Autistic children often experience sensory issues that you should keep in mind when buying toys or games for them.  For example, an autistic child might avoid loud or colorful toys if he is hypersensitive to sounds and colors. Or conversely he might crave these toys if he is hyposensitive to sounds and sights.

Research studies find that between 30 to 100% of autistic children have some type of sensory issue and that sensory issues seem more common during childhood than in adulthood.

In this post I’ll talk about some common sensory issues experienced by autistic children from the scientific literature as well as anecdotal evidence from parents and caretakers of children with autism. I also talk about symptoms associated with each issue.

1. Visual Sensory Issues

Researchers have found that rods and cones in the eyes of autistic children are different from non-autistics in part due to chemical imbalances or neural deficiencies. Of the autistic children tested by some studies, 85% saw colors with greater intensity than neuro-typical children. To these autistic children, red appears nearly fluorescent and vibrates intensely. A small proportion (10%) saw color as non-autistic children do, and 5% saw muted colors. Studies also find that visual spatial skills are generally very advanced in autistic children. Researchers also find that autistic children often experience “Gestalt perception,” or an inability to filter foreground and background information. This causes everything they see to be viewed in its entirety instead of as a combination of different things. It makes it hard for them to recognize things if one minor detail is changed. Visual sensory issues can also cause autistic children to have difficulty following environmental cues. many can’t distinguish normal visual cues such as exit or restroom signage.

Key Things To Keep In Mind For Hyposensitive Children (not enough visual stimulation):

  • Children who are hypo-sensitive to color tend to see color in muted tones. They will seek out primary and other vibrant colors because they perceive things as grey.
Key Things To Keep In Mind For Hypersensitive Children:
  • They may withdraw from areas or things with vivid colors and visual patterns
  • Primary colors can be distracting, so you might want to remove bright toys from learning areas
  • Some children may become obsessed with complex environments, such as memorizing all the shapes and lines in an environment. This means that shutters and drapery can be over-stimulating. Painting window frames with a muted color that is the same as the shade can help prevent overstimulation.

2. Auditory Issues

Auditory sensitivity issues are very common in autistic children. Famed autistic Temple Grandin talks a lot about this issue in her childhood, and one study even found that 100% of the autistic subjects showed auditory difficulties. Autistics might experience auditory issues in terms of intensity or sensory overload. In terms of intensity, some noises may be too intense for autistic children while in other cases the sounds aren’t stimulating enough. In terms of sensory overload there may be too much noise coming in a shopping mall or a restaurant for the child to be able to filter out the most important sounds.

Key Things To Keep In Mind For Hyposensitive Children:

  • In the case of hyposensitivity, the child isn’t getting enough auditory stimulation. He may therefore try to stimulate his nervous system by doing such things as banging on objects, seeking out noises, or shouting.
Key Things To Keep In Mind For Hypersensitive Children:
  • The child may do such things as rock in place, swing, cover his ears, press ears, or twist because these activities can causes sensations that help the brain block out the noises he can’t stand

3. Movement (Proprioception) Issues

Clumsiness and gross motor impairment are common features of Aspergers and high-functioning autism. Issues may occur include lacking fine and gross motor skills, lacking eye-hand coordination, difficulty imitating gestures, poor posture, and poor balance. One study thinks that some of these issues may be tied to sensitivity issues in other senses like vision or sounds that cause distractions, or that they may be tied to integrating multiple senses, such as eye-hand or balance-touch.

4. Tactile Issues

Autistic children can also show issues related to touch. This can lead to several symptoms:

  • withdrawing from being touched, or withdrawing from some types of touch but craving other types of touch
  • refusing to eat certain textured foods or wearing certain types of clothing
  • complaining about having hair or face washed
  • Not wanting to get their hands dirty
  • Using finger tips rather than whole hands to manipulate objects.

5. Vestibular (balance) Issues

Balance issues in autistic children typically show up  in several ways:
  • The child might be hypersensitive to stimulation and have fearful reactions to common movement activities (swings, slides, ramps, inclines)
  • The child may  have trouble learning to climb or descent stairs or hills. They may be apprehensive walking or crawling on uneven or unstable surfaces, making them appear clumsy
  • If a child has a hyposensitive vestibular system, he may actively seek very intense sensory experiences such as excessive body whirling, jumping, and/or spinning in order to continuously stimulate his vestibular system.

6. Sensory Integration Issues

Finally, an autistic child may have issues combining information from multiple senses at once. While this is easy for non-autistic children to do, autistic children often have trouble with this task, leading to difficulty doing such things as understanding social cues (they have to listen as well as pay attention to different gestures in the hands, eyes, mouth, etc). In this case, it can help the child if interactions occur in a quiet environment, things happen one at a time, and they know what is happening next.

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What other sensory issues have you observed in your autistic child? How did you help him or her cope with these issues? Please share your thoughts and experiences in our comments section!

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