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Sensory Sensitivity in Autism

Unravel the mystery of sensory sensitivity in autism; its impact, management techniques, and future research.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
April 10, 2024
8 min read
min read

Understanding Sensory Sensitivity

Sensory sensitivity is a complex condition, often misunderstood, that affects the way individuals interact with their environment. This understanding begins with exploring the related Sensory Processing Disorder and the concept of sensory overload.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition that affects how the brain processes sensory information. This pertains to the information received through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Individuals with SPD may be overly sensitive to stimuli that others are not, or conversely, they may require more stimuli to have an impact [1].

Children with SPD may show a variety of symptoms, including overreacting or underreacting to sounds, clothing, and food textures. They may also experience poor motor skills, language delays, low muscle tone, and have trouble with activities like climbing stairs or using utensils. These symptoms can lead to low self-confidence, social isolation, and depression in older children.

Sensory Overload and its Implications

Sensory overload is a condition that often overlaps with sensory processing disorder. It is associated with several health conditions, including autism, sensory processing disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and fibromyalgia [2].

Sensory overload occurs when the brain receives more sensory input than it can process or handle. This can lead to feelings of discomfort, confusion, and stress, and can be particularly prevalent in loud, crowded, or brightly lit environments.

Sensory overload can be a common symptom of mental health conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder and PTSD. Factors like anticipation, fatigue, and stress can trigger sensory overload [2].

Understanding sensory processing disorder and sensory overload is a crucial step in understanding sensory sensitivity in general. Both these conditions can impact an individual's ability to interact with their environment, affecting their social, emotional, and physical well-being. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of these conditions can lead to early intervention and management, improving the quality of life for those affected.

Identifying Sensory Sensitivity

Identifying sensory sensitivity is an essential step towards understanding and managing this condition. Symptoms can vary significantly from person to person and may present differently in children and adults. Let's delve into the specific symptoms seen in these two age groups.

Symptoms in Children

In children, the signs of sensory processing disorder (SPD) can manifest in several ways. Some children may overreact or underreact to sensory inputs such as sounds, clothing, and food textures. They may also struggle with motor skills, have language delays, and exhibit low muscle tone. Difficulty with activities like climbing stairs or using utensils might also be present [1].

Children with SPD may show either increased or decreased sensitivity to sensory input such as light, sound, and touch. This hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity can lead them to avoid or seek out sensory stimulation [3].

Moreover, the emotional and social impacts of these symptoms should not be overlooked. The challenges that come with SPD can lead to low self-confidence, social isolation, and depression in older children.

Symptoms in Adults

While sensory processing problems are commonly identified in children, they can also affect adults. Symptoms in adults might be less noticeable but can still significantly impact daily life. The cause of these issues is still unknown, but studies have suggested a strong genetic component for hypersensitivity to light and sound. Abnormal brain activity in response to simultaneous exposure to light and sound has also been observed in individuals with sensory processing issues.

In adults, sensory processing difficulties may manifest as hypersensitivity or under-responsiveness to sensory stimuli. The severity of symptoms can range from severe reactions like vomiting or screaming to being unresponsive to sensory stimuli. Much like in children, these symptoms can disrupt everyday life and functioning.

Understanding the symptoms of sensory sensitivity in both children and adults is crucial in seeking appropriate treatment and support. Early identification and intervention can significantly improve the quality of life for those living with sensory processing disorders, enabling them to lead fulfilling and successful lives.

Sensory Sensitivity and Autism

The relationship between sensory sensitivity and autism is complex and multifaceted. Both conditions share overlapping characteristics but also possess unique traits that set them apart.

Overlapping Characteristics

Sensory overload, a common manifestation of sensory sensitivity, is associated with several health conditions, including autism, sensory processing disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and fibromyalgia. It is characterized by hypersensitivity to sensory input, making it more likely in individuals with autism.

Treating related conditions such as autism with medication like aripiprazole (Abilify) has been found to improve sensory processing, which can help with symptoms of sensory overload [2].

Interestingly, Sensory processing disorder (SPD), another condition tied to sensory sensitivity, affects how the brain processes sensory information, including things seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched. Some people with SPD are overly sensitive to stimuli, while in other cases, it takes more stimuli to make an impact.

Unique Traits in Autism

Autism, characterized by difficulties with social interaction and communication, along with repetitive behaviors and narrow interests, also has unique sensory-related traits. Many individuals with autism experience sensory sensitivity, which can manifest as hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to sensory input. This can include being bothered by certain sounds, textures, tastes, and lights, or seeking out certain sensory experiences.

However, it's important to note that while sensory sensitivity is common in individuals with autism, not everyone with sensory sensitivity has autism. Similarly, not everyone with autism will experience sensory sensitivity. The spectrum of autism is broad, and the symptoms and experiences can vary widely from person to person.

In exploring the overlap and unique traits of sensory sensitivity and autism, it's crucial to remember that each individual's experience is unique. Understanding these nuances can lead to more effective and personalized strategies for managing sensory sensitivity, particularly in the context of autism.

Impact of Sensory Sensitivity

The influence of sensory sensitivity extends beyond the immediate physical responses to stimuli. It can have profound emotional, social, cognitive, and physical effects on individuals experiencing it. In this section, we will explore the consequences of sensory sensitivity on these various aspects of life.

Emotional and Social Consequences

Sensory sensitivity can significantly impact an individual's emotional well-being and social interactions. High sensitivity in sensory processing has been described as responses to stimuli from the environment quite often due to a rapid activation of the central nervous system. Some studies indicate negative, moderate, and significant correlations between high sensitivity in sensory processing and a poor quality of life in the population studied.

For children, symptoms of sensory processing disorder (SPD) can impact their self-perception and social connections. They may overreact or underreact to sounds, clothing, and food textures. These reactions can lead to challenges in social situations, causing children to feel isolated or misunderstood. Over time, these experiences can contribute to low self-confidence, social isolation, and symptoms of depression [1].

Physical and Cognitive Effects

Sensory sensitivity is not just an emotional or social issue; it has physical and cognitive implications as well. Sensory overload, a common trait in individuals with sensory sensitivity, is associated with several other health conditions, including autism, sensory processing disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and fibromyalgia.

Beyond the immediate physical reactions to sensory overload, such as headaches or increased heart rate, sensory sensitivity can exacerbate symptoms of mental health conditions like generalized anxiety disorder and PTSD. This exacerbation is often triggered by anticipation, fatigue, and stress [2].

Moreover, children with SPD may experience poor motor skills, language delays, and low muscle tone. They may also struggle with activities that require coordination, like climbing stairs or using utensils [1].

Understanding the full impact of sensory sensitivity is crucial in developing effective strategies to manage it. Addressing these issues can significantly improve the quality of life for those living with sensory sensitivity.

Approaches to Managing Sensory Sensitivity

Effective management of sensory sensitivity is essential to enhancing the quality of life of individuals with sensory processing disorder (SPD). A combination of therapeutic approaches and strategies can help individuals cope with the condition. Sensory integration therapy and occupational therapy, along with sensory diets, are common approaches to help individuals manage sensory sensitivity.

Sensory Integration Therapy

Sensory integration therapy is a type of therapy that is based on the work of A. Jean Ayres, PhD, who added two "internal" senses (body awareness and movement) to the traditional five senses. Some Occupational Therapists (OTs) also add an eighth sense called interoception, which relays sensations from the organs.

The therapy is based on the idea that specific movement activities and resistive body work can help a child with sensory problems experience an optimal level of arousal and regulation. This can "rewire" the brain and allow kids to appropriately integrate and respond to sensory input, making them more confident and successful.

One of the techniques used in sensory integration therapy is "brushing," which provides deep pressure and can be a powerful tool for children with tactile defensiveness. There are different brushing protocols that can be graded based on a child's responses.

Sensory integration therapy may also target the vestibular-visual-auditory "triad" to help individuals better understand the three-dimensional space that surrounds them. Listening programs and Astronaut Training are new therapeutic approaches used to enhance integration of auditory input with other types of sensory input.

Occupational Therapy and Sensory Diets

Occupational therapy (OT) plays a crucial role in managing sensory sensitivity. It involves a range of strategies and programs to help individuals adapt to their sensory environment. One of the strategies employed by OTs is the creation of a "sensory diet" - a tailored plan of physical activities and accommodations that provide the sensory input a person needs to stay focused and organized throughout the day.

The sensory diet can include a mix of both calming activities (like reading or drawing) and alerting activities (like jumping or running), depending on the person's needs. It can also incorporate various tools and equipment, such as weighted blankets or noise-cancelling headphones, to help manage sensory overload.

Combined with sensory integration therapy, occupational therapy and sensory diets can significantly enhance the ability of individuals with sensory sensitivity to navigate their daily lives with greater ease and confidence. Starting therapy early has been shown to be key in treating SPD [1]. By implementing these approaches, individuals can learn to manage their sensory sensitivity more effectively and lead more fulfilling lives.

Sensory Sensitivity Research and Developments

In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in sensory sensitivity, particularly in relation to autism. This section will delve into the potential genetic links to sensory sensitivity and the future directions in sensory sensitivity research.

Potential Genetic Links

The exact cause of sensory processing problems has remained elusive to researchers. However, a 2006 study suggested a strong genetic component for hypersensitivity to light and sound. This hypersensitivity is a common symptom in individuals with sensory processing disorder (SPD), a condition affecting how the brain processes sensory information.

Abnormal brain activity in response to simultaneous exposure to light and sound has been observed in children with sensory processing issues. These findings hint at a potential genetic influence on sensory sensitivity, but further research is needed to fully understand the implications and mechanisms at play.

Future Directions in Sensory Sensitivity Research

As research continues to delve into the complexities of sensory sensitivity, many experts advocate for the recognition of SPD as a standalone disorder. Despite the lack of widely accepted diagnostic criteria, occupational therapists frequently work with individuals experiencing sensory processing issues, providing treatments such as sensory integration therapy.

Another important area of research is sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), or environmental sensitivity (ES), characterized by increased awareness and sensitivity to the environment. Unlike SPD, SPS is not a disorder but an innate trait, where individuals with SPS process sensory stimuli more strongly and deeply than others [7].

Future research will likely continue to explore these and other aspects of sensory sensitivity, including potential genetic links, the relationship with autism, and effective therapeutic interventions. By deepening our understanding of sensory sensitivity, we can move toward more effective strategies for managing this aspect of autism and improve the quality of life for those affected.

References

[1]: https://familydoctor.org/condition/sensory-processing-disorder-spd/

[2]: https://www.healthline.com/health/sensory-overload

[3]: https://www.healthline.com/health/childrens-health/sensory-issues-in-children

[4]: https://www.webmd.com/children/sensory-processing-disorder

[5]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8432132/

[6]: https://childmind.org/article/treating-sensory-processing-issues/

[7]: https://www.additudemag.com/highly-sensitive-person-sensory-processing-sensitivity-adhd/

steven zauderer

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

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