What might ASD and sensory processing challenges look like functionally day to day?
On a typical day, as the videos show, there are many different sensory inputs that our brains need to process. The brain needs to decide whether to respond or to ignore these inputs. The world is full of noises. If you’re sensitive to noise sirens, clocks ticking, loud vehicles, dogs barking, music class, playground noises, vacuum cleaners and hand dryers might be an issue. The world is also full of things to look at and smell. This can prove very distracting if you are more sensitive to visual inputs or smells.
Our touch sense is constantly working. Difficulties might occur with clothing fabrics, shoes, socks, haircuts, hair brushing or washing, teeth brushing, messy play and food textures for those who are sensitive to touch. If processing is slower it will take longer to respond to messages from the touch system.
Those who are slower to process proprioceptive sensory input have poor awareness of where their body is and poor coordination. Sometimes they find slow movements more difficult. This could mean seeking out more movement by constantly being on the go and fidgeting. There could also be sensitivity to movement, or vestibular sensory input, which often results in avoidance of moving surfaces, swings and other playground equipment.
Consider the environment
Sensory inputs will change depending on the environment. Often the environment at home is more predictable and can be easier to manage than school. There are less children, or sometimes no other children, at home. The child has their own space they can retreat to if required. They have more choice over the activities they participate in. However, some children find the routine of school helpful. Others can find the sheer volume of sensory inputs at school quite overwhelming.
The larger and more unpredictable the space is, the more sensory input there is for the autistic child or adult to process. Think of a large supermarket compared to a small corner shop. There is much more to look at, the lights are typically brighter. There are more people, there is more movement and much more noise. For those without sensory sensitivities, the brain ignores and filters out the information it doesn’t need. This makes it much easier to be in the space. When the brain isn’t filtering out this information as well, such as in autism/ASD, the brain pays attention to everything. This is why sensory overload can occur. There is just too much information for the brain to process. This can sometimes result in meltdown or shutdown.
Responses can also change
Responses to sensory inputs can fluctuate and change. Children and adults with sensory issues can find these harder to manage towards the end the day. Or towards the end of the week or school term. Tiredness or ill-health can exacerbate sensory issues. Clinically, I have seen a significant difference in children’s ability to manage sensory sensitivities when they are well compared to if they are unwell. Autistic children can often have even less reserve when they are unwell. This can lead to quicker sensory overload.
Another thing that will impact on sensory processing is stress. There is some research in this area (5). It indicates that anxiety can increase sensory sensitivity. However, it also shows that sensory sensitivity can increase anxiety. The author of the research was unable to tease out which came first though, liking it to a chicken and egg scenario (5).
Let’s hear from an autistic adult
In this TED talk, Jolene Stockman describes here experiences growing up and also as an adult.