Questions About Autism and Sensory Issues

Many parents and teachers misunderstand autism and sensory issues. Do you know how sensory issues affect autistic individuals in your life?

It’s estimated that 80-90% of those with ASD experience some sensory challenges. Even though these sensory issues are common, few caregivers understand them or really know how to support students when they are experiencing behaviors related to their sensory dysregulation.

What is “sensory dysregulation?"

Sensory dysregulation is when your sensory system is out of balance. It can create significant problems participating in daily activities.

The sensory system either gets way too many sensations to process at one time or not enough.

Think of it as responding to “too much” sensory input or responding to “not enough” sensory input.

If you have ever attended an unbearably loud concert or gone to a restaurant where they have the air conditioning turned way too cold, you’ll understand how the dysregulation of your sensory system can affect you.

Sensory dysregulation can cause behavior problems

Many actions that are called “behaviors” or “behavior problems” have a root in meeting sensory needs. That means students are reacting or responding in some way because their body is out of balance due to experiences in the sensory environment.

Children with sensory sensitivities are typically not very skilled at being able to describe their sensory experiences to others in words. It’s common for them to react with some kind of behavior.

What is the sensory environment?

The most common senses that we think about are:

  • Sound
  • Sight
  • Touch 
  • Taste
  • Smell

But our Occupational Therapists (OT’s) share three other senses that can also affect our students.

  • Proprioception (the feedback you get from your muscles & joints)
  • Vestibular (feedback about the position of your body in space)
  • Interoception – what is going on inside your body (i.e. hunger or thirst or needing to use the bathroom)

Think about how sounds, textures, exercise, movement, smells, light, and other input can affect your mood. 

Our OTs who are trained in Sensory Integration are important partners to help us sort through all of these sensory needs & issues.

How do students become dysregulated?

They can become dysregulated because they are over-sensitive to:

  • Tags in clothing
  • Long sleves
  • Bright lights
  • Noise from fans or trains or motors
  • Texture of foods or toothpaste
  • A hug that is perceived as aversive
  • Hair brushing
  • Or many more everyday sensations that they may react strongly to or try to avoid

When students are undersensitive, they may not react to common danger signals:

  • Someone yelling stop
  • Hot or cold
  • Not react to typical pain situations 

Another type of behavior for some with ASD is craving sensory input.

These are the students who are always touching things, climbing on things, wiggling, putting stuff in their mouths and doing anything they can to get more sensory input.

What happens when students are dysregulated?

We need to discover the “root causes” of the specific problems they have.

This sensory input problem may affect one sense or multiple senses in an individual. But the result for the student is that they can experience:

  • Discomfort
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion

We need to discover the “root causes” of the specific problems they have.

Keep in mind . . . . this sensory input problem may affect one sense or multiple senses in an individual. If severe, it can create significant problems participating in daily activities.

What is most important to understand about sensory dysregulation?

A student will not learn
 in a state of dysregulation 

When the student is regulated, he/she will be:

  • Alert
  • Focused
  • Be able to filter excess stimulation

It’s important to identify the cause/causes of the student’s difficulties so the correct or most effective solutions can be implemented.

Sometimes it is quite obvious what sensory situations a student is reacting to. At other times, it’s more difficult to figure out what a student is reacting to.

Our OT's will have much wisdom to help develop a plan for "sensory breaks" or a “Sensory Diet” to provide activities to help the student get regulated.

Here's the problem . . .

People often try to control behavior rather that seek the causes of an individual’s dysregulation.

It’s easy for caregovers to just look at the behavior and try to put punitive systems in place because it is viewed as purposeful “bad” behavior.

Instead of punishing a student, it’s important to provide support so that student can get into a more balanced or regulated state.

Creating sensory supportive environments or activities help students gain success. A simple visual tool can help.

When it is too noisy

Questions from a workshop participant:

Question 1: Do sensory needs vary on different days?

Yes . . . they can. A student’s sensory responses can be very different on different days. It all depends on where they have been and what their sensory experiences and environments have been like.

Question 2:  When we give sensory breaks, how long do we give for a start?

Each student will have different needs. Also, students may react differently on different days depending on how much sensory input they have to tolerate.

One way to start is to build in some “Break Time” into the daily schedule. The purpose will be to:

  • Give the student an opportunity to engage in activities that will help him/her get regulated.
  • Teach how to make choices for activities (they can be represented on a visual menu)
  • Help the student recognize when he needs a break and learn how to request to take a break when he needs it.

When they're not regulated, those sensory challenges make it more difficult for them to focus their attention on learning. Their sensory needs seem to take over everything.

So, more learning will be achieved if you attend to the sensory needs first.

Question 3: How do you find a balance between giving shorter or longer breaks depending on the student's needs for that day?

Question 4:  Will the student get confused if we give different duration of breaks on different days or are we meeting the student's need for that day?

The answer to these questions also depends on the student and on the day. There are many variables. It’s more important to make your decisions based on the student and his behavior rather than worrying about the clock.

Also, keep in mind that some of those sensory needs can be met through daily activities.  For example, a student who benefits from extra motor movement can be helped while following a Sensory Path in the hallway or by running an errand for the teacher to take a book back to the library.

Question 5:  Do students with autism understand consequences or do their sensory needs prevail? For example, do work first, then you get to play with your sensory toy for 10 mins. No work, no sensory toy.

Sensory needs prevail. Sensory based activities that are used to help a student get regulated should NEVER be used as a reward only after they do what you want them to do. Remember, you are dealing with their neurological system. 

It's important to understand the relationship between autism and sensory issues. Knowing how to support students will be important for their success at home, school and in the community.

P.S. My ebooks Autism Success Secrets and Autism Success Secrets for Parents provide some stories with great examples of the sensory experiences of both autistic children and autistic adults .


Perfect FALL
 reading. . . . light but informative. These are ebooks so you can read them on your phone or tablet.

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  1. hello there, I am not a student but I have autism and got sensory difficulties. I am 35 and finding it hard to get support in North Lincolnshire and getting people to understand the struggles I face on a daily basis and was wondering if you could help at all.

    1. Hello Jack: First, it’s important for you to know that you are not alone. Many people think of sensory issues as something that affects children. They do not realize that autistic adults can also experience sensory difficulties. I have two suggestions. First, there are many autistic adults who post in LinkedIn about their autistic challenges. Reading what they say may give you ideas about how to handle your personal situation. Second, it is not realistic to try to educate the whole world about your personal experiences, but it is possible for you to explain your personal experiences and needs to those closest to you. . . family and coworkers . . . so they can understand and possibly support your needs.

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