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Autistic person with Sensory Processing Disorder overwhelmed

Sensory overload is something that we all experience to a degree, but those with Autism Spectrum Disorder often also have a Sensory Processing Disorder or have sensory integration difficulties. This means autistic individuals tend to be more easily and more heavily impacted by their sensory surroundings. This is a seven part series in which I will address the different types of sensory disorders, help you identify them, and find some solutions. This final blog wraps up the series as an overview of Sensory Processing Disorder.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) occurs when the nervous system has difficulties receiving and organizing sensory signals.  The sensory integration process becomes a mess because of the jumble of signals trying to be understood by the body.  These signals are often categorized as hypersensitive (over sensitive) or hyposensitive (lack of sensitivity).  However, just as autism is a spectrum, the degree to which someone can be hypersensitive and hyposensitive range greatly.  In many cases, individuals can be both - if it isn't already confusing enough!

One in six people have a Sensory Porcessing Disorder. People with SPD may also be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), ADHD, or all three.  Because our senses are so fundamental to the understanding and interpretation of everyday life, having SPD can make daily activities and tasks major challenges.

Imagine yourself as child with SPD: you are going to a family gathering and meeting a new family member for the first time.  You want to make a good impression. You try to concentrate on their words, but the only thing on your mind is the overwhelming scent of their perfume coupled with a whiff of leftover tuna breath that seems to get stronger after every word.  It bothers you to the point where you just have to leave abruptly and exit the room.  Now, your family members who have never met you might not understand why you did this, and will assume it’s a rude gesture. 

These types of situations are commonplace for people with SPD and affect many facets of their lives, from being unable to go to the supermarket because of the overwhelming loud noises, to avoiding socializing because it becomes too distressing for their sensory system.  In particular, children with SPD are not equipped with the tools to properly deal with the overwhelming influx of sensory information and may end up having anxiety and meltdowns as a result of their defense mechanisms.

Here we have compiled a list of 6 senses (we left taste out because it is akin to a mix of both tactile and olfactory) that Sensory Processing Disorder affects, how to identify it and how to help someone who has it.

1.  Audio

“Have you ever noticed someone tapping their foot or clicking a pen and not been able to concentrate on anything else? You probably tried to ignore it and couldn't, so you moved, asked them to stop, or waited it out. Now imagine every sound having that effect on you - the fan above your head, the traffic outside, the sound of someone typing, the TV that is on two rooms away. These sounds are impossible to stop or move away from.”

 Lady with Audio Sensory Processing Disorder plugging her ears

 2.  Visual

“As one of the five senses, sight is one that many of us take for granted because it is so essential to our everyday lives and how we perceive the world.  Those suffering from visual sensory challenges see the world a little differently and often in a way that can be overwhelming to the senses.  Colors that should blend in naturally with our surroundings can be received as fragmented and bright to someone with visual sensory processing disorder…”

Boy with autism and visual sensory processing disorder looking at bright lights

 3.  Tactile (touch)

"Tactile Dysfunction, a fancy sounding medical term, basically means a dysfunctionality regarding the sense of touch.  For people on the autism spectrum, having tactile dysfunction can be quite common.  As far as our five senses go, touch is fundamental to the learning of our surroundings and the activities of everyday life." 

 Child with Tactile Dysfunction and autism biting a table

4.  Olfactory (smell)

“Olfactory Dysfunction is considered a Sensory Processing Disorder involving an altered sensitivity to smells and can result from a variety of factors such as age, viral infections, exposure to toxic chemicals, or neurodevelopmental disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)…” 

 Child with Olfactory Dysfunction and autism sniffing a flower

5.  Proprioceptive (body awareness)

“Simply put, proprioception is the sense of your own body in space, without the use of other senses such as sight or touch.  It derives from the Latin word “proprius”, meaning “own”.  Knowing where your limbs are, relative to each other is attributed to proprioceptive sense. Often called the “position sense”, it is usually an unconscious feeling or state of awareness…”

 Goofy with Proprioception Dysfunction and autism falling down

6.  Vestibular (movement and spatial awareness)

“Vestibular Dysfunction addresses a problem with the Vestibular System, which is in charge of coordinating movement and balance based on the position of our heads in space.  The inner ear is responsible for understanding our head’s position in space and directly affects balance and sense of movement…"

Vestibular Dysfunction for children with autism and other sensory disorders



If you liked this article, check out these:

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      Autism and Bullying: What Can We Do?

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Written by Ryan Leung — November 30, 2015

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