One of the more difficult aspects of autism to explain to friends, relatives, teachers and acquaintances is sensory processing disorder. While autism doesn’t appear the same in each child, many children with ASD have hyper- or hyposensitivities, or a combination of both, depending on the situation or the day.
These sensitivities are hard to explain. Those that don’t understand look at you as if you are being ridiculous; some will respond with "Oh, he just needs to get over it." Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is misunderstood and often overlooked as a serious problem. In my next post, I will go over how SPD is treated, but this week, we’ll look at some examples of how SPD shows up:
- Tim is 16. He can’t stand the feeling of something sticking to him. When he was younger, grocery stores always gave out stickers to the little children. He would recoil when offered a sticker, loudly stating, "I hate stickers." He wouldn’t even allow a sticker to be placed on his shirt. He has never used a band-aid, insisting on holding a wet cloth over any cut or scratch.
- John doesn’t like to be touched or hugged. During family gatherings, he quickly slips inside, avoiding the inevitable greetings and hugs. It isn’t that he doesn’t like his relatives, it is just they insist on giving him a hug. Most think he is being rude when he slinks away from their outstretched arms.
- Zachary is always running into or falling over objects. He constantly bumps into cabinets, tables and chairs. Other people wonder how he can bump into something that should be familiar, but he does it anyway. He will run into other people in the store, even though he clearly sees they are in front of him.
- Jonah, as a baby, would cry every time his parents changed his diaper. He seemed to be in pain and as he got a little older and started talking, he would say it hurt.
- Andy would only wear plain t-shirts without any tags. If there was a tag in his shirt, he couldn’t concentrate all day. He usually spend 10 minutes putting his shoes on each morning, making sure the seams in his socks were perfectly lined up so he couldn’t feel them. Even seamless socks had to be put on a certain way.
- Michelle sat down and covered her ears in noisy environments. Certain times of the school day were hard for her to manage - in the mornings when everyone was coming into the classroom and talking and at the end of the day when everyone was gathering up their belonging and talking were difficult. Instead of joining in, she would sit at her desk and cover her ears. School assemblies were even more difficult and many times she would go to the nurse’s office or the library instead. Most of her classmates thought she was strange.
- Jayne doesn’t like any mess on her hands. She avoids playing with fingerpaints, sand, playdough, glue and bubbles. It makes it difficult in school as she doesn’t want to participate in any of the arts, crafts or activities that involve anything gooey or messy getting on her hands. She avoids eating foods like pudding, jello, mashed potatoes or anything with a soft consistency because it may get on her hands. She gets upset when juice or other food spills on her.
- Tommy doesn’t like being touched. He is in kindergarten and refuses to sit in the circle during story time because one of his classmates might accidently touch him. He won’t play any games, such as Ring Around the Rosy, that involve holding hands or touching. When the class takes a walk and everyone is supposed to hold hands, he refuses to do so. Tommy also doesn’t like to touch objects that other people have touched - he has his own set of crayons and if someone else uses one, he won’t use it again.
- Sidney needs action and high sensory play. He always climbs to the top of the jungle gym and spins the swing into a tight ball before letting go and twirling as fast as he can. At home he jumps from the back of the sofa or from the top of the stairs. He is always going, fast and furious and can’t seem to get enough stimulus to satisfy him. His mother worries that one of these days he is going to get hurt.
- Rachel hates going to the pool with her family during the summer. She can’t stand to be out in the heat. When she does go, she sits in the shade. Her entire body seems to wilt when it is hot outside and she usually ends up with a stomach or headache.
- Mary is hypersensitive to smell. Strong odors, even pleasant ones, bother her. When her mother is cooking, Mary usually stays in her room but even then the smells attack her. One morning she complained about the skunk smell but no one else noticed anything. Sure enough, when they left for school, there was a dead skunk in the road - but it was a few miles away from her home.
- Frankie feels sick every time he rides in the car for more than a few blocks. He doesn’t like amusement rides or even swinging on the swing. As a toddler, he cried anytime someone picked him up or swung him from side to side.
These are just a few examples of what sensory processing disorder can look like. As you can see, it shows up in many different ways and can look different in each child. There are seven sensory areas that can be affected:
- Body Awareness
Children and adults can have sensory difficulties in any, or several, areas. Left alone, these sensory difficulties cause problems in learning and behavior.
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.