This is the third post in my parenting autistic children series. However I have decided to ditch the ‘parenting autistic children’ from the title and just write under the header of the area I’m covering.
I am an autistic woman with two autistic children and I want to share my experiences and what I have learned in hopes that the ideas might help someone else. I should point out also that I have no experience of autism with learning difficulties so the information I share is most relevant to those of you who have children with autism and average or above average IQ.
This post is about sensory needs. In my experience most autistic children have issues with sensory processing and as such it can be really helpful to support them with their sensory needs. This can help regulate the child and reduce anxiety, meltdowns and other issues.
What is sensory processing?
Sensory processing is a subconscious, neurological process. We receive sensory information from the environment to our brain via our senses. Then we process, organise and respond to it. This makes the world feel predictable and safe.
Difficulties with sensory processing can cause a variety of issues and behaviours in our children. Including problems with communication, meltdowns, anxiety and discomfort.
What are our senses?
Our senses are hearing, seeing, taste, smell and touch.
Another way we process sensory information is the vestibular system which coordinates movement of the eyes, head and body through space and movement. Sensory receptors for the vestibular system are located in the inner ear. Processing of this information is vital for balance, the coordination of both sides of our bodies and processing movement.
Finally proprioception. This information is sent from our muscles and joints to give us an awareness of our body position.
What do difficulties with sensory processing look like?
Difficulties with sensory processing results in behaviours which interfere with day to day functioning.
Children can over register or under register sensory input. In fact they can be both in different areas and be changeable from day to day which can be very confusing for the child and the caregiver.
The over responsive child may hate noisy, busy environments because they feel too much. They may become easily overstimulated and feel irritable and defensive. They feel things more including pain. They may struggle to focus as everything feels overwhelming.
The under responsive child may be withdrawn, tired and difficult to engage. These children may be compliant but not engaged. They may seek intense sensory input to try and lift themselves to a more normal responsiveness level.
Solutions for an over responsive child. Deep pressure activities such as pushing and pulling or massage work well, as does the use of weighted blankets, lap pads and compression clothing. Fidget toys can help them to focus, as can chewy or crunchy foods. Reducing sensory input can be helpful by using headphones with calming music or ear defenders.
Solutions for an under responsive child. Trampolines were made for these children. Also helpful are therapy balls to bounce on, swinging, jumping and movement games. Using loud music with a strong beat, and chewy or crunchy foods.
As I mentioned earlier children with sensory processing difficulties can present as both under and over responsive and this can vary from day to day. So parenting children with these issues requires patience and flexibility!
I am constantly in detective mode with my children, observing behaviour and trying to work out what is causing it and which solutions will be most helpful. I have a toolkit of strategies in our home including sensory lighting, chewy jewellery, therapy ball, trampoline and fidget toys. I choose a solution based on whether they appear to be overstimulated or under responsive. I also use mindfulness for children on YouTube and settle them down for a session if they appear overstimulated.
I definitely notice a difference in behaviour when my autistic children’s sensory needs are being met. They are calmer, happier and find it easier to concentrate and choose appropriate behaviour. For this reason I would highly recommend investigating whether your child is having issues with sensory processing and finding strategies to use in daily life to help them to regulate.