Sensory Processing Issues in Autism

In autism so many things are our of whack it’s a pretty full-time job just making it through the day. I’ve described the motor problems, especially between mind and body. Now I’d like to address some issues related to sensory processing.

We have the major senses of sight, hearing and touch. I love taste and smell, but obviously they are not the primary senses. Soma includes kinesthesia, or movement, as a kind of sense. It includes body awareness. Normal sensory processing is generalized, meaning it is adaptable and can cope in a variety of contexts. It is what you do automatically. For example, if you converse in a noisy room you automatically tune out the background din, but a person whose auditory processing is global is blasted equally by all sounds. Then processing become overload. On the other hand, a person who micro processes might get locked into tuning  into the same sounds over and over. Sometimes people who are overloaded due to global processing  may try to cope by obsessively listening to micro-selective, familiar tunes.

The same applies to sight. You focus near, far, or on what’s necessary while ignoring non critical sights. The TV program, Brain Games, showed how normal brains are fooled easily in visual processing. We call it optical illusions, but it’s really proof of our processing selectivity. In fact, our brain is selective to protect us from overload. But when our brains can’t control the overload, which can happen with autism, we can be overwhelmed or scattered in perception or alternatively, we can pick a minute visual target to distract and comfort us. I am guessing you know people who have watched the same movie or cartoon thousands of times to cope with sensory overload, though it may be beyond boring.

I do believe these skills improve with practice. Mine have  very much, but it is a lot of work to change this kind of neurological pattern. However, I have hope in neurological plasticity and in the determination to improve.

7 responses to “Sensory Processing Issues in Autism

  1. Ido, do you mean a child who watches the cartoon over and over is always doing that (or most always) to deal with OTHER sensory overload of the day? Wow. I never thought of that. Do you know of any ways to sort of package what they are doing? I mean could you sell them a ‘relief pill’?
    Pardon me if that’s a stupid question.

  2. Thank you Ido for providing insight. I am an OT… Returning OT with limited expertise. Though I have been working with several children on the spectrum, I just never felt satisfied with what I was learning from the veteran OTs. Reading your book and blog, along with others (Phillip) has given me new eyes to see my kiddos with. I don’t want to be that same old frustrating therapist you worked with in your life. I want to help open up their worlds. So keep blogging. Help us that know there is more to these kiddos than meets the eye. I did have one question. How long does it take to come down from a sensory overload?

  3. Pingback: Some Insights and an Art Museum | I am in my head.

  4. Dear Ido,
    I live in Australia. I happened to read this today about the ability to smell before birth. I do not have time to research it but am passing it along to you. I might also mention that in the 2014 book by Edward O Wilson, “The Meaning of Human Existence,” he says the career path of Homo sapiens was too much dependent on audio and visual at the expense of smell that is so important to most other animals. And “that’s why we do some things wrong.” (not his exact words). Here is the baby thing:

    “Your baby is able to smell before they are even born – at about 28 weeks into pregnancy. Enjoyable and familiar scents have been proven to improve mood, calmness and alertness, and the scent of a mother can help reduce crying. Additionally, scent is important from day one because newborns use the sense of smell to familiarise themselves more than any other sense. Research also showed that enjoyable and familiar scents (like those during bath time) have been shown to improve mood and alertness. Read more at (may be an ad for Johnson’s).

  5. So insightful and interesting as ever. I see the signs of sensory processing issues in my son Leo (he’s 5). What I struggle with is how best to deal with them. If he is (for example) watching something over and over or walking round holding an object next to his eye does that mean he is actually taking care of himself so he can manage his sensory overload? Or is it interfering with his learning and does he need my help to distract him and keep his brain busy? It’s hard. I often feel I am getting it wrong.

    • Exactly my interpretation. This is how I think of while I try to help him and I think may be I m getting it wrong . But me and my 8 yr old son has developed a great bonding between us. That’s very comforting for me as he finds peace in my hug when he gets upset or is being misunderstood.

  6. Love everything you say about the sensory over loads motor issues and taking a lot of practice in developments of issues targeted and …My concern is interventions are so different .Parents a/Teachers as Spl educator /therapist .who are unique like me in the field of sports/sports activities that help in many ways receptive /expressive ..Sensory tactile (hard balls Big balls )Sensory visual (Catching Balls small Big fury etc ) Auditory ( calling out if ready in a small one on one ) environment and having a greater understanding of motor issues in humans .understanding non verbal communication by visualising body language ..Its so complex and hard working !
    But sad coaching takes a back seat in our society , not many know the intricacy of an Autistic mind ..So also there are not many who acknowledge a good workers contributions. equate with better salary or providing a better support with helping hands, environments with equipments Etc ! Disgusting service with great knowledge wasting!
    Nasser CAPE-India -Bangalore

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