Autism and Deafness: Guide

Joyce Sewell-Rutter and Stephanie Dawson | View as single page | Feedback/Impact

Sensory issues

The senses: vision, hearing, touch, smell, taste send messages to the brain and help us make sense of our world.  We also have senses of vestibular proprioception which helps us know where our bodies are in space and interoception which gives a picture of our internal bodily functions.  The brain integrates all of this information and over time we associate these sensations with behaviours and social contexts.

Sensory issues have recently been acknowledged as one of the diagnostic indicators for Autism (DSM V).  The wide nature of the autistic spectrum means that the type and degree of sensory issues vary with the individual.

It is important early on in a child’s development to track any issues of this nature and create a sensory profile.  If undetected, sensory issues can intensify, resulting in distress and learned behaviour which then becomes more difficult to regulate.

In autistic children it is thought that there is 'different wiring' in the brain.  This causes poor integration of sensory information, resulting in experiences which are heightened or lacking.  Some children are over (hyper) sensitive.  This can relate to some or all of the senses.  For example, a child who is hyper-tactile will resist physical touch or textures.  Others may be under (hypo) sensitive and may not appear to be aware of the sensation of touch.  These children may not even register pain and may seek out physical pressure.  Some children develop repetitive behaviours in order to get sensory feedback and can be reassured by the predictability of the same movements.  This can give a feeling of security and control.  Most behaviour has a function and it is important to establish what that is.

For more on hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity and desensitisation programmes, see Sensory Hyper- and Hyposensitivity in Autism  and Sensory Differences by the National Autistic Society.