Our bodies constantly receive, register and process information from our senses. The commonly known senses are sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch but it is helpful to also think of other senses such as:
- Body Position also known as proprioception – A sense of where parts of our body are in relation to one other and the environment.
- Movement also known as vestibular – Tells us if we are moving, and, if so, in what direction and how fast.
- Internal Body Sense or interoception – Information about hunger, thirst, pain, illness, body temperature, if we need to sleep, use the toilet, changes in heart rate, breathing, alertness and feelings like ‘butterflies’ or a ‘sinking feeling’ when we experience strong emotions.
Some children may have a sensory difference relating to one or several of the senses. Many children with Autism have sensory differences and/or have a sensory disorder.
Types of Sensory difference
A child may be over-sensitive (hypersensitive) or under sensitive (hyposensitive) or both.
If someone is hypersensitive, they may experience a very strong reaction to sensory information in the environment. Their senses can feel overloaded and that can cause anxiety, stress and real physical pain. Sensory overload can lead to distressed behaviour, meltdowns or a need to escape.
If someone is hyposensitive, they may experience weak sensory information. People who have a low sensitivity to sensory information may be less sensitive to pain and may be less able to control balance or physical coordination as they are less aware of their body’s position.
Examples of Sensory difference
|Sight||Distracted by certain lightingOver sensitive to bright lightingFinds busy rooms challenging||Looks for bright/flashing lightsEnjoys playing with toys that spinPoor depth perception – problems throwing and catching|
|Hearing||Strong dislike of loud unexpected noisesAvoids certain areas of school/home that are often to loud (school hall)Covers/ puts fingers in ears to avoid noise||Makes noise but seems unaware – banging, tapping, hummingLoves loud equipment|
|Smell||Reacts to slight smells that don’t appear to bother othersCertain smells cause them to feel or be sickDislike of individuals with distinctive perfume or shampoo||Smells food before tasting itDoes not notice strong odours (that most people would complain about)May lick objects|
|Taste||Only eats bland foodsCertain food textures cause discomfortEats the same food repeatedly||Preference for strong flavoursEats non-food itemsChews on clothing such as jumper sleeves|
|Touch||Only tolerates certain materials for clothingDislikes being touched unexpectedlyDislikes hands getting messy, may wash hands frequently||Enjoys touching everyone/thingSeeks out messy playPrefers tight clothing|
|Proprioception||Dislikes busy environments and crowded areasDislikes tight clothingDifficulties with fine motor skills||Enjoys rough playLimited awareness of personal spaceEnjoys bear hugs and deep pressure exercises|
|Vestibular||Difficulties in activities that involve movementEasily loses balanceDislikes going up and down stairs||Need to rock, spin, swingSeeks opportunities for movementClimbs on furniture/equipment|
Interoception – examples include:
- Difficulty regulating emotions
- Not recognising feeling hot/cold, hungry
- Poor sleep routine
- Over or under sensitive to pain
Link to video about the impact of sensory differences: https://youtu.be/PA7F8LBG4Iw
Strategies to help
Below are examples of practical tips to help with sensory differences. There is also help available from your GP who may be able to refer your child to other NHS services such as Occupational Therapy.
|Use a blackout tent or low light area for child to useChoose clothing made from fabric your child prefers and cut off tagsProvide ear defendersManage transitions to avoid busy times||Make a feely box with regularly changing items of different texturesUse visual prompts to help your child understand instructionsUse a wobble cushion to help with sittingRegular sensory breaks with opportunities to climb and balanceWeighted blankets|
‘A sequence of physical activities that are designed to alert, organise and calm the child. The sensory circuit aims to facilitate sensory processing to help children regulate and organise their senses in order to achieve the ‘just right’ or optimum level of alertness required for effective learning. The circuit should be an active, physical and fun activity that children enjoy doing.’
Sensory circuits should ideally be completed first thing in the morning any many schools now incorporate this into the daily routine for children who may have sensory differences. For more information about sensory circuits please see our Sensory Circuits Information sheet – hyperlink
Sensory overload is when one or more of the senses is receiving lots of information at once and is unable to process it properly, causing overload. This is usually something in the environment such as a fire alarm going off or being in a busy, noisy place. Sensory overload can cause stress, anxiety and discomfort.
Signs that children are experiencing sensory overload could include:
- A change in their behaviour
- Trying to block out certain senses by covering their ears, eyes etc.
- Refusing to go to or running away from certain places
Learning to recognise sensory overload is very important. It is better to prevent it than to ‘deal with the consequences’. Autism Help suggest the following tips to help reduce the chance of sensory overload:
- Keep a journal – when visiting places you think your child may be experiencing sensory overload write down where you are, the behaviour they display and what could be the possible cause e.g. noise. You could complete a sensory checklist for your child – Link here to an example from STARS Sensory Checklist (colourful).docx (live.com)
- Have a sensory kit – once you have an idea about what may be causing the overload you can take things with you that might help, for example ear defenders
- Visit comfortable environments – make a note of places where your child does not seem to experience sensory overload so you can visit them again
Additional support from Leeds MENCAP
Speak to other parents with children with SEN and disabilities on our closed Facebook group.
Follow us on Facebook to hear about our upcoming events.
Check out the rest of our Family Support offer. We have:
- Weekly Chats and Tots coffee morning
- Family Support workers who can offer advice, signposting and support
- Lots of tips and resources about sensory difference on our website
Additional support and resources
This information is not affiliated with Leeds MENCAP.
Watch a video about Autism and sensory sensitivity here: Autism and sensory sensitivity – YouTube
Read Top 5 autism tips to manage sensory differences here: Top 5 autism tips: managing sensory differences
Read a guide for parents about intervention for sensory differences here: sensory%20differences%20and%20approaches%20to%20interven.pdf (councilfordisabledchildren.org.uk)