Hypersensitivities in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • Sensory sensitivities, also called sensory processing disorder, sensory integration disorder or sensory defensiveness, are quite common in children and adults with autism spectrum disorders, including Asperger's syndrome. Sensory sensitivies are when stimulus from one of the five senses causes discomfort or pain. Some common sensitivities include:

    • Tags inside of clothes
    • Loud noises
    • Seams in socks
    • Smell of strong soaps, perfumes, cleaning products
    • Gags on certain foods because of texture or taste
    • Bright lights

    This list provides some common examples, your child may have sensitivities to many different things. Sensory issues are the cause of many meltdowns and tantrums. Imagine a child on the first day of school wearing brand new clothes and shoes. The clothes may be stiff and the tags may bother him. The shoes feel uncomfortable and restricting. Neurotypcial children, those without ASD, might feel uncomfortable for a few minutes but once their attention is taken by meeting new students, seeing friends and paying attention to the teacher, they no longer think about the stiffness of their new clothes. Children with AS, on the other hand, can't stop thinking about it. They are not only uncomfortable, the new clothes can actually cause pain. Some children and adults have described the feeling of stiff, itchy clothes as sandpaper grating over their skin. These children can't focus on anything else going on. They miss what the teacher is saying, can't concentrate on schoolwork, all they can think of is the uncomfortable feeling.

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    Before you knew about or understood autism spectrum disorders, your child's hypersensitivities probably drove you nuts. At the dinner table, you may have insisted your child eat the food on their plate, believing the gagging was simply a way to manipulate you, a way to get out of eating something he didn't like. You may have insisted on the new clothes for the first day of school. But as you learned about ASD, you realized that your child wasn't doing this to purposely annoy you, that he experienced touch, taste, smell, sounds and visual stimuli much different than you and that at times, his sensitivities were painful.

    The following are some tips to help parents whose children have hypersensitivities:

    When shopping for clothes, bring your child along to try on different outfits. If you find one he likes and feels comfortable, you might consider buying several in different colors. If you don't want to shop with your child, go online and purchase several different outfits that look comfortable and let your child choose which ones to keep. You may want to shop on a website that has a store close by to make it more convenient to return the ones he doesn't want. Cotton and natural fabrics seem to be more comfortable to wear.

    When you buy new clothes for your child, cut out all tags and wash the item to make it softer before your child wears it.

    Accept that your child may only eat one or two different foods. One mother whose son would only eat rice and chicken cooked a week's worth of these foods on Sunday. She cooked other meals for the rest of the family each night. By doing this she didn't feel as if she was a "short-order cook" making several different dinners each night.

  • Experiment with different foods. Use different color foods and different textures. One child may only like apples whole and not like the texture of applesauce. Another might only eat applesauce but doesn't like to bite into an apple. Be creative and make foods different ways. Ask your child to try a small bite but don't force him to eat it if he tries it and doesn't like it.

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    Keep a vial of a pleasant smelling liquid and cotton balls with you. If you are in a location and your child starts complaining of the smell (hypersensitive individuals can often smell things you can't smell), put a little of the liquid on the cotton ball and let him smell that.

    Keep earplugs with you for expected and unexpected loud noises. Suppose you are walking down the street, the same street you walk down every day, but today road work is being done and there are jack-hammers going. Instead of having your son become agitated, take out the earplugs and continue your walk.

    Do you have additional ideas that work for your family? Please take a few minutes to share them with us.


    Atwood, Tony, The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome, 2008, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London

    Dubin, Nick and Gaus, Valerie, Asperger Syndrome and Anxiety: A Guide to Successful Stress Management, 2009, Jessica Kingsley Publications, London

Published On: July 29, 2011