The release of the DSM V saw many changes to the diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder, amongst them was the recognition of hyper-or-hypo sensitivity to sensory input. YAY!
However, the new diagnostic criteria left many families and health professionals “with their pants down” knowing little, if anything, about the impact of sensory issues for people on the spectrum, and what therapies or strategies to implement as support.
When we hear the word ‘senses’ most of us only think about our external senses:- vision, smell, taste, touch and hearing. These keep us informed about input coming from outside our bodies. However the impact of our proximal (internal) senses:- the vestibular, proprioceptive and interoceptive systems are often overlooked when decoding sensory overload.
Our vestibular system organises balance and movement, while the proprioceptive system gives us our body awareness in space. E.g. if your proprioceptive systems works correctly you should be able to close your eyes, hold your arms out to the side, and bring the tips of your index fingers together. The interoceptive system is the monitoring of hunger, thirst, temperature regulation, bladder and bowel.
The senses are in constant conversation with the nervous system, and input from each sensory system influences every other signal and the reliability of all senses. So imagine the impact of 3 or 4 senses under or over aroused.
Caption: Imagine sensory input affecting all of these physiological processes… exhausting to say the least! If your day was filled up with accounting for all of the sensory input you might find it difficult to leave the house or fit much else into your day. It can be exhausting for people on the spectrum to manage their sensory needs and often sensory illicit’s a “pain” response in the body making tasks physically impossible.
So why is sensory so important? Often individuals refer to the impact of sensory issues as “the straw that broke the camels back” and something that requires a lot of energy to manage, causing a pain response in the body. Environmental factors are regularly not in the control of individuals, making it difficult to manage or mitigate sensory issues.
Imagine going to your first day of work at a new company and walking into the office only to discover that the carpet is wildly patterned (think of any Surf Club or RSL Club that you’ve been to) and gives you an instant migraine, or that the fluorescent lighting renders you blind - consider the physical, mental and emotional toll that sensory has.
We also need to remember that when we see an autistic person trying to “control” or “manipulate” the situation or environment we are actually seeing a person that isn’t coping from sensory input.
The first thing that should be done is a Sensory Profile, even if someone does not identify as having sensory sensitivities, many Aspies find it difficult to articulate their sensory needs simply because the right questions aren’t being asked. Do the lights hurt your eyes? Does the pitch/tone of the bell hurt your ears? It can be through the process of creating a profile that the impact of sensory on the individual becomes apparent.
Once you’ve identified which of the senses is most hyper or hypo (there is always one) you are able to find tools that support you to be able to manage your sensory needs such as providing proprioceptive support with standing desks and rebounders. Be creative with the tools you use and make sure they fit your needs, as every one copes with sensory differently and what works for one might not translate for another.
So next time you’re in a new environment and you start to feel sick, or your body temperature rises, or perhaps you get a migraine ask yourself, is the carpet too loud?