themselves or others.
Dietitians and Speech and Language Therapists (SALTS) might be able to help if someone has taste and smell sensitivities that also cause eating issues, as there can be a link between ASD and eating disorders.
If someone’s behaviour hurts themselves or other people, it’s best to get professional advice. An experienced professional can help you understand and manage your someone’s behaviour the best way that you can. A good first step is talking with your paediatrician or an Educational Psychologist (EP).