Managing Sensory Sensitivities in Autism

In this article, we will discuss the different types of sensory sensitivities that individuals with autism may experience and provide some tips on how to manage them.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
December 13, 2023
min read

Sensory Processing Disorder in Autism

Individuals with autism often experience sensory processing disorder, a condition that affects the way they perceive and respond to sensory stimuli in their environment. Understanding sensory processing disorder and its impact on individuals with autism is crucial for providing effective support and intervention strategies.

Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory processing disorder refers to difficulties in processing and responding to sensory information from the environment. It occurs when the brain has trouble organizing and making sense of the incoming sensory input. Individuals with sensory processing disorder may have atypical responses to sensory stimuli, leading to challenges in daily functioning.

Sensory processing disorder can manifest in different ways among individuals with autism. Some may be hypersensitive, meaning they are overly sensitive to certain sensory stimuli, while others may be hyposensitive, meaning they have a reduced sensitivity to sensory input. These sensitivities can affect various sensory modalities, including visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, and olfactory. It's important to note that each individual may have a unique sensory profile and experience sensory sensitivities differently.

Sensory Sensitivities in Autism

Sensory sensitivities are a common feature of autism and can significantly impact an individual's daily life. Some individuals may experience hypersensitivity, where even mild sensory input can be overwhelming. For example, bright lights or certain patterns may cause discomfort or distress. Others may have hyposensitivity, leading them to seek out intense sensory input to meet their sensory needs. They may enjoy activities such as jumping, spinning, or seeking out deep pressure.

Here are some examples of sensory sensitivities commonly observed in individuals with autism:

Sensory Modality Hypersensitivity Hyposensitivity
Visual Bright lights, fluorescent lighting, certain patterns or colors Fascination with lights, visual stimulation-seeking behaviors
Auditory Loud noises, specific sounds (e.g., sirens, vacuum cleaners) Difficulty with sound discrimination, seeking out certain sounds
Tactile Clothing textures, certain fabrics, tags on clothing Enjoying deep pressure, seeking out textured materials
Gustatory Strong flavors, certain food textures Eating non-food items (pica), limited food preferences
Olfactory Strong smells, perfumes, cleaning products Fascination with smells, sniffing objects or people

Understanding these sensory sensitivities can help caregivers and professionals develop appropriate strategies to support individuals with autism in managing their sensory needs. It's important to consult with professionals, such as occupational therapists, who specialize in sensory integration therapy and can provide guidance tailored to the individual's specific sensory profile.

By recognizing and addressing sensory processing disorder in autism, parents and caregivers can create a supportive environment that promotes sensory well-being and enhances the overall quality of life for individuals with autism.

Common Sensory Challenges

Individuals with autism often experience sensory challenges that can significantly impact their daily lives. These challenges can manifest as overstimulation and hyperreactivity or understimulation and hyporeactivity to sensory stimuli.

Overstimulation and Hyperreactivity

Overstimulation refers to an excessive response to sensory input, where individuals become overwhelmed by their surroundings. They may experience heightened sensitivity to various stimuli, such as noise, bright lights, or certain textures. This can lead to emotional distress, anxiety, and even meltdowns.

Parents and caregivers can help manage overstimulation by creating a sensory-friendly environment. This may involve reducing sensory triggers, such as using dimmer lights, providing noise-canceling headphones, or using calming visuals. It's important to note that each individual with autism may have unique triggers, so it's essential to observe and understand their specific sensitivities.

Understimulation and Hyporeactivity

On the other hand, individuals with autism may also exhibit understimulation or hyporeactivity. This refers to a decreased response to sensory input, where individuals may seek additional sensory stimulation to feel engaged and alert. They may engage in repetitive behaviors, seek out intense sensory experiences, or have difficulty focusing.

To address understimulation, incorporating sensory integration therapy and deep pressure and proprioceptive activities into daily routines can be beneficial. Sensory integration therapy focuses on stimulating the senses to promote better sensory processing and integration. Activities such as swinging, jumping, or using sensory toys can provide the necessary input for individuals to regulate their sensory experiences.

Understanding and addressing these common sensory challenges associated with autism is crucial for improving the overall well-being of individuals with autism. By providing appropriate support and accommodations, parents can help their loved ones navigate the sensory world with greater comfort and confidence.

Managing Sensory Processing Disorder

Managing sensory processing disorder in individuals with autism requires a multi-faceted approach that aims to create a sensory-friendly environment, incorporate sensory integration therapy, and engage in deep pressure and proprioceptive activities.

Creating a Sensory-Friendly Environment

One of the key strategies for managing sensory processing disorder in autism is to create a sensory-friendly environment. This involves making modifications to the individual's living spaces, such as home and school, to reduce sensory overload and create a calming atmosphere.

Some strategies for creating a sensory-friendly environment include:

  • Reducing visual clutter: Minimizing unnecessary visual stimuli, organizing spaces, and using neutral colors can help reduce visual overstimulation.
  • Controlling noise levels: Identifying and minimizing sources of noise, using noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs, and providing quiet spaces can help individuals with auditory sensitivities.
  • Adjusting lighting: Using soft lighting, natural light, or dimmers can create a more soothing environment for those with sensitivities to bright lights.
  • Considering tactile sensitivities: Providing comfortable seating, soft textures, and alternative fabrics can help individuals who experience tactile sensitivities feel more at ease.
  • Creating a safe space: Designating a specific area or room where individuals can retreat to when feeling overwhelmed can be helpful for self-regulation.

By tailoring the environment to accommodate the specific sensory needs of individuals with autism, it becomes easier for them to manage sensory sensitivities.

Sensory Integration Therapy

Sensory integration therapy is a widely recognized therapeutic approach for managing sensory processing disorder in autism. This therapy focuses on providing controlled sensory experiences to help individuals process and respond to sensory information more effectively.

Sensory integration therapy involves various activities and exercises that target specific senses, promoting sensory integration and regulation. These activities might include swinging, bouncing on therapy balls, engaging in tactile play, or using sensory toys specifically designed for individuals with autism.

The goal of sensory integration therapy is to help individuals with autism develop appropriate responses to sensory stimuli and improve their overall sensory processing abilities. It is typically carried out by trained professionals, such as occupational therapists who specialize in sensory integration therapy.

Deep Pressure and Proprioceptive Activities

Deep pressure and proprioceptive activities are effective strategies for managing sensory processing disorder in autism. These activities involve applying firm pressure to the body, which can have a calming and regulating effect on the sensory system.

Some deep pressure and proprioceptive activities that can be beneficial for individuals with autism include:

  • Weighted blankets or vests: These provide deep pressure input, helping individuals feel more grounded and secure.
  • Compression clothing: Wearing compression shirts, shorts, or socks can provide a gentle, constant pressure that promotes a sense of body awareness and stability.
  • Engaging in heavy work activities: Activities such as carrying heavy objects, pushing or pulling weighted carts, or engaging in sports and exercises that involve resistance can provide proprioceptive input and aid in sensory regulation.
  • Using therapy balls or resistance bands: These tools can be utilized for activities that involve pushing, pulling, or squeezing, providing deep pressure input.

Deep pressure and proprioceptive activities can be incorporated into daily routines and sensory diets to help individuals with autism manage sensory sensitivities.

By implementing these strategies, parents and caregivers can support individuals with autism in managing sensory processing disorder and promoting overall well-being. It is important to collaborate with professionals, such as occupational therapists, behavior therapists, and speech and language therapists, who can provide specialized guidance and support.

Strategies for Sensory Regulation

Individuals with autism and sensory processing disorder may experience challenges in regulating their sensory input. Implementing strategies to address specific sensory sensitivities can greatly improve their overall well-being. Here are some strategies for managing sensory regulation across different sensory domains: visual sensitivities, auditory sensitivities, tactile sensitivities, and gustatory and olfactory sensitivities.

Visual Sensitivities

For individuals with visual sensitivities, creating a sensory-friendly environment is crucial. This can include reducing bright or fluorescent lighting, using natural lighting whenever possible, and providing adjustable blinds or curtains to control the amount of incoming light. Minimizing clutter and organizing the space to minimize visual distractions can also be beneficial. Additionally, using visual schedules and visual supports, such as visual timers or checklists, can help individuals with autism better understand and anticipate their daily routines.

Auditory Sensitivities

Individuals with auditory sensitivities may benefit from reducing background noise or using noise-cancelling headphones to minimize excessive auditory input. Providing a quiet space or a designated area where they can retreat to when feeling overwhelmed can be helpful. It's important to be mindful of the volume and intensity of sounds in their environment. When necessary, using visual cues or visual schedules to communicate important information can be beneficial.

Tactile Sensitivities

Individuals with tactile sensitivities may experience discomfort or aversion to certain textures or sensations. Providing a variety of tactile experiences through sensory play and exploration can help desensitize and normalize their responses. Offering a range of tactile options, such as soft fabrics, textured toys, or tactile fidgets, allows individuals to find what works best for them. However, it's essential to respect their boundaries and never force them to engage in tactile experiences that cause distress.

Gustatory and Olfactory Sensitivities

Gustatory and olfactory sensitivities refer to heightened sensitivity or aversion to certain tastes and smells. It's important to be mindful of the food and drinks offered, considering individual preferences and aversions. Encouraging a balanced and nutritious diet while respecting their sensory preferences is crucial. Experimenting with different flavors and textures can help broaden their food choices. For individuals who have sensitivities to smells, using unscented or mild-scented products and avoiding strong fragrances in their environment can be helpful.

By implementing strategies that address specific sensory sensitivities, individuals with autism and sensory processing disorder can better manage their sensory regulation. It's important to collaborate with professionals, such as occupational therapists, behavior therapists, and speech and language therapists, to develop a comprehensive plan tailored to the specific needs of the individual. Additionally, seeking support from support groups, accessing relevant literature, and attending professional consultations and workshops can provide valuable resources for parents.

Collaborating with Professionals

When managing sensory processing disorder (SPD) in individuals with autism, collaborating with professionals who specialize in sensory integration can be incredibly beneficial.

These professionals possess the expertise to provide targeted interventions and strategies to help individuals with autism navigate their sensory sensitivities. Three key professionals to consider working with are occupational therapists, behavior therapists, and speech and language therapists.

Occupational Therapists

Occupational therapists are integral members of the team when it comes to addressing sensory processing disorder in individuals with autism. They focus on enhancing an individual's ability to participate in daily activities by addressing sensory sensitivities and promoting self-regulation skills. Occupational therapists use a variety of techniques, including sensory integration therapy, to help individuals with autism better process and respond to sensory input.

Through individualized assessments and treatment plans, occupational therapists can identify specific sensory challenges and develop strategies to address them. They may recommend sensory toys, such as fidget spinners or weighted blankets, to help individuals with autism regulate their sensory experiences.

Behavior Therapists

Behavior therapists play a crucial role in supporting individuals with autism who experience sensory processing challenges. They focus on identifying and modifying behaviors that may be influenced by sensory sensitivities. Behavior therapists utilize evidence-based techniques, such as applied behavior analysis (ABA), to help individuals with autism develop adaptive behaviors and reduce challenging behaviors related to sensory processing.

By conducting assessments and creating individualized behavior plans, behavior therapists can assist individuals with autism in managing their sensory sensitivities more effectively. They may recommend specific sensory integration activities or a sensory diet to provide the necessary sensory input for self-regulation.

Speech and Language Therapists

Speech and language therapists, also known as speech-language pathologists, often work with individuals with autism to address communication challenges. However, they can also play a role in managing sensory processing disorder. Speech and language therapists have expertise in understanding how sensory sensitivities may impact communication skills and social interactions.

By collaborating with speech and language therapists, individuals with autism can receive support in developing strategies to navigate sensory sensitivities that affect their ability to communicate effectively. These professionals can provide guidance on techniques to address auditory sensitivities, such as using noise-canceling headphones or finding quiet spaces for communication.

Collaborating with these professionals can significantly enhance the management of sensory processing disorder in individuals with autism. Together, occupational therapists, behavior therapists, and speech and language therapists offer a comprehensive approach to address sensory sensitivities, develop self-regulation skills, and optimize communication and daily functioning for individuals with autism.

Supportive Resources for Parents

Parenting a child with sensory processing disorder in autism can be both challenging and rewarding. Fortunately, there are various supportive resources available to help parents navigate this journey and provide the best possible care for their child. Here are some valuable resources to consider:

Support Groups and Online Communities

Joining support groups and online communities can be immensely helpful for parents seeking guidance, understanding, and connection. These groups provide a safe space for parents to share experiences, exchange information, and seek advice from others who may be going through similar challenges. Online communities also offer the convenience of accessing support and information from the comfort of home. Participating in these groups can help parents feel less alone and provide a sense of community.

Books and Literature on Sensory Processing Disorder

There is a wide range of books and literature available that delve into the topic of sensory processing disorder in autism. These resources offer valuable insights, strategies, and practical advice for parents. They cover topics such as understanding sensory sensitivities, managing challenging behaviors, implementing sensory diets, and promoting sensory integration. Consulting books written by experts in the field can provide parents with a deeper understanding of sensory processing disorder and equip them with effective tools and techniques.

Professional Consultations and Workshops

Seeking professional consultations or attending workshops can be invaluable for parents looking to enhance their knowledge and skills in managing sensory processing disorder in autism.

Occupational therapists, behavior therapists, and speech and language therapists are professionals who specialize in supporting individuals with sensory sensitivities. These professionals can provide personalized guidance, recommend appropriate interventions, and offer strategies tailored to the specific needs of the child and family.

Additionally, attending workshops and conferences focused on sensory processing disorder can provide parents with the opportunity to learn from experts, network with other parents, and stay informed about the latest research and advancements in the field.

By taking advantage of these supportive resources, parents can gain valuable knowledge, support, and practical strategies to effectively manage sensory processing disorder in autism. Remember that every child is unique, and finding the right combination of resources and techniques may require some trial and error. With patience, perseverance, and the support of these resources, parents can create an environment that nurtures their child's specific sensory needs and helps them thrive.


Is sensory sensitivity a common symptom of autism?

Yes, sensory sensitivity is a common symptom of autism. Many individuals with autism experience difficulty processing sensory information, which can cause them to be hypersensitive or hyposensitive to certain stimuli.

How can I identify my loved one's sensory sensitivities?

Observing your loved one's behavior and noting when they become upset or agitated can help you identify their specific triggers. You can also ask your loved one directly about their sensory experiences and pay attention to their verbal and nonverbal cues.

Are there any medications that can help manage sensory sensitivities in autism?

There are currently no medications specifically approved for managing sensory sensitivities in autism. However, some individuals with autism may benefit from medication to manage related symptoms, such as anxiety or irritability.

Can occupational therapy help manage sensory sensitivities in autism?

Yes, occupational therapy can be an effective way to help individuals with autism manage their sensory sensitivities. Occupational therapists can work with your loved one to develop strategies for coping with different types of stimuli and provide recommendations for creating a sensory-friendly environment.


Sensory sensitivities are a common symptom of autism that can cause discomfort and distress for individuals with the disorder. However, with the right strategies and support, it is possible to manage these sensitivities and help your loved one live a more comfortable and fulfilling life. By identifying triggers, creating a sensory-friendly environment, using a visual schedule, and practicing relaxation techniques, you can help your loved one with autism manage their sensory sensitivities and thrive.


steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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