Autism and Sensory Overload

People with autism are often highly sensitive to their environment. This can mean different things to different people on the spectrum. But, in general, people with autism have unusually delicate sensory systems, meaning that their senses—sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste—can be easily overloaded.

Even more challenging, it can be difficult for people with autism to "just ignore" sensory information as it comes in. Unlike people with typical sensory systems, people on the spectrum may not be able to ignore or selectively filter out something like sounds like car alarms or the clamor of a crowd at a sporting event.

This condition is referred to as sensory processing disorder (SPD). It can occur both in people with and without autism, although the management of SPD in people with autism may differ.

Young woman squinting eye closed, hand covering ear, close-up
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This article explores SPD in people with autism, including the triggers and symptoms of hypersensitivity and what can be done to ensure the right level of sensory stimulation.

What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory processing disorder is a condition in which a person does not respond normally to sensory stimuli.

Previously known as sensory integration dysfunction, SPD is most commonly seen in children with developmental disorders such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It can affect adults with autism as well.

SPD can be triggered by any stimulus that interferes with the stability of the person's environment. In some cases, the person can be so hypersensitive that they react to sensations others may not even notice.

Examples include:

  • Sounds, particularly persistent sounds such as lawnmowers, washing machines, ticking clocks, dripping water, or traffic noises
  • Sights, including fluorescent lights that flicker or curtains that flutter
  • Smells, including heavy or distinct smells such as cleaning supplies, new carpets, perfumes, and foods
  • Textures, including eating slippery foods or touching goopy gels

The types of stimuli that may cause sensory overload can vary from one individual to the next.

When faced with "too much" stimulus, particularly when it comes from different sources that cannot be selectively filtered out, people without autism may respond with symptoms such as:

  • Anxiety and fear
  • Restlessness
  • Loss of focus
  • Feeling overwhelmed or agitated
  • Increased heart rate and respiration
  • A preoccupation with or inability to ignore the source of the discomfort
  • The strong impulse to leave the source of the discomfort
  • Irritability and anger

Diagnosing sensory processing disorder can be challenging as there are no official criteria for the condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DMS-5). Even so, there are relatively standard treatments that are used.

Recap

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a condition in which a person does not respond normally to sensory stimulus in their environment, including sounds, sights, smells, and textures.

Common Sensory Challenges

Sensory processing issues can be one of the biggest challenges for people with autism.

People who witness the responses will often misinterpret them or think that they "came out of nowhere." This is, in part, because the responses are not always the same.

In the same way that sensory triggers can vary between individuals, the response to sensory overload can also differ. They may include:

  • Sensory-seeking behavior, such as sniffing objects or staring intently at moving objects
  • Sensory-avoidance behaviors, such as escaping everyday sounds, sights, or textures
  • Self-stimulatory behaviors ("stimming"), such as tapping their temples, flapping their hands, or bouncing on their toes
  • Engaging intensely with a favorite sensation

Hypersensitive or Hyposensitive?

Surprisingly, some people on the spectrum are hyposensitive, meaning that they have diminished response to sensory stimulus and often crave sensation. This can also lead to stimming in the form of flapping, pacing, or other repetitive behaviors.

Hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity can co-exist in people with autism. For example, a person may be hypersensitive to loud noises and hyposensitive to physical sensations that might otherwise provide them a sense of calm.

According to research from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, sensory dysregulation is one of the major reasons why people with autism have meltdowns or find themselves unable to manage ordinary situations. This includes people with high-functioning autism who are generally capable of handling many forms of stress.

Recap

People with autism may not only be hypersensitive (overly responsive) to certain stimuli, but also hyposensitive (lacking responsiveness) and craving stimulation.

Beyond the Five Senses

Sensory overload is not limited to the five main senses. A person on the spectrum may also overreact to three additional senses that impact a person's balance, motor skills, and body awareness.

These senses are referred to as:

  • Vestibular: This refers to structures in the inner ear that detect movement and changes in the position of the head. The vestibular system can tell you, for example, when your head is upright or tilted even if your eyes are shut.
  • Proprioception: This refers to understanding where your body is in relation to other objects. The proprioceptive system is made up of receptors in muscles that monitor muscle length, tension, and pressure.
  • Interoception: This refers to recognizing what is going on inside your body, including knowing when you are hungry, full, hot, cold, or thirsty. The interoceptive system is carried about a complex network of cranial nerves that interprets changes in the digestive tract, blood vessels, and other organ systems.

These senses can be overloaded in the same way that sound, sight, touch, smell, and taste can. Hypersensitivity of these senses can lead to balance and coordination problems and make self-regulation difficult in some people with autism.

Sensory Overload Outside of Autism

Hypersensitivity to sensations is not limited to people with autism. It can affect anyone.

Even people without autism can be "overloaded" if, say, a car alarm outside of their bedroom window continues for 10 to 20 minutes without reprieve. This is why some people will leave a club or concert when the noise level or strobing lights are too much to bear.

As you age, your sensitivity to certain sensations (such as sound) can increase substantially.

That said, smaller children may also be less able to filter sensations and respond with meltdowns. According to a 2018 review in JAMA Pediatrics, one in six children has sensory processing difficulties, causing frequent meltdowns that parents will often mistake for tantrums or bad behavior.

Many of the symptoms of sensory overload without autism are no different than those experienced in people with autism.

Recap

Sensory overload is not limited to people with autism. When overwhelmed with stimuli they can neither ignore nor filter out, people without autism will often respond with anxiety and impulsive behaviors that are not unlike those seen in people with autism.

Helping Someone With Sensory Overload

Ensuring just the right amount of sensory input (sensory regulation) is important to the physical and emotional comfort of someone with autism.

Recognizing SPD symptoms is the first step to either preventing or resolving a hypersensitive reaction in children with autism.

Among some of the ways you can help:

  • Be watchful for signs of distress before your child has a meltdown.
  • Encourage your child to communicate what is causing the frustration, anger, or agitation so that you can remove the offending stimuli.
  • Ask your child what would help them feel calm, such as a change of environment, a nap, or holding a favorite stuffed toy. Consider getting a weighted vest or blanket that can provide a sense of calm and security.
  • Make time for regular exercise to help "burn off" pent-up energy or stress. You can also get an outdoor swing or play set, which can provide the child with sensory input to better self-regulate.
  • Teach age-appropriate meditation and self-calming techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, and mindfulness.

Sensory Occupational Therapy Can Help

Occupational therapists can help children with SPD acquire or regain the skills essential to daily life. They do so with a technique called sensory integration therapy (SIT) in which a child is exposed to various stimuli in a safe environment to gradually reduce their hypersensitivity.

The process starts with an evaluation to determine which stimuli the child is sensitive to. The child is then placed in a play-based environment where they are exposed to specific sensory activities, such as swinging, therapeutic brushing, climbing a ladder, jumping, water play, and navigating an obstacle course with different surfaces.

In addition to SIT, the child may be given other tools to cope, including:

  • Sensory adaptation, such as earplugs or noise-canceling headphones
  • Environmental modifications, such as a white noise machine, changes in artwork, or changes in textures to decrease stimulation
  • "Sensory diets," a tailored strategy to ensure the right level of stimulation for the individual child (which can include a quiet space, aromatherapy, weighted blankets, stress balls, and physical activities)

Summary

It is not uncommon for children with autism to be abnormally sensitive to certain sights, sounds, tastes, or textures. The condition, called sensory processing disorder (SPD), is not exclusive to children with autism but tends to be more common in them. It can trigger atypical behaviors such as sniffing, flapping one's arms, or tapping one's temples.

SPD can also be triggered by proprioception, interception, and vestibular processing. These are the senses that help you maintain your balance, coordination, and movement through space.

The first step to avoiding SPD is to recognize the signs before a meltdown occurs. Occupational therapists can help you find ways to avoid SPD triggers, such as modifying the child's environment, using earplugs or headphones to reduce sounds, or developing a "sensory diet" to ensure the right level of stimulation each day.

A Word From Verywell

Understanding sensory challenges is an important step toward helping a person with autism establish a comfortable environment. Learning more about it can help you anticipate and manage reactions to the sensory assaults that can lead to meltdowns and disruptions.

Equally as important, it can also help you better understand the person with autism in your life.

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