So often, children with sensory issues are treated for behavioral problems, with or without acknowledging what sensory needs might be driving the behavior. When therapists focus on addressing unwanted behaviors without digging deeper, we can miss an opportunity to help a struggling child.
As an occupational therapist with a PhD in Occupational Science, a lot of my training has revolved around evaluating and addressing sensory issues in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. In the OT world, sometimes we refer to this as a difficulty with sensory integration. In other words, these kids struggle with the ability to combine the information we get from our different senses and use it to operate in our everyday lives.
Sounds vital, right? It is! And for many people, sensory integration happens automatically. One of the biggest reasons why sensory integration can be difficult for people with ASD is that sometimes sensation doesn’t get detected in the brain (an issue we call under-responsiveness) whereas other times the brain detects even the slightest amount of sensory stimulation (which we call over-responsiveness). As you can imagine, this makes it hard for the brain to interpret and use sensory information.
We all know about the five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. But there are two more senses that are very important to our ability to interact with the world around us: our proprioceptive sense, which tells us where our body is in space, and our vestibular sense, which detects balance and movement.
Here are some examples of what under- or over-responsiveness to sensory information may look like for a child with ASD.
One of the best ways to help support individuals with ASD who have difficulty with sensory integration is to be intentional about the design of spaces that children frequent in their everyday lives. When you know what to look for, areas of the environment that are making sensory integration harder for children with ASD become clear, and can be addressed. Here are just a few examples of what you might observe at home if your child is over- or under-responsive to a sense:
Every child is unique. They may be over-responsive in one sense and under-responsive in another. Patterns may change depending on where they are, or how familiar they are with a setting. This is why intentional sensory design is so important! With a careful assessment of which senses a child with ASD is having trouble with and in what way, the environment itself can become a support, and not a barrier, to full participation in their everyday lives.