Understanding Sensory Seeking and Avoiding Behaviours in Autism
People with Autism can have sensory processing issues. They may display hypersensitivity, hyposensitivity, or both at once. This may manifest as sensory seeking or avoiding behaviours. Read on to learn about the different senses, and strategies to address challenges of those with sensory issues.
Significance of The Eight Senses
If we take a moment to study the world around us, we can notice the different sensory stimuli we are constantly exposed to. These senses dictate how we experience our environment, and help us interpret the space we inhabit.
Here are the eight senses and the information they provide about our surroundings:
The sense of sight helps us identify the shapes, colours, and sizes of things. It helps us distinguish between darkness and brightness.
The sense of sound helps us listen to the noises we hear. We try to derive meaning from the sounds, which helps in understanding the words spoken. We also focus on noises that matter to us, while choosing to ignore background noises.
The sense of touch helps us feel pain, pressure, and temperature. It also helps us experience the different textures of an object. Receptors in our skin help us ascertain if something is safe or dangerous (too hot or too cold).
The sense of taste helps us pick foods according to our individual preferences. It also protects us by helping us identify spoiled or contaminated food.
The sense of smell is closely related to that of taste. Both senses work in tandem to help us determine the foods that are good or bad for us. Our brains process smell in relation to emotions. That’s why we tend to associate certain pleasant smells with favourable emotions, and foul smells with negative reactions.
- Vestibular System
The vestibular system in our inner ear helps the body maintain balance. It helps us be aware of our orientation in space, and position of our body in relation to gravity.
This sense of body awareness gives us the ability to know where our body parts are without having to look at them. Unlike the vestibular sense which lets us know where our whole body is in space, proprioception sense comes from the ligaments, muscles and joints of individual body parts.
This is a recently identified sense, which is the awareness of the internal state of your body. You can recognize your physiological needs and functions such as hunger, toileting, and breathing through this sense.
Some individuals with autism may have under-sensitivity, and can seek out sensory input constantly. They can appear to be excitable and very active. They may look for intense sensations but can get disorganized due to random sensory inputs. Their quest for sensory stimulation can make them look clumsy and disruptive.
Here are some of the seeking behaviours that can be seen in people with autism:
Seeking shiny objects and sunlight
Staring at spinning objects
Listening to loud music
Making loud noises in quiet places
Biting their own skin
Sucking or licking objects frequently
- Gustatory and Olfactory
Smelling objects to get comfortable with them
Tasting toys and other objects
Moving arms more frequently
Enjoying rough play more than usual
Rolling and moving frequently
Some individuals with autism may have oversensitivity. They can have exaggerated responses, and can respond too much or too soon. They can be resistant to change and may prefer sticking to familiar places and activities. Their avoidance behaviours are a way to reduce the intensity of stimulation they receive. They can have rituals and fixations that help create a predictable environment for them. Here are some avoidance behaviours that can be seen in people with Autism:
Making no eye contact
Turning away from the person talking to them
Covering ears when there is loud music
Getting agitated when more than one person is talking
Getting startled at the lightest touch
Avoiding touching of objects with certain textures such as fabrics with tags or hems.
- Gustatory and Olfactory
Gagging when asked to eat food they don’t like
Intolerance of certain scents and odours
Getting annoyed when position is changed
Rough handling of toys and objects.
Avoiding climbing or swinging
Holding on to parents and loved ones
Sensory Issues vs Behavioural Issues
Sensory challenges can cause people with autism to indulge in what can be perceived as problem behaviours. Some children may flee a room when they are overstimulated, while others can throw tantrums. Analyzing the cause of such behaviours and identifying triggers can help caregivers to support the child in coping with their sensory issues. Sensory seeking and avoidance behaviours can also interfere with a child’s regular activities and social interactions. Parents and teachers can give the children a ‘sensory diet’, which is a set of activities designed to provide necessary sensory input. Regular sensory diet routines can not only help the child focus on productive tasks, but also help them become more self-aware and confident.
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