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Sensory Difficulties in People with Autism

I found this list very helpful in understanding how a person can measure another personʼs sensory difficulties. It looks like good explanation of sensory processing issues for a layperson.

What are sensory difficulties?

Difficulties with loud noises, smells, being hugged, walking on certain surfaces, and having certain foods in your mouth are some examples.

People on the autism spectrum often have sensory difficulties. Their brains have trouble processing taste, touch, sound, smell, and sight.

The list is as follows:

Autism Spectrum Disorder Neurospans:

1. Cognitive Capacity – The amount of data in permanent storage.

2. Abstraction – Information not based on fact. (Eg. Social skills nuances, emotional understanding, imagination)

3. Sensory Integration – Intake of data (Eg. Sight, sound, touch, taste, smell)

4. Executive Functioning – Regulation of all information. (Eg. Attention, inhibition, emotional regulation, PROCESSING SPEED)

5. Comorbid Anxiety and Depression – Anxiety: Canʼt predict what happens next that creates HELPLESSNESS; Depression: Chronic helplessness, creates hiding/apathy

What does all of that mean?

I am a mother of a twelve-year-old with autism, but I am not a professional in the autism field. However, this is unprofessional (yet experienced) interpretation of the list.

1. My son amazes me sometimes at details he remembers from years ago. However, if I ask him how his day went at school, he struggles. His data storage is huge and permanent but a lot of it is limited to numbers, dates, and the concrete. However, I would say his cognitive capacity is great.

2. My son struggles with the abstract. He cannot tell me why an author wrote something and he still struggles with facial cues and everyday subtleties. For example, he has learned a lot of idioms. He enjoys them, but even after I explain what one means, I’m not sure he totally understands.

3. His intake of data has always been strong and relatively balanced. We took him to Major League baseball games and other sporting events when he was very young. The noise levels at these events never seemed to bother him. He did, however, sometimes get overstimulated by a very “busy“ room (like a classroom), but that is no longer an issue. He has always been more of a visual learner, but even that’s improving with age. He never had too many issues with food. He’ll even occasionally try a new food these days. Overall, he’s not bad with sensory integration.

4. Executive functioning was an issue, but now it’s finally beginning to come together. He does still process things slower than typical peers, but he’s improving. His attention at school and his emotional regulation has improved so much that we are weaning off his aide. He even says he feels confident that he can go an entire school day without an aide. His confidence level is the highest we have ever seen. His inhibitions are definitely decreasing with that confidence.

5. He has had some anxiety issues in the past but never severe (never segued into depression). For example, he has yet to develop any kind of gastrointestinal issues that are now being linked to children with autism and their problems coping. He can self-regulate most of the time, even though he still has an occasional meltdown (or mini-meltdown). The difference now is his ability to “come out of it“ sooner and not have it delve into a frustrating full-blown meltdown. If he feels anxious, he can communicate what’s happening to him. He will tell me, “I’m nervous” about something. Or, I can now ask him about how he’s feeling. We talk and try to handle it. I also try my best to give him information ahead of time.

He has greatly improved in the area of dealing with “the unexpected.” It simply does not cause the anxiety that used to happen. His maturity in this area is very evident.

That is my interpretation of the five areas on this list as it pertains to one person, my son. Since the autism spectrum is a spectrum, no two children, no two people, are alike. Hopefully, however, if you want to understand this list a little better, having me explain my perspective might help.

What is the spectrum like for sensory difficulties?

Again, itʼs a spectrum. There are kids with an autism diagnoses who have very few of the above issues. Or, they had them when they were younger and now they are not as common now (like my son).

And, then there are kids who have most or all of them, and they struggle with them.

I believe, recognizing them as soon as possible is key. Then, you can get help handling them, which means helping your child to improve in whatever area is hard.

Additionally, I believe we all have sensory issues. I, sometimes, don’t like loud noises. I don’t have a meltdown because of it, but it can still bother me.

But, I also don’t believe sensory issues are necessarily permanent. With time and the right strategies, many can improve or disappear. There are ways to deal with them. Children can learn to cope.

More on Kimberly Kaplan:
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