April is Autism Awareness Month. Light It Up Blue, started by Autism Speaks, aims to raise awareness and encourage greater acceptance of those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Sensory sensitivities are common with ASD. As part of Light It Up Blue, we’ll explain sensory issues and ways to help children with ASD and their parents deal with them.
What are sensory sensitivities?
In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association added sensory sensitivities to the list of symptoms that help diagnose ASD. Sensory issues can either be a hyper-sensitivity (over-responsiveness) or a hypo-sensitivity (under-responsiveness) to stimuli.
Sensitivities can include:
- Body Awareness
Sensory sensitivities can cause challenges for children with ASD and their parents. The added stress from sensory sensitivities means that it doesn’t take much to overwhelm a child or cause tantrums. Finding ways to accommodate these sensitivities can help relieve stress for both child and parent.
Coping with sensory issues
Accommodations can help individuals with ASD cope with sensory issues. For those struggling with hyper-sensitivities, these accommodations may help:
- Dimmed lights or no LEDs or fluorescent light; use of natural light
- Sunglasses or a hat to block bright lighting
- Ear plugs or headphones for loud situations
- Closing doors to block distracting sights and sounds
- Avoid strong smelling products
- Avoid the individual’s food aversions (spicy, textured, cold, hot, etc.)
- Accommodate sensitivities to clothing (tight waistbands, scratchy fabric, seams, tags, etc.)
- Request permission before touching
These accommodations can help with hypo-sensitivities:
- Visual supports to help process spoken information
- Sensory-stimulating toys (safe things to chew, fidget toys, etc.)
- Opportunities for rocking, swinging, and other sensory-stimulating activities
- Strong tasting or textured foods and cold beverages
- Firm touch such as a bear-hug or weighted blankets
- Fun opportunities to practice catching, dancing, jumping, running, etc.
- Rearrange furniture to reduce chances of bumping sharp edges or hard surfaces
Treatment and programs
Accommodations can be useful short-term tools for sensory sensitivities. Occupational Therapy with Sensory Integration (OT-SI) helps change the way the brain reacts to stimuli.
OT-SI helps individuals better process sensory input in everyday environments. The Occupational Therapist uses activities in a way that will help children reach their goals so that stimuli don’t seem so overwhelming.
For example, in an OT-SI ball pit activity, the balls may feel strange to the child, the noise may be bothersome, and it might be difficult for the child to balance while leaning sideways. The activity challenges the child to change the way he/she reacts, but it does so in a way that is not overwhelming.
In addition to OT-SI, feeding therapy helps individuals with sensory-based feeding disorders expand the foods they are able to eat by reducing their aversion to tastes and textures. Speech therapy can also improve speech, swallowing, and related muscle movement.
The Fisher-Titus Autism Spectrum Kids program hosts regular sensory-friendly events like bowling and movies. These events use accommodations such as low noise levels, no harsh lighting, and more so that kids with ASD are able to enjoy the activities.
Julie Cloud, MOT, OTR/L is an Occupational Therapist in the Fisher-Titus Rehabilitation Department. She is certified in Sensory Integration. Fisher-Titus offers Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy, Feeding Therapy, and Physical Therapy for children with ASD. For more information about pediatric therapy at the Fisher-Titus Rehabilitation Center, call (419) 660-2700. To view upcoming sensory friendly events, visit www.fishertitus.org/upcoming-events.