autism-friendly therapy

Sensory Processing and Autism

Autism is a neurodivergent condition that heightens a person’s sensitivity to the world around them. Each autistic individual has a distinct brain, and their sensory processing experiences vary. However, a shared characteristic among autistic people is their distinctive sensory processing. Let’s discuss how sensory processing aligns with autism across the five sensory systems.

The five main sensory systems

There are five main sensory systems. Let’s talk about what they are and how people who are sensitive to their specific inputs may struggle with them.

Vestibular: balance and movement

The vestibular system controls motion, balance, and equilibrium in the body. It is located in the inner ear and contains receptors that inform the central nervous system about the body’s position in space.

Individuals with vestibular processing challenges may be over-responsive, under-responsive, or slower to respond to vestibular input. For instance, they may dislike or fear activities such as swings, biking, jumping, or climbing, or crave and seek out these activities. Clumsiness and frequent falling may also be experienced.

Proprioceptive: body awareness

Proprioceptive input informs our body’s position by utilizing sensory input from our joints and muscles. We can sense if our arms are bent or straight just by feeling the joints, even when our eyes are closed. If proprioceptive messages are not correctly transmitted or decoded, it results in proprioceptive dysfunction.

Proprioceptive dysfunction can manifest in several ways, including stumbling and falling on uneven surfaces, underestimating one’s own strength, preferring to run instead of walk, and seeking tight hugs, clothing, or a weighted blanket. Essentially, individuals with proprioceptive dysfunction have difficulty with spatial awareness of their body.

Tactile: touch

The tactile system develops first in the womb and constitutes the body’s largest sensory system. Tactile receptors are present on the skin, in the mouth, throat, digestive system, and inside ear canals, among other locations. Anything in contact with the body activates these receptors.

Tactile dysfunction, or tactile defensiveness, occurs when a person has a higher sensitivity to touch than others. Individuals with tactile defensiveness may have more sensitive skin, which can cause discomfort from everyday stimuli like clothing textures or hair brushing. Tactile sensitivity can even cause pain from contact that others might consider normal.

Auditory: sound

What this sensory input is should be pretty self-explanatory. What’s not as self-explanatory is what happens when you have dysfunction in this area:

Someone who is highly sensitive to sound (like me!) might experience some of the following symptoms. You may have difficulty discerning between multiple sounds at once (i.e. talking on the phone while tuning out other noises). You might struggle in an environment with multiple noises, like a mall or a restaurant. Sudden and/or loud noises may cause physical pain. A lot of autistic people struggle with sound sensitivity.

Visual: sight

Like with Auditory, the Visual category doesn’t need any explanation. Let’s talk about what dysfunction looks like for people who are sensitive to visual input.

If you’re sensitive to visual input, it’s because the acuity of your vision can be overwhelming and confusing. It’s overstimulating.

Here’s what that means. Autistic people are generally more able to focus on details rather than the whole thing. They see the trees, not the forest. You may find yourself focused on specific aspects of games or pictures, rather than being engaged with the entire thing. There may be an aversion to specific colors. You might be highly sensitive to bright lights, and find that you can only relax in a dimly lit room. Basically, you have to limit the amount of information you observe visually in order to relax.

How autism sensory processing works

Neurotypical brains are highly adept at filtering information. It’s a fantastic attribute of a “normal brain.” We take it for granted. So much so, that when someone experiences sensitivity to input, it can seem very strange or we can struggle to believe them. A hallmark of autistic brains is that they struggle to filter information. Some sensory inputs can be extremely overwhelming to autistic people.

It’s important to note that some people have SPD (sensory processing disorder) but don’t necessarily have autism. However, because of how autism functionally works, it’s very likely that you’ll have sensory sensitivities if you’re autistic.

How to navigate your unique needs

If you’re autistic, or think you might be, do not be embarrassed to support your own needs. Many autistic people benefit greatly from having a weighted blanket, or noise-cancelling headphones, or keeping their lights very dim when they’re relaxing. The Americans with Disabilities Act empowers autistic people to make reasonable accommodation requests of their employer.

As an autistic therapist, I specialize in helping autistic people understand their sensory sensitivities and how to navigate them effectively. Contact me to schedule a free fifteen minute session if you would like to chat!

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