Sensory Processing Differences and Autism

One of the defining characteristics of the autism diagnosis is a tendency to over-react or under-react to sensory input or to have an unusual pre-occupation with certain sensory aspects of the environment.

How individuals with autism process sensory information can greatly affect their performance with daily life activities and typical routines. A recent literature review published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy by Ismael, Lawson, and Hartwell (2018) examined the sensory processing patterns of children with autism between 5-13 years old and how these patterns influenced participation in daily occupations.

There is strong evidence that suggests that children with autism process sensory information differently compared to children without autism. Further, children with autism typically display a pattern of hypo-responsivity or hyper-responsivity to certain types of sensory input. Whether a child is hypo-responsive or hyper-responsive is dependent on 1) his or her unique neurological thresholds for certain types of sensory input and 2) his or her abilities to use effective and efficient strategies for self-regulation. Having high or low thresholds for certain types of sensory input and inefficient or ineffective self-regulation skills can significantly disrupt one’s participation in daily activities.

Children with autism and certain sensory processing patterns may struggle with particular occupations and in specific environmental contexts compared to children with other patterns. For example, children with an inability to effectively filter auditory information often experience more difficulty with academic performance and cognitive tasks. Children who engage in more sensory-avoiding behaviors generally participate less in physical activities, display more challenging mealtime behaviors, and have more difficulty with sleep. Finally, children with a pattern of hypo-responsivity and sensory-seeking behaviors often have delayed adaptive skills.

Although there are common sensory processing patterns, it is important to remember that each child with autism is unique and has a distinct sensory processing profile. Children with autism between 5-13 years old benefit from occupational therapy services to evaluate their individual sensory processing differences and increase participation in daily activities and routines. Occupational therapy services are typically focused on teaching the child adaptive strategies for self-regulation in light of challenging sensory experiences. In addition, the occupational therapist may teach the child new skills (e.g., using a computer, brushing hair) and evaluate the environment to identify aspects that limit or hinder performance and participation. The occupational therapist might also collaborate with the child’s parents and teachers to make adjustments to routines and incorporate strategies for coping with the need for more or less sensory input throughout the day.

For more information on the services occupational therapists provide to children with autism, go to https://www.aota.org/autism.

About Dr. Susan Cahill

Dr. Susan Cahill is an Associate Professor and Director of the MSOT Program at Lewis University. She is a Fellow of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) and a member of the AOTA Commission on Practice. Visit http://www.lewisu.edu/academics/msoccuptherapy to learn more.

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