Around 8 in 10 autistic people process sensory information differently. For some it can cause challenges in everyday life. A person can be over-sensitive, under-sensitive or both.
Someone can experience sensory differences with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, balance or body awareness. Sensory experiences can change how someone feels physically, where they can go and how they interact with others.
If someone is hypersensitive, they may experience a very strong reaction to sensory information in their environment. Their senses can feel overloaded and that can cause anxiety, stress and real physical pain. Sensory overload can lead to distressed behaviour, meltdowns or a need to escape.
I think it's hard for people to understand how challenging an environment can be. It's not a matter of just feeling uncomfortable. When my senses are overwhelmed, environments can cause physical pain and make it impossible to think clearly.
Ways to manage hypersensitivity:
- Noise-cancelling headphones
- Dimmed lights
- Varied food options to match food preferences
- Dimmed lights
- Walled workspaces for easier control over the environment
Ways to help someone with hypersensitity:
- Check your environment - What in your environment may be causing someone sensory difficulty? Can you change it to make things more comfortable?
- Change your environment - Is there something that you know brings comfort to the person you’re with? What can you bring to make the environment more positive?
- Plan for your environment - Let the person know in advance what the sensory environment will be like. Let them know that they can bring along anything that they may need to make their environment more comfortable.
If someone is hyposensitive, they may experience weak sensory information. People who have a low sensitivity to sensory information may be less sensitive to pain and may be less able to control balance or physical coordination as they are less aware of their body’s position. People who are hyposensitive may be more susceptible to physical injury, and they may have difficulty sensing or paying attention to their environment.
People always assume that autistic people need to be in calm, plain environments, but my brain needs controlled chaos to function. To be able to focus, I need lots of sound and activity. Libraries were my worst nightmare in college!
Cat - an autistic adult
Ways to manage hyposensitivity:
- Opportunities for movement, such as pacing or rocking
- Weighted blankets
- Varied food options that include intense flavours and different textures
- Spaces that are arranged to reduce the likelihood of bumping into hard surfaces
- Sensory stimulating toys
An occupational therapist can help you to understand your own sensory profile. They can help you to understand how you can positively use your senses and how you can, to some extent, adapt the environment to your specific needs.
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy
You may have had particularly negative experiences with some types of sensory information or in some environments. A cognitive behavioural therapist may be able to help you reduce the feelings of anxiety about these experiences and to develop strategies to deal with them.
Sharing your experiences with others may help you to feel less anxious. It may be a way to learn new practical strategies to help you negotiate the sensory environment from people who have experienced something similar.
Where can research take us next?
Research around autism and sensory differences has largely focused on early sensory development and what the senses may tell us about the origins of autism. More recent research has focused on practically understanding how the senses may impact mental health and how environments can be adapted to better fit sensory needs.
We’re currently co-funding a study with MQ that is looking how sensory reactivity may be linked to anxiety in young children. We’re also creating space for autistic people to share information about good and bad sensory environments. Through our Citizen Science project, community members will be able to share positive and negative experiences of their physical environment, so the community can build a virtual understanding of how an environment might fit their sensory needs.
Research can give us better tactics for managing sensory challenges, whether someone is feeling overwhelmed or under-stimulated. It is also teaching us the sorts of environments that can support autistic people to thrive. The more we learn about the small changes that can make life more comfortable for autistic people, the more opportunities employers, educators and businesses have to create a world that fully embraces autistic people.
Supported by Fujitsu.
Official Sponsor of Autistica’s World Autism Awareness Campaign 2021